Column | Drawing the curtains as culture editor


TPN File Photo

Pitt students at a Lauv concert on Schenley Drive at PPC’s annual Fall Fest in 2021.

By Jessica McKenzie, Culture Editor

When I first came to Pitt in fall 2020 during my sophomore year, I was fresh out of quarantine, I had just transferred schools and I didn’t know anybody in Pittsburgh except for my older sister. I used to roam around campus every day looking for new spots to sit through Zoom classes, not very patiently awaiting the day I would feel somehow tethered to this campus.

At the top of my priority list was to join The Pitt News. Specifically, I knew I needed to write for the culture desk. 

That semester, I applied to be a culture writer and didn’t get hired. Desperate to somehow slither my way in, my next plan of attack was to apply for the sports desk during the spring semester because the culture desk was full. I would then switch desks as soon as possible.

Full disclosure — I know NOTHING about sports. I’m one of those people who says, “I just hope both teams have fun” every year on the day of the Super Bowl. I go to football games purely for the music and the vibe. On the day of my sports writer interview, I googled as much sports dialect as I could and tried to catch up on all the latest sports gossip on the news, misunderstanding every other word I read. 

Well, I must’ve fooled Alex Lehmbeck, who was the sports editor at the time, because he hired me. My friends and family were really excited for me because they knew how badly I wanted to join The Pitt News, but they were also really confused because they knew I could hardly tie together a cohesive sentence about sports. They were right. I wrote one article about the women’s lacrosse team, and after that, I was too intimidated by all the sports lingo to write anything else.

Shout out to Alex. I’m sorry I ghosted, I just had no idea what was going on.

At the end of the semester, I emailed Jon Moss, the former editor-in-chief, asking if I could make the switch to the culture desk. He said I could — my diabolical plan was finally coming together. Diana Velasquez, the former culture editor, welcomed me onto the desk, and the rest is history.

From then on, I could not stop writing about Pittsburgh’s arts and entertainment scene. I dragged everyone I knew to a bunch of random theater productions, festivals, storefront openings, restaurants and more so I could write about them in The Pitt News. I had tons of inspiring interviews with students, performers, artists and musicians about what they do and how it fuels them. I absolutely loved taking these conversations and turning them into uplifting stories so that readers (and I) could learn something new.

This love for Pitt’s culture scene led me to take the reins as culture editor this school year. I could not feel more grateful to Rebecca Johnson and Betul Tuncer for giving me the opportunity to lead the writers on this desk. I can’t believe it’s coming to an end. 

Before this school year, 95% of The Pitt News activity took place online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. When I started this position in August, I had next to no idea who the writers were that I’d be working with, but I knew I wanted to somehow build relationships with them and get them just as excited to write as I was. I was shooting Slack messages into the abyss, hoping someone was reading them and ready to work. When we had our first in-person meeting in The Pitt News conference room, we were a slim group. I was speaking to a group of unfamiliar, masked faces with a voice so quiet that people had to lean forward to hear me.

Reflecting on how far the desk has come since then — and how much it has grown — I owe everything to the writers. Seriously. The late nights we have spent together writing and editing and talking about all things arts and entertainment are something I’ll never forget. I will miss the feeling of watching your faces light up when you finally phrased something “just right,” or when you’d tell me you had an amazing conversation with a source or when you’d tell me how your family was proud of something you wrote. It’s something I’ll hold with me from here on out. 

Thank you, writers, for trusting me to lead you, give you random story assignments and critique your writing. Every single person I’ve worked with — whether you passed through the culture desk or you’re still hanging around — is so capable, talented and creative. I hope you’ll keep writing about all the things that excite you and use your position on the culture desk to find new things to get excited about. I can’t wait to see what’s next for you.

Thank you to Rebecca and Betul for being such positive and encouraging mentors during this process. Thank you to the other desk editors I have worked with this year for exchanging Taylor Swift “Easter egg” theories with me on so many late production nights. Thanks to my sister, Allison, my wonderful boyfriend, Ben, and my friends who have shown endless support and attended so many off-beat cultural events with me. 

Thank you to all the amazing people I’ve met and interviewed in the industry who are thriving and doing their thing. Thank you to The Pitt News for giving me a community — and something to be proud of — these last two years.

With that, I’m drawing the curtains on my time at The Pitt News, and the show must go on.