Journalism and technology have always been a natural combination for Amanda Wills (’08). At the age of eight, she taught herself to use her family’s first computer by producing a neighborhood newspaper. Subscriptions were 25 cents a month. “It was a success for a few months,” she remembers. “But my mom shut down the paper when I accidentally exposed an affair between two neighbors.”
Today, Wills isn’t just bringing together the two fields—she’s one of the drivers of their shared evolution.
As the New York–based director of breaking news for CNN Digital, Wills works with breaking news stories as well as live coverage of events like the State of the Union speech and high-profile hearings.
A South Knoxville native who earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major in journalism and electronic media and Spanish, Wills was originally considering a career path in international relations. It was a study abroad experience in Argentina that cemented her desire to be a journalist.
“What I learned while living in Argentina is that it is a privilege to be able to hold the powerful accountable for their actions,” she says. “When I returned, I knew I couldn’t abandon a calling so high.”
While at UT, Wills was editor in chief of Tennessee Journalist, the School of Journalism and Electronic Media’s campus news site. “That was my first true lesson in management,” she says.
Building readership for the site, then in its second year, required a degree of creativity. “This was before news was on Facebook and Twitter. We would literally write ‘Go to TNJN.com for news’ in chalk on sidewalks around campus. We had to be scrappy!” she says.
“This was such a valuable lesson long term because I began my journalism career working in startups, so that same gritty attitude served me well in those environments. And ultimately it made me tougher and prepared me for CNN.”
Receiving the Alex Haley Playboy scholarship, she says, was another formative UT experience, giving her a role at a major magazine during a pivotal time in journalism.
“Yes, I got to work with famous writers and inspiring editors. Yes, I got bylines. Yes, we talked a lot about sex. But those weren’t the lessons. I was able to see a traditional publication thrive on the cusp of an economic downturn, and I was able to see what attitudes were like before that happened. They were hopeful. And I carried that with me through the recession, when I faced layoffs myself. “Not to mention, it got me to New York.”
Her current position comes with the unique challenges of a global news organization. “Your job becomes more than just telling the news,” she says. “You have to navigate the hurdles that come with a big company when you are working on new projects and ways to innovate. You have to figure out who can help you get the story you want or build the team you were put in charge of. But those challenges teach you how to work well with others and establish who you are professionally in your own right.”
Wills embraces the scope of her work—challenges and all—at CNN Digital: “We employ more than 3,000 journalists around the world. That’s a big deal for so many reasons. Our access, our knowledge, our ubiquity amaze me.
“You cannot leave this building without learning something new from someone every day. I couldn’t think of anything more fulfilling than that.”