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Meek School Magazine: Homeland – Melissa Townsend

Photography by Jay Adkins

By Elizabeth Blackstock. This article was republished with the permission of the Meek School of Journalism from the upcoming issue of Meek School Magazine. 

From a young, age Melissa Townsend can recall being interested in magazines.
“I can remember sitting on the floor in my bedroom with a ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine,” she says. “I would come in, flip through it and just always have my head in a magazine.”
Growing up in Indianola, Mississippi, strong examples of writers were all around her. The local newspaper, the Enterprise-Tocsin, was an award-winning publication recognized throughout the state for excellence. Townsend’s high school, Indianola Academy, always has had a strong English program.
The influence of great literary figures continued when she moved to Oxford to attend Ole Miss.
“When you go to Ole Miss, you go to school in the shadow of Willie Morris, William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown and all these amazing writers,” she notes.
Because of her interest in all things reading and writing from a young age, Townsend never considered studying anything unrelated to those fields.
Her father, an Ole Miss graduate with a degree in business, wanted her to pursue advertising within the business school. However, earning a degree from the business school meant more math classes than Townsend was interested in.
“That was just not my thing,” she explains. “When I was taking all my freshman courses, I was making A’s in English and not-so-good grades in math. That steered my course and then I just never thought of anything else, once I made the decision to pursue journalism.”
Her time as a journalism student helped to prepare her for her future endeavors in ways other than just textbook knowledge.
“I can remember not wanting to stand up in front of a class, but I got out there, did it and faced my fears,” she says. “Experiences like that helped me to continue to grow for my career.”
Even having earned her degree in print journalism, her first job taught her invaluable lessons that she hadn’t learned in school.
“I was green and a little more shy,” Townsend remembers. “I had my degree, but I didn’t really feel like I knew anything.”
This first job brought her to Chicago, where she worked for a news and arts weekly magazine called Newcity. The publisher of the magazine had a lasting impact on Townsend.
“He taught me ethics in journalism and that is something that has always stuck with me,” she says. “Even when the lines are blurred between advertising and editorial writing, he emphasized the importance of writing a story because the target audience wants to read it, not because somebody paid to have it written.”
This lesson served her well in her most recent position as edi- tor-in-chief of Delta Magazine. She began working with the magazine in 2003 when it was just an idea.
“I was in the right place at the right time when the publisher of ‘Delta Magazine’ was looking for an editor,” she recalls. “I was the founding editor, and we launched it together in 2003.”
She says that after the first issue, the team never looked back. One of the photographers that Townsend frequently worked with, Jay Adkins, says that Townsend’s work as the editor of Delta Magazine directly influenced its success.
“For something like that to work, for a magazine to be the voice of a region, it requires a level of dedication, creativity and passion very few people possess,” Adkins explains. “Melissa has all of those qualities and because of them, in her time as editor, she created a magazine that was a direct reflection of her love and fascination with the modern Mississippi Delta.”
As Delta Magazine grew and evolved, so did her role. Some of her responsibilities included hiring the freelance photographers and writers for each story and managing the publication.
“I considered myself a producer as far as execution of each magazine issue was concerned,” Townsend explains.
Her hard work with producing the magazine was evident, according to Meek School Dean Will Norton. She was an innovator in the field.
“Melissa Townsend is an exceptional magazine editor with sophisticated skills,” Norton said. “She brought the latest trends to her readers. For years, she edited a magazine as good as any that I read regularly.”
Townsend remembers running into Meek School professor Samir Husni campus many years ago. She had been a student in Husni’s Editing by Design class while she was at Ole Miss. They discussed her work with Delta Magazine and his comments reflected the difficulty of her job as a magazine editor and the executor of each issue’s contents.
“He told me, ‘You’re doing a great job. I tell my students all the time that it’s not ideas that are hard. It’s execution!’ I’ve always thought about that and laughed because it’s very true,” she said.
She attributes her success and the success of Delta Magazine to the clear vision that was established early on because it made executing their ideas simpler. Launching a magazine is difficult, but her experiences earlier in her career prepared her for helping to start something that could be successful.
A few years earlier, Townsend joined a company that was caught up in the dot-com craze that many got swept up in during the early phase of the internet. The company, backed with venture capital from the five major music labels, lasted a short time.
“I was literally in the bubble that burst,” she said. “The job that I took lasted maybe four months. Their entire business plan simply did not work, and they pulled the plug on it. The music industry was desperate to adapt to the internet industry and didn’t know how yet. Those glamorous dot-com jobs were suddenly not so glamorous.”
After that company failed and before moving back to Mississippi, Townsend worked with the Disney-owned ABC Cable Networks for about a year. She enjoyed the excitement of working for one of the largest media companies in the world and being part of innovation in cable media.
“At that time, we were sitting in all these meetings about video on demand and it never happened,” she remembers. “Now I sit in my living room watching Netflix, and I think, ‘Well, we finally have video on demand.’”
The job was not exactly what she was interested in because it was more corporate than it was creative, but it proved to be helpful to her later. When she became the editor-in-chief at Delta Magazine, she realized that she learned a lot about how to manage and organize while she worked with ABC.
After working at Delta Magazine for 13-and-a-half years and helping to build it from the ground up, she resigned in September of 2016.
“This is the first time since I graduated from college that I haven’t jumped out of bed and immediately been on a deadline,” she said. “I’ve been married almost 15 years and I’ve been on a deadline for our whole marriage.”
Townsend’s husband told her that she needed to rest for a few months after leaving Delta Magazine. That only lasted about two weeks, she says.
Immediately, companies began calling her for marketing needs, so she established a social media consulting firm, Socialyte Media. She has also been filling her schedule with hobbies like exploring the art of craft cocktails, photography and volunteering with organizations such as the Grammy Museum’s ladies board, The Red Carpet Guild.
“I think once you’re so heavily involved in the working world of being an editor, you can’t really turn that switch off,” she explains. “I’m still out ‘editing’ every day and keeping the creative juices flowing while I plan my next big media project.” Her passion for the various aspects of media is evident in her work even now as she takes some time for herself.
“I actually looked at the current course list for the Meek School and I’m flabbergasted,” Townsend says. “I contacted the school about taking classes because students now have the opportunity to take up-to-the-minute new media courses and learn the newest versions of software programs. They will graduate having the skill sets needed in an ever-evolving landscape.”
As she continues to learn inside and outside the classroom, Townsend’s heart still remains at Ole Miss and the Meek School.
“I’ve always been proud to say that I went to journalism school because it meant something when I graduated and it means something now,” she notes. “And I think there’s no better place to be for journalism than Ole Miss.” 

For questions or comments email Hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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