Local Gem: burnt x
Words and photos by Tess Cagle
Last spring, Brittany Shulman, Molly Stier and Sunny Sone brought their brainchild to life: a new media platform for the University of Texas at Austin called burnt x. These three college babes have mastered being full-time students, working part-time jobs and internships, and running a brand new publication.
We sat down with these lovely badasses and talked about creating and running a publication, balancing work with college and their experiences with being women in the media industry.
What inspired you to start burnt x?
Brittany: Molly, Sunny, and myself were all working at The Horn as news editors. We saw that there was really a need for a publication on campus that was only online and was more of the new media model. Think: BuzzFeed or Vox. After talking to some of our professors about it, we realized that the three of us could totally make it happen. So we did.
Molly: Basically, Brittany Shulman, Sunny Sone and I were all involved in a traditional news outlet, and the three of us found ourselves talking about ways to change up the platform to match with the new, digital online news culture we find ourselves surfing on an hourly basis. This included combining the elements of a snarky social media presence, not being afraid to add an individual style in storytelling and covering stuff we knew students would be interested in, ranging from Snapchatting a political rally on campus to posting our favorite cat videos.
Sunny: All three of us love online news sites like Vox, The Daily Dot and Mic. Those publications have really engaging voices, and they tell news the way they see it, which in my humble, 20-something opinion is the most honest way to communicate news. A couple of other colleges around the country have their own online publications, though not like ours, and we thought, why not us? UT had a void for online news—they already had a TV station, radio station, print newspaper, humor publication, an off-campus magazine and an independent news website pretty akin to the Texan—and we wanted to fill it in a style that would be fun and engage students.
How do you balance school and internships with running a publication?
B: With lots of planning and caffeine. I section off my days and build a schedule for myself and do my best to stick to it. Also, running a publication with two awesome babes like Sunny and Molly makes balancing everything much easier. We can all count on each other to make things happen.
M: I’ve just gotten really lucky. I’ve worked multiple jobs per semester nonstop since I started college three years ago and I’ve come to find that this only works for me if I’m completely in love with everything I’m doing. When I’m doing what I love, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do since the start of my college career, I’m happy to make time for it all. And also, I’d like to thank coffee for playing a large part in making everything I do possible.
S: The normal answer to this question is to prioritize. However, those are my top three priorities. They all have equal weight. It's all about scheduling time wisely. I have a black book with my whole life in it—work and school and my social life and everything in between.
What has been your experience thus far with being women in the media industry?
B: I’m lucky enough to have met some pretty strong, talented, and brilliant people in the media industry who have helped me become the person and journalist I am today. I’ve felt very supported by my coworkers, professors and peers. I know this isn’t the case for all women, and that makes me sad but reminds me to be thankful. Sometimes, it feels like more people are willing to open doors for me because I am a woman. Hola.
M: I think I’ve had a more negative experience consuming media as a woman rather than producing it. The beautiful thing about being a woman in the media, and especially working for an independent publication, is that you control what you put out there and, ultimately, what other people consume. There’s a certain power to being able to frame a story the way it should be told rather than wait to read a story that objectifies/insults/degrades you simply because of your gender.
S: Women are pretty prevalent in the media industry these days, so that's a plus. No matter where you go, though, you're going to encounter assholes who won't take you seriously. That's a tough one to combat, and thankfully it's changing. The method I've found most effective is to be better. Always be prepared, ask good questions and write sharp pieces. Give them a reason to be afraid of pissing you off.
What advice do you have for women who aspire to start their own publication?
B: Do it. When the idea of starting burnt x first came up, I was convinced I couldn’t do it and that it would be too much of a risk. Thankfully, one of my favorite professors told the three of us that we could make it happen and people wanted it to happen. So, we dove in headfirst. My advice to others is to set a goal and start working towards it. You’ll figure it out along the way. Also, working with people that you vibe with makes the experience that much better.
M: Get organized. I think it’s common for us creative types to be all over the place, and I’m certainly no exception, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have 10 different Google docs open monitoring 20 different things, you’re doing it wrong. Organization makes all the difference in how you feel about your work’s progress when it’s all said and done.
S: Do it. Just start. Fail often and evolve quickly. Failure is the first step in learning. Remember that there is always going to be someone who will try to push you down, so surround yourself with people who push you up. Read everything.
What have been the most challenging moments in your journalism careers thus far?
B: Oh man. There are two that stand out. Between fall and spring semesters of junior year, I applied for A LOT of internships. I made it to a few second or third round interviews but ultimately, I was rejected… from six internships in the span of a month. Definitely wasn’t the best feeling. I started to panic because I was a year away from graduation with no actual work experience. Shortly after, burnt x happened and all was well. The second moment was the spring of my junior year when I was taking a class about reporting on city and county government. It felt like every story I wrote, I was regressing in my journalistic skills. Not to mention some of the people I had to deal with from the city made me feel like gum on the bottom of their shoes. There were days I felt completely hopeless and like I was going to fail out but I made it through (somehow) with tougher skin than I started with.
M: I think being a student as a journalist is one of the hardest things to overcome. No one ever wants to talk to you, you constantly feel like a burden because of it and you have nothing to offer anyone. It’s really discouraging until you think about how this challenge is only temporary. Plus, the connections you build with professors during those office hours you have to go to to tell them no one wants to talk to you also make it pretty worth it.
S: My personality sweats the small stuff and says fuck it to the big stuff. Don't know how I got that way. The most challenging times are always when I screw something up—which, as a 20-year-old human being, happen frequently. That's when good editors or peers slap me across the face and say, "You're human. You screwed up, but it's going to be OK. Learn from this." Especially if I'm freaking out over small potatoes.That's not the biggest challenge, but it's one I face frequently.
Who is your #bossbabe crush right now?
B: I’m really feeling Amy Schumer right now. I feel like she’s a great advocate and she handles herself super well. She tells it how it is and admits when she’s messed up, which is very admirable. Plus, she’s funny as hell.
M: Liz Plank from mic.com. She’s brilliant, she's super feminist, she’s really cute and I stalk her social media more than I'd like to admit.
S: Good god, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editor of the Buzzfeed News app. I saw her speak on a panel at a journalism conference in April and I've been amazed ever since. Talk about a strong, powerful woman. Also, Liz Pagano, Editor-in-Chief of the Austin Monitor, is a boss lady.
Favorite band right now?
B: Fall Out Boy. Yes, I am still 12.
M: Walk the Moon is my go-to pick-me-up band at the moment but my heart will always unapologetically belong to Eric Clapton.
S: This is a cheat answer, but I'm pretty obsessed with this record label/handmade goods store called Tender Loving Empire lately. It's in Portland. One of my favorite artists, Jared Mees and the Grown Children, is on the label, and Jared Mees himself helped start the brand. There are some really cool bands with them—The Domestics, for one, have this great song called "It Came To Me" that I can't stop listening to.
What are you reading, currently?
B: "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown.
M: J.K. Rowling’s "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them" because I’m actually 11 years old.
S: About to finish Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We talk About Love," about halfway through J.D. Salinger's "Frannie & Zooey," just started Patrick Rothfuss' novella "The Slow Regard of Silent Things" and about to start in earnest Jonathon Franzen's book of essays "How To Be Alone." I don't know why I do this to myself.
What is your Austin gem?
B: I’d have to say La Tazza Fresca for coffee/work/studying and Opal’s Divine on South Congress for drinks/friends/fun.
M: God bless Chi’lantro’s kimchi fries.
S: Two for one: ColdTowne Theater/I Luv Video. I started seeing Bad Boys do improv at ColdTowne in high school (they're still going strong every Friday night, by the way) and I'd always browse I Luv Video's insane movie collection before or after shows. Now that there's an In-N-Out Burger nearby, a night out for comedy at ColdTowne (followed by a movie rental) is easily complete.
Social media handles?