From Viral Success To College Graduate: The Story of Autumn Johnson

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I didn’t know I’d be a part of history. I didn’t know I’d witness the makings of a media powerhouse, the Pam Oliver of our generation. As I scrolled down my Twitter timeline on July 4, 2018, I didn’t know I’d witness the culmination of years of hard work and dedication turned into millions of views. I didn’t know that afternoon that I’d become a fan of Autumn Johnson. However, I find that life often works this way.

Hee I was, a day removed from finishing another half-week at my internship at Magic Johnson Enterprises owned AspireTV. I was working on completing my documentary Election Season: The Story of True HBCU Queens, which should’ve been completed a couple of months before. I procrastinated, my hope in my dreams of making HBCU Pulse the top content producer in the college media market fading. All I want to do is make it in the media industry.Thoughts of self-doubt are racing through my head.

What more can I do to ensure that my future in the media industry will be lucrative?

Is this project even worth putting out?

Who really wants to watch it?

I believe that stressing over the future is characteristic of all college students, regardless of if they’re at an HBCU or a PWI/PBI. We all long for hope as we inch closer and closer to delving fully into the opportunities present in an uncertain future. Autumn Johnson was my sense of hope. Seeing her go viral, not for her pretty pictures but her reporting demo reel, was admirable. It gave me a faith that people respect hard work. Black Twitter is a real community that can unify around a cause and a person that deserves positive exposure. Autumn Johnson deserved every bit of exposure that she got.

 Not only did she deserve the viral success of her July tweet, she deserved even more success and several full-time job offers after her second follow-up tweet detaining that she was graduating soon and she still hadn’t secured a media position yet. I knew that I wanted to interact with Autumn. I wanted to tell her how proud I was of her, even though I’d never met her in person a day in my life. I wanted to learn more about her story and what propelled her to selflessly live her dreams and become an internet star. That’s when I reached out to her via email.

Autumn’s story is even more amazing than I would’ve imagined. Her college experience was something out of a Disney movie. Her graduation photos have internet breaking potential. However, her struggle to becoming a two-times viral, Kennesaw State alumnae is endearing. The process she underwent to become the woman she is today is something that everyone should read, especially our female peers. Autumn Johnson’s story shows us that for every set-back, there’s a way to come back. Hard work beats talent because we get so comfortable in our talents that we forget that change is essential to our growth. Autumn Johnson will be the next media mogul. I had the pleasure of interviewing her about her rise.

Randall: Thank you so much for allowing me to do this interview! Truly an honor to be interviewing a future media powerhouse! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Autumn Johnson: My name is Autumn Rochael Johnson. I was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia. I am a recent graduate from Kennesaw State University. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Emerging Media Studies with a minor in Sports Marketing. Currently, I am a color analyst and sideline reporter for ESPN+. I also do freelance reporting for R3play TV and previously SB Nation’s Swish Appeal. I am also a freelance production runner for Turner Sports.

Randall: When did your passion for journalism start?

Autumn Johnson: At a very early age. Growing up, when I wasn’t playing outside or video games with my brother, I would be writing stories, keeping up with little journals, and drawing in my room. Looking back, it’s funny how ambitious I was. I remember in 1st grade I loved reading Junie B. Jones books. I wanted to be an author and create stories just like Barbara Park while being my own illustrator. So I would do that and collect them in this purple binder (which I still have). My mom told me I use to walk around the house asking people to teach me how to read and write when I was younger. If they were busy, I would just teach myself. Till this day, I’m still working on being an author.

Randall: When did your passion for basketball start?

Autumn Johnson: I think a lot of my passion I have now is traced back to my brother, Devin. I was a tomboy growing up, and I wanted to do everything he did. He taught me how to play basketball and everything about the game itself. We would play in the street, and I remember my dad asking me ifI want to sign up for rec ball when I was seven years old. I said yes, but I was nervous when it came to tryouts. We had three shots to attempt: a layup, free throw, and a 3-point shot. I made all three. I didn’t really realize it was an accomplishment, until I could hear my dad cheering and it made me really happy. I wanted to keep pursuing the game after that.

Randall: How was your career at Evans High School? 

Autumn Johnson: My career at Evans High was something I regret till this day and would love to press rewind to do it all over again. I had ZERO confidence in myself, and I let people’s words get the best of me. I was a freshmen on varsity that was trying to make a transition from being a stand out player in middle school and AAU basketball to high school ball with seniors and juniors. I had a few rough games to start off my season that year. The way I started my basketball career was the way it ended for me. I’m not ready to share that story yet but I blame myself. I wasn’t mentally strong enough back. Basketball is a cerebral game. I would love to go back and redo my high school career with the qualities I possess as a young woman today. Now, I don’t care about anyone’s opinion. It was a process to get my mindset togheter. I feel like I had to go through that to be where I am today.

Now, as far as media in high school, I was in every single media related club that existed! The only one I wasn’t in was newspaper and morning show. Crazy right? I never thought anything of it, because I was heavily involved in everything else. There was only one time I was on the “Knightly News”. I was in the homeroom where they hosted the show, and I filled in for someone who was sick. It was fun! But I never thought of it as a potential career.  

Randall: How’d you end up at Kennesaw State?

Autumn Johnson: As I’m doing this interview I’m thinking wow…My brother has had a lot of influence in my life lol. He attended KSU, so I kept it on my radar. It was kind of I decision I just narrowed down. I knew I wanted to stay in Georgia, because the out of state tuition was no joke. Kennesaw State and Georgia State were the only ones on my list. I knew I didn’t want to go to GA Southern or UGA, because I was wanted to be close to the city. Plus, I knew those schools would be Evans High 2.0. I went on a college visit to Georgia State and Kennesaw State on the same day, and I just felt more comfortable and at home at KSU. It wasn’t in the city, but you had access to the city and it’s opportunities. I fell in love with the campus and the food won my heart. But the biggest thing that sealed the deal was the fact that I could have my own room to myself. KSU won after I saw that!

Randall: What made you not pursue playing basketball in college?

Autumn Johnson: It goes back to that ‘no confidence in myself’ story. It really took a toll on my mind and took my heart out of the game for a split moment. I was mentally drained. I created attraction from a couple of colleges, but I didn’t see the point in continuing my career. I knew I wasn’t going into the WNBA. I knew I didn’t want to play overseas, so I decided to hang up my basketball shoes. I wanted to be a regular student and enjoy a regular college life. I also wanted to see what else there was outside of basketball, because that’s all I knew.

Randall: Let’s talk about your  collegiate experience! I want to go through your first few years at Kennesaw. How was your:

    1. Freshman Year?

Autumn Johnson: I felt so lost. Growing up, all I knew was basketball. Practice, games, traveling, hanging out with my teammates, and going to school was the only thing that occupied my agenda. I had way too much free time on my hands without basketball, and it didn’t feel right. I kept asking myself  “did I make the right decision?” After two months of regret, I immediately went to our women’s basketball program to see if they held tryouts. They said no, but they were looking for a basketball manager. That was the closest thing I could get to being on a basketball team and around the game, so I happily accepted the offer. At that time, I was seeking to be a collegiate and/or professional Athletic Trainer and majored in Exercise and Science. That quickly changed when I got an inside look of what our trainer did on a day-to-day basis. I couldn’t see myself doing that my entire life, plus I hated science.

So, I immediately changed to undeclared. I remember being so frustrated with myself that I didn’t have any control in my life at that moment. We were in our second semester, and I felt like I was wasting time by not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I was venting to one of my friend’s Amari, and she said she heard about this broadcasting boot camp on the radio that Ryan Cameron was hosting. We looked it up, and I registered for it. I went to the event not even knowing what I would get out of it, but I met this woman named Rachel Baribeau, who is a sports broadcaster.

She spoke on one of the panels, and I was fascinated. Talking about sports for a living? I can do that! I was really hesitant about pursuing it, because I was not a former collegiate or professional athlete and didn’t have any ties to the industry. But during my freshman year, I also created an strong alliance of friends, who supported this crazy dream I had.

    1. Sophomore Year/ Junior Year (did the same thing)

Autumn Johnson: I took on the manager role again. I was super cool with the entire team, but I was tired of being in the background doing laundry, participating in practice by running the clock, taking food orders…and the worst part WATCHING GAMES. It sucked being permanently benched. In the meantime, I was cool with our coaching staff, too. I shared my dreams with our former Basketball Operations Director, and he definitely had my back. He found out that the athletic department would have ESPN3 outlet on campus, and he put me in contact with the producer. I reached out and received a lot of no’s. I decided to use my resources to prove I’m capable of being on camera. I thought to myself- I have access to an entire basketball team! I did research on two players, set up the interviews, rented out some cameras, and shot the interview myself. They were impressed and brought me in for an interview. I got my first chance to do a live broadcast a day after my birthday!  

Going back to my supportive friend group, my friends definitely pushed me. I never experienced nothing like it. Another one of my bestfriend’s Cayla would critique my work and give her honest feedback. Another one of my friend’s Jaye Newton, encouraged that I start branding myself. He has played a crucial role in helping me launch my brand. He put in a lot of hours helping me create my website. In September 2016, AJTV was born. I had a website launch party at my apartment, and it was amazing to see the turnout and the support system I had behind me. I wouldn’t be where I am without my friends.

I started to freelance more joining R3play.TV and SB Nation’s Swish Appeal. I was able to expand beyond Kennesaw State. With these two outlets I was able to cover the WNBA, NBA, NFL, NCAA women’s basketball, camps, etc. I think that’s when I started to have a hungrier mindset trying to give myself as many reps as possible.

I was also fortunate enough to be selected to the inaugural class of the ESPN Student Ambassadors program. This platform allowed me to get more into the football side. I was able to cover the Home Depot College Football Awards show for three years in a row. I interviewed all of the nominees and Heisman finalists at the red carpet event. I also had a chance to help on the PR side.

    1. Senior Year/Graduation

Autumn Johnson: The most memorable thing my senior year was reporting at the 2018 College Football National Championship. I was able to interview Alabama players, AJ Green, Quavo, Stephen A. Smith, Todd Gurley, and so much more! This is hands down the best event I’ve covered. It was more coverage than I was use to and a lot of going off the fly, because I had no idea any of those big names would be there. A lot of my demo reel came from that game.

I was also able to get my first internship with Turner Sports as a production intern. Being able to navigate from first attending Turner Sports She’s Got Game, to freelancing as a production runner, to landing an internship caused attraction from the company. They insisted that I host the next She’s Got Game, since that’s where it all started! I was able to tell my Turner story, meet the president of Turner Sports, and talk to many women who are aspiring to be sports reporters. It was a very powerful event and amazing experience overall.

    1. Post Graduation (The Job Hunt!)

Autumn Johnson: I always thought people were being dramatic about post-grad depression, but it’s so real! Experiencing so many highs in college, this has been the lowest I’ve ever felt in my journey. I’ve been able to create an amazing resume, but I felt completely defeated when nothing immediately came out of it. I put that in past tense, because I no longer beat myself up about it. I realize that everything is all in God’s timing. I know with the hard work I’m putting in, God will take care of me at the end of the day. It took a lot of prayer, but I am definitely taking each step with faith now. I’m not going to put a lot of pressure on myself when I’m only 22 going onto 23. I feel like the space I’m in is needed. This is the most driven I’ve been about finding a job. Also, the most creative I’ve been trying to find different avenues of how to get to my end goal. I know everything will work out in the end. Today, I’m doing great now! I’m pushing every day. I’m excited for what the future will bring.

Randall: After doing research on you, one thing that truly stands out to me is how hard you worked on your craft while you were in college. How were you able to keep focus on your goals and the future in a college environment where it’s all about “being lit” and living in the moment?

Autumn Johnson: It was tough, but I made it work and look easy. There were a lot of late nights trying to catch up on work or even missing out on parties or link ups that my friends had. I’ll make sure I allot time for both lives. It’s important for me to keep a balance, so I can relieve some stress and just enjoy my 20s. Having a career as a sports reporter is literally on my mind every day, so it’s not hard staying focus on my goal. I’m constantly thinking of different opportunities, sporting events to cover, avenues I want to take, people I want to network with, etc.

Randall: Did your peers at Kennesaw support your media aspirations? If so, how?

Autumn Johnson: Absolutely! I’ve never experienced so much support until coming to Kennesaw. They helped me prepare for my website launch party, give me critical advice on my work, share my post, and always provide encouragement and different ideas. I’ve never had such a supportive friend group that pushed me to be the best version of myself possible. I love them!

Randall: Let’s talk about your experience in media throughout your tenure at Kennesaw State! We’re gonna list the media companies that you’ve worked/currently worked with and I want you to tell us the story of how you made the connect and the amazing things that you’ve done with them. Also going to list some organizations that you’re a part of!

    1. ESPN- I started with ESPN my sophomore year. I was able to make that connection through Kennesaw State’s women’s basketball team. I served as their basketball manager my freshman and sophomore year. I told them that I wanted to start sideline reporting, and it was in perfect timing that our campus was bringing ESPN sideline reporting that year I expressed interest. Since I had close connections with the team I interviewed two of the players, so I could have something to show the producer. After that, it was a go! It was my first time taking on sports reporting and I loved every bit of it. I have been able to do live hits for a broadcast, interview many coaches and players in the ASUN conference, and learn the in-and-outs of how to prepare for a broadcast. I didn’t realize how much went into it, but I’m glad I was able to get this experience under my belt so early in my career.
    1. SB Nation- I started SB Nation my sophomore year. Many of the connections I’ve made stemmed off of working with ESPN. While I was at a game, I met an editor who work for SB Nation’s Swish Appeal. He introduced himself to me and from there, I was able to join the team. With this opportunity, I’ve been able to cover some of the best women’s basketball games. The most notably game had to be UConn vs. USC.
    1. R3play.TV- Again, I made a connection while doing a game at ESPN. One of their reporters connected me with their supervisor, and I was able to express my interest in joining the team. This opportunity has been life changing. Some of the best experience I’ve had as a sports reporter has been with this media outlet. I’ve been able to cover the 2018 College Football Championship- Alabama vs. Georgia, the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Dream, College Football Awards Shows, camps, and so much more. I love the free range I have
    1. Turner Sports- I attended an event called She’s Got Game, that gave me the opportunity to explore what Turner Sports had to offer. I saw this event on LinkedIn, saw it was free and registered for it! I’ve always wanted to see what was behind Turner’s doors and it was the perfect opportunity for it to finally happen. I went to the event and made sure I brought resumes to pass out to everyone! I made a promise to myself that once I’m in here I’m not leaving. And I didn’t. I was able to get a personal tour over Thanksgiving break and that ended up securing a freelance job as a production runner. I started in December, but I wanted to do more. I applied for the Summer Turner Sports Production internship and secured that as well. I had the best summer of my life. I created so many relationships during our 10 weeks there. Every day was something new and exciting. Everyone was so genuine and had my best interest in helping me or just giving me advice. I met some of the best NBA legends in the game that now work at Turner, such as Isiah Thomas, Steve Smith, Grant Hill, Dennis Scott, and so much more. The highlight of the entire internship was producing a Beyond the Paint feature of Steve Smith for my final project.
    1. NABJ- I went to my first NABJ convention this past summer, and I made a promise to myself that I would never miss another one! It was a great opportunity to network and fellowship with journalist and producers that look like me. I learned so much from attending the different panels, workshops, career fair, and from conversations I had with influential journalist and producers. It was very inspiring and fired me up to take it up a notch to be the best journalist I can be in my sports broadcasting journey. I went as a Turner Sports representative and received many perks from within that, so it was great! I also had the chance to interview NBA star and Michigan State’s legend, Steve Smith. We went to Michigan State to do the interview in a building he dedicated to his mother after she passed away from cancer. I also had the opportunity to meet some of the top journalist in this business. The most memorable encounter was with Cari Champion. She has the purest heart and she’s so amazing. The time she gave me was incredible. In that one encounter, there was no doubt that she was invested in me. I’ve been able to stay connected with her since then.
    1. Atlanta Association of Black Journalists- I was just invited to this organization after my tweet went viral, so I haven’t had any experiences yet. I’m sure a lot is in store, and I’m excited to get started with them!

 Randall: Take us through the thought process of your Tweet that went viral of you sharing your reel!

Autumn Johnson: I had a conversation with one of Turner’s talent acquisitions, and we spoke about how to break into the industry. The biggest advice that stood out to me is when she spoke on the power of exposure. I always put my work on Instagram and my website and that tactic didn’t seem to work. After exploring all of my options, I realized I never put my work on Twitter. Once did that. It started to take off! I never hit 100 retweets before and got so excited, but then I realized I had my phone number in my reel. I went back and forth with myself if I should take it down or not. I was so mad that I made such a stupid mistake, and I was afraid that random people would try calling or texting me. I made the decision to take it down, edit it out, and repost it. It was like 1:30am when I did that, and I went to sleep. When I woke up and checked my phone, my phone had thousands of notifications. I clicked on one of them that directed me to the tweet, and my heart stopped when I saw I went viral! It was an exciting moment.

Randall: Did you expect for it to go viral and get millions of views?

Autumn Johnson: No, I didn’t expect it to go viral at all. I didn’t even think people would pay attention to it except for my close friends, who always like my stuff. I didn’t even expect it to reach 100 retweets again, since I deleted it. The response I got was amazing. People that didn’t even know me where advocating for my job hunt. They were also tagging ESPN, Fox Sports, and other sports networks. They took the time out to share kind words and even prayers and I was thankful for that positive energy.

 Randall: How’d you feel when prominent media journalists like Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Jemele Hill showed love to you in your journey?

Autumn Johnson: Well Ros is my favorite sports reporter and someone that I aspire to be like in this industry, so that meant so much to me that she reached out. I literally could not stop smiling from the kind words and encouragement she said. I’ve been able to get close with Ros since I’ve been working at Turner Sports, but if I would’ve never knew her prior I probably would’ve fell out lol. As far as Jemele Hill, I literally screamed. She told me “We’ll save you a seat” and that took me out. She’s definitely one of the best in the game, and for her to acknowledge my work and say that gave me clarification that I’m going in the right direction. Their words meant so much to me.

 Randall: How has the viral tweet (and the viral follow-up tweet) aided you in your journey to get a job in the industry? (Did it increase your followers? Were you able to better network? Did jobs start being offered?)

Autumn Johnson: It increased my followers, built my network, and created an amazing opportunity for my work to reach almost 1.5 million people. That’s still insane to me. I’ve been able to attract freelance opportunities and small markets, but I haven’t established anything yet.

Randall: How important are internships to the success of college students after they graduate? Also, how can college students get internships?

Autumn Johnson: I think they are very essential to your success after graduation. Not only are you getting real life experience, but you’re gaining many face-to-face connections in the company you’re interning for. I’ve only had the opportunity of have one established internship, and I wish I would have gotten offered from different companies, so I could have those connections as well. It’s hard getting in contact with these people if you’ve never put a name with a face before or created certain relationships with people. Once you graduate, that luxury of being an intern gets cut off. But just because you didn’t have an internship in college, does not mean you won’t be successful. Students can get internships by directly contacting the person who’s in charge of that program. I wish I would’ve caught onto this earlier lol. The one time I took the initiative to find out who was in charge of hiring was the only time I’ve been offered an internship.

Randall: This is something that’s often talked about at HBCUs. We feel as if there’s a lack of opportunities that are afforded to black colleges, specifically in media related fields. We see individuals that go to Predominantly White Institutions that immediately get jobs in their respective field and have various internship opportunities while HBCU students often don’t receive the same luxury. What is your take on this? Do you feel as if going to Kennesaw gave you more opportunities than those presented at other institutions?

Autumn Johnson: I strongly agree that HBCUs are not afforded the same opportunities as PWIs. When people ask me for advice on what they could do now on their campus to advance themselves in their media aspirations, I always ask if their campus has a sports network outlet, radio station, daily new show or a student lead newspaper. I’ve noticed a trend.. Streaming sports live has become the new wave to consume sports, and majority of PWIs have their own networks, such as SEC Network+ or ESPN+, on campus. Students are getting experience on air and in the producing and graphics roles. As for getting various internship opportunities, I would have to disagree (speaking only from my experience at Kennesaw State). The ESPN network on my campus is how I got my start and live reps, but it’s not how I navigated through this industry. I’m a firm believer in creating your own opportunities. Some of my best moments and coverage as a sports reporter has come from the work I’ve done off campus. Also, if you don’t have those opportunities on campus, start them yourself! Be the founder and pave the way for students to have access to these opportunities.

Randall: How important is building your own brand in college?

Autumn Johnson: It’s extremely important. College is definitely where the grind starts. It sets the foundation of what you’re trying to accomplish, and I think it helps you 10x more when you reach post-grad life. I believe that your college years are meant for you to fall on your face, so you can get back up even stronger. If you start creating your brand now, you’ll have the head start of establishing what you’re setting out for. It also shows others how invested you are in your dreams and people will become familiar of what exactly what you’re trying to do. I didn’t realize how important it was until my friend, Jaye Newton, implied that I should start creating my brand soon. That was sophomore year. Today, so many people call me AJTV now or staple me as Atlanta’s sports reporter. Everything I post goes along with my brand, so when people visit my social media platforms it’s easy to see what I do. I think it would be tough if I just started doing this post-grad.

Randall: We know that you desire to be in the media and that someone will hire you! However, what’s your endgame? How far do you want your brand to go in 10 years?

Autumn Johnson: My endgame is to report for the NBA nationally. When people think of sports broadcasting as a whole (women and men) I want my name to come in mind amongst the greats that do have done it, such as Doris Burke, Robin Roberts, Stuart Scott, Craig Sager…the legends! I also want to give back to girls who aspire to be sports broadcasters. Especially, girls of color. I plan on creating a mentor group, so they can have someone to turn to, ask questions, advice, etc. I know how it is to want to achieve something in this field, but not really having the right mentorship to get there.

Randall: Where can we find you on social media?

Autumn: You can follow me at @autumnjohnson.tv on everything! Also, go check out my website www.autumnjohnsontv.com

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