Sarah Paynter

by Anastassia Gliadkovskaya

Sarah Paynter always knew she liked to write. When, at her high school, she found no student paper, she founded it herself. The quarterly, print newspaper was called The Defender, and it covered everything from school to world news and sports. The Defender featured Sudoku on the back of each issue, which was accidentally misspelled, at first, as “Suduku.”

“You have to put yourself out there and fail sometimes to know that you’re trying hard,” Paynter said.

That mindset set the trajectory for Paynter’s steady rise in the fields of journalism and entrepreneurship. For her undergraduate degree, Paynter, 24, attended James Madison University in Virginia, where she majored in psychology and minored in writing, rhetoric and technical communication. There, she let her versatility shine, serving in various technical communication roles, which offered her a glimpse into the psychology of the workplace: studying how people learn and how they succeed.

“Communicating flows out of psychology,” she said. “Technical communication is all about putting yourself in someone else’s mind and trying to empathize with them,” Paynter said.

Being a psych major served as a formative asset early on to Paynter’s future journalistic career. Studying psychology, she explains, is a lot similar to reporting.

“Being a journalist and being a therapist, they’re obviously different because who you’re loyal to is different, but you’re asking a lot of questions in both situations and trying to draw people out,” Paynter said.

During her time as a student at JMU, Paynter conducted qualitative studies that looked into how people with depression approached studying. She interviewed people and wrote about their responses. With this, Paynter was already becoming well-equipped with basic reporting practice.

One of the highlights of Paynter’s undergrad career at JMU was her involvement in the university’s makerspace, X-Labs. Paynter needed a practicum to fulfill the requirements of her minor, and when she saw the Virgina Drones Project, she thought it sounded exciting.

“I like to have very varied experiences,” Paynter said. “I tend to be a little impulsive.”

The Virginia Drones Project uses design thinking and drone technology to find solutions to global problems. The program facilitates a variety of projects, including in the areas of sea and fire rescue.

Her senior year, as part of the project, Paynter flew to Cartagena, Colombia, where she and her team were tasked with determining when one of the city’s historic walls, which was eroding due to rising sea levels, would collapse. Paynter and her team took photos of the wall from various angles using drones, and then stitched them together using 3D-modeling software to create a shell of what the wall looked like.

After graduation, Paynter founded a drones-based data acquisition company called Canvex. One of its undertakings was working with farmers in Virginia to determine crop health. Drones would fly over the crop, and a data-collecting sensor on the drone would retrieve and deliver information on the various plants. From that, the farmer would be able to tell if there is something wrong with the plant, and could plan preemptive intervention.

At the same time, Paynter became the Manager for the Center of Entrepreneurship at JMU, teaching students business skills to jumpstart their business ideas.

Soon after, Paynter moved on to freelancing, which she describes as “hectic.” She taught social media classes to realtors, helping them develop strategies to best present themselves, and worked as a content creator for various companies.

Perhaps the most important gig that launched Paynter into a journalism career was when she was hired as a technical writer (someone who writes manuals) at a software company for engineers known as Wevolver. Because of her experience with technology and writing, Paynter was instead transitioned to the role of technology reporter. Paynter focused her reporting on humanitarian engineering projects, profiling the likes of Misha Most, a contemporary Russian artist who is known for attaching a can of spray paint to a drone and painting the biggest mural in the world.

Paynter was able to step outside of concepts and interact with people in real life. She realized her passion for telling stories, and applied o Columbia Journalism School for her master’s degree, which she completed last week.

One classmate who worked closely with Paynter attests to her ability to connect with people in her storytelling.

“I learned so much from her because she can do things that I can’t,” Francesca Regalado said. “...Business news is often dry and impersonal. She sees people as people and I think that’s going to be a really important quality in a business reporter.”

Paynter recently won the Philip Greer Memorial Scholarship Fund Award for outstanding financial journalism.

She has landed a Dow Jones News Fund business reporting internship at Newsday on Long Island, where her beat will be millenials, employment and cost of living.

“I’ve never worked in a newsroom before; I think it’s going to be an opportunity to really grow, working directly with editors and getting fast-paced feedback and putting work out there that’s publishable,” she said.

In the long-term, Paynter plans on being a business reporter. Her inner entrepreneur still hopes to have her own side projects, which she says come naturally to her. But, she notes, she needs a work-life balance. To her, it’s important to “respect the self and boundaries, and not overwork.”

Paynter currently resides in Teaneck, New Jersey.