Koch Associate Program

Challis Wells: The Poynter-Koch Fellowship and the courage to forge a new path 

May 26, 2023

Challis Wells is a freelance writer and project-brand manager who will soon launch her own podcast. A Birmingham native, Wells began her journalism career at WBRC-TV, the city’s Fox affiliate and where she completed her Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. During her time at WBRC, Wells followed the story of Kamille “Cupcake” Mckinney, a three-year-old who was kidnapped from the courtyard of an affordable housing community. We talked to Wells about how the Poynter-Koch Fellowship helped her tackle that difficult subject with compassion and dignity. 

POYNTER-KOCH: What first sparked your interest in journalism?  

WELLS: It fits with who I am. I’ve always been a big reader and consumer of news. I grew up watching WBRC, actually. I also knew I wanted to be a writer — all words are poetry to me — and when something happens, I want to know why. I want to get under the surface. When I started at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, communications seemed like the natural major to choose since it lent itself to my natural talents and interests. I got an internship at WBRC when I was still in college and that led to a part-time job and then a full-time reporting position there after college.  

How did you hear about the fellowship and why did you apply? 

I was at WBRC for about four years total, including my internship. I’d known about the Poynter-Koch Fellowship program because several WBRC reporters had taken part in it. After about 18 months in the newsroom, the news director encouraged me to apply. My two news directors at WBRC were women. They led with integrity and an inclusive mindset. Even when I was an intern, they were asking about my ideas — not to get them coffee! As seasoned journalists, they knew reporters cannot make it alone. We need expertise, advice, and training. These two women recognized, as did I, that the Poynter-Koch Fellowship could provide the tools and network I needed to grow in my career. I’m so grateful to them. 

How did the Poynter-Koch Fellowship enhance your ability to tell stories?  

The fellowship is like a buffet — every skill I wanted to acquire, every tool I wanted to sharpen — was there for the taking. Which is why no matter where you are in your career, you’re going to find an abundance of information in the Poynter-Koch Fellowship that will help you do your job. If you’re relatively new to the industry, there are sessions on issues like time management and developing a good work-life chemistry. If you already have a beat or a specialty, there are deep dives on those, or on how you grow your audience through social media. You might not be able to grab all of what’s on the buffet, but the experience is going to inspire you to keep learning and growing in your craft.   

Can you talk about some of the ideas and principles you discussed in the program? 

We spent a lot of time talking about sources, but not only about how you find or manage them, but also how you approach them as people and how you tell their stories in a dignified way. Part of achieving that goal is transparency. As fellows, we talked about how we let sources know what we’re here for, which is to tell a story, and to prepare them for the fact that we might ask sensitive questions. Reporters show up on the scene when some thing has happened. For sources, those experiences can be difficult to revisit. Being honest will strengthen your relationship and let the source know you respect them and their experience. 

Can you give an example of how these tools and discussions helped you? 

Sure — the story surrounding Kamille “Cupcake” Mckinney’s kidnapping and murder. The Poynter-Koch Fellowship was my companion, my touchstone, as I told her story with the dignity it deserved.  

As WBRC colleagues reported on the crime, the news director gave me a greenlight to do a podcast episode about Cupcake. It was my first podcast and my Poynter-Koch Fellowship mentor was an experienced producer. She gave me so much advice, even template layouts for podcasts and a list of equipment I’d need. I wouldn’t have known what to ask WBRC for if not for my mentor. Several fellowship leaders gave me tough advice that helped get production across the finish line. But it was the discussions about how to approach sources that really made an impact. There were so many undercurrents to this story — the history of the Black experience in Birmingham, economic and social inequality, prejudice. Cupcake’s mom, April, a 28-year-old single mother, was cast into the spotlight with all of those factors still very present in our city. April was afraid of being judged, and she was grieving. Still today, I’m really the only journalist with whom she has a relationship.  

What were some of your big takeaways from the Poynter-Koch Fellowship? 

The fellowship solidified my belief that telling peoples’ stories, and getting to the root of them, is vital. It’s one of the only ways we can make sense of what is going on in our community, or in the world, and figure out how to move forward as a society. It also helped me identify how I, as a journalist, can best use my voice and my talents. We have so many different mediums at our disposal today, including podcasts. I’m eager to launch my own podcast later this year.   

Tell me about the podcast and what else you’re working on?  

When I was still an undergrad at University of Alabama at Birmingham, a professor introduced me to podcasts, including Ira Glass’ “This American Life.” I fell in love with that way of telling stories. Podcasts are portable. They are a storytelling companion to listeners when they are driving or making dinner. In addition to freelance writing and project managing, I’m excited to start working on my own podcast, which will explore how people decide what to do with their lives. I want to dive into how young people transitioning into adulthood can own their ideas and discover how they can live their purpose. Journalism and writing are my heart. I’m also hoping to do a follow-up story on April, Cupcake’s mom, for a local newspaper.  

The Poynter-Koch Fellowship awakened me in a way. It sparked creativity and helped me identify other ways journalists can share news. As fellows, we were challenged to always think about what else our newsrooms needed. How else we could contribute as individuals. I kept coming to my news director with ideas, like the podcast episode. Eventually, I pitched the idea of implementing a new role: creative director. I got the courage to take that step because of the fellowship. The idea didn’t come together at WBRC, but the creativity sparked by the fellowship gave me the confidence to go out and try to tell stories as a freelancer.