Koester was one of two Illinois journalists to make the list but the only editor. Lexi Cortes, 27, an investigative reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, also was honored.
The list is a window not only into the varied jobs that digitally savvy young journalists are getting after graduation but also to the opportunities that many of them are finding in smaller markets. Young journalists are publishers and digital editors and producers and managing editors at regional papers, small weeklies and media start-ups.
“It’s a great honor. I don’t know if I’m necessarily deserving,” Koester said. “There are probably a lot of other amazing journalists out there who probably deserve the recognition more than me and who may not have just been nominated. It is definitely a great honor and I appreciate it.”
Koester was nominating 27-year-old reporter Travis Lott when she recognized this was the last year she’d be eligible. So, she nominated herself in February and found out a few weeks later that she had been chosen for the award.
Lott has been a reporter for the County Journal in Randolph County for five years and said he has worked closely with Koester since he started there. Lott said he has always been inspired by Koester’s dedicated management style, consistent reporting and compassion for the community.
Koester graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism and minor in psychology. At the age of 24, she started her journalism career at the Steeleville Ledger in Chester, Illinois.
“She pours everything into making sure that the public is informed with the best obtainable version of the truth,” Lott said. “She cares a lot about being accurate and detailed with everything she does.”
Despite holding leadership positions in the newsroom since graduating college, Koester said she has not been challenged as a manager because of her age. Being a woman in the journalism industry can be hard at times because she is not taken as seriously as her male colleagues, she said.
Koester is the leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and participates in a business program as a mentor for local high school students.
“I’m trying to always come up with new and creative things for the girls to do,” she said. “I want them to have a good experience and I want them to become strong independent women.”
Nick Miller, president of the Southern Illinois Editorial Association, said Koester is a “fantastic asset” to her paper.
“She embodies everything that I believe a truly local newspaper editor should be,” he said, noting her community involvement. Koester also is vice president of the Southern Illinois Editors Association.
“Our organization has been spending a lot of time rebuilding itself and trying to find our focus,” he said. “Mary has played an instrumental part in that. She’s always stepped up and helped, offering great suggestions and being willing to help with even the most menial of tasks. I couldn’t be taking on the task of rebuilding our organization without her help and guidance.”
Koester says her confidence in and out of the newsroom has increased when she took up Obstacle Course Racing, which is under consideration by the Global Association of International Sports Federations for inclusion in the Olympics. In OCR, a competitor must overcome various physical challenges in the form of obstacles. Koester said she has been inspired by OCR to work hard and never give up, she said.
“If I start a race, I never quit. I will finish a race. So if I, if I’m bound and determined to get a story, I’m going to do it,” Koester said. I’ve tracked up and down a mountain multiple times carrying a hundred pound weights … I’ve done things that people are amazed by and if I can survive that I can survive a standard meeting or an angry, disgruntled reader who thinks I should not have put their arrest in the paper.”
Molly Walsh is a correspondent for GJR based in Chicago, where she is a student at Columbia College Chicago. You can find her on Twitter @molly_walsh.