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American Journalism Review
The News Director Proves Her Mettle  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1992

The News Director Proves Her Mettle   

Women news directors are moving into the big markets. But it's not easy – and much depends on enlightened managements.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     


Mary McCarthy was understandably excited. She had recently been named news director at a television station in Rockford, Illinois, and in 1977, a woman news director was about as rare as a woman astronaut. McCarthy had paid her dues for eight years as a reporter, producer and executive producer at a Milwaukee station. Now, anxious to learn from her new peers, she was looking forward to a conference of CBS affiliate news directors in New Orleans.

She never expected the reception she received.

"Everyone kept asking me whose wife I was," McCarthy recalls. " 'I'm not, I'm a news director,' I kept saying, and I'd get this strange look. I was pretty intimidated by it."

McCarthy was one of the first women to become a news director at a television station. Thanks to her and other pioneering women of the 1970s – Patricia Stevens, Carolyn Wean, Kris Ostrowski and Marci Burdick – the glass ceiling has been shattered. But ambitious women news directors may still confront gender – and other – barriers to higher managerial positions.

More women are running and staffing newsrooms than ever before, and there are wider management opportunities in local TV news for white women. It's another matter, however, for black and Asian women, who only recently have been encouraged to pursue management careers.

Despite growing opportunities, many women still have to deal with sexism, especially when it comes to pay. A new survey has found that although female news directors at larger stations are paid as well as their male counterparts, on average they make only 69 percent as much. But this differential may not be due to sexism alone. Lower salaries may also be due to a woman's unwillingness to argue for more money because, subconsciously or not, she doesn't want to be perceived as overly aggressive. And even when the pay for women news directors is equal or better, they don't always have the same clout as their male peers. As James Brown says, "It's a man's world."

"About one-third of the television news work force is made up of women, but contrary to some perceptions, that has not changed greatly since the mid-1980s," says Vernon Stone, a University of Missouri journalism professor who directs research for the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). "Certainly, there are more women coming out of journalism schools and going into TV news, but there is much greater turnover, too."

Stone says the number of women who are becoming TV news directors has leveled off. His latest survey, released this month, found 16 percent of the news directors at the approximately 775 non-satellite commercial stations with news divisions in 1990 were women. That is about the same percentage as in 1988, but represents a significant jump from 8 percent in 1980. His research also confirms that more women are becoming news directors at larger network-affiliated stations rather than in the small markets or the independents where they first got their opportunities.

Presently, three of six NBC-owned stations – Los Angeles, Washington and Miami – have female news directors. Women also direct the news at network affiliates in Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Minneapolis, to name a few. And at least one woman, Mary Lynn Roper of Pulitzer Broadcasting, is a corporate vice president of news for a major seven-station group that has two female news directors.

But almost all of them are white. Minority female news directors at local television stations are so uncommon that even the ethnic journalism organizations do not always know who or where they are.

"I cannot think of any black woman who is a TV news director at present," says Sheila Stainback, vice president for broadcast for the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and an anchor at WPIX in New York. Three black women who were news directors a few years ago are now assistants in larger markets.

Meanwhile, the Asian American Journalists Association is aware of only two female Asian news directors. Nimi McConigley, who was born in Madras, India, has been at KGWC in Casper, Wyoming, for the past four years, and Janet Mason, who has a Japanese mother, has been vice president of news for KARE in Minneapolis since 1988.

Critics of TV news hiring and promotion practices maintain that racism is a key reason that more black and Asian women have not become news directors. There are only three black male news directors across the country, and minority women have a second obstacle to surmount. "We have a double whammy of race and sex," says Sidmel Estes-Sumpter, president of NABJ and the first woman to head the organization. "We're not fairly considered for news director positions."

Station managers counter that there is only a small number of qualified black women candidates. Estes-Sumpter, a producer at WAGA in Atlanta, rejects that argument. "There is a pool there in terms of producers, assistant producers, interns and others behind the scenes, but it's a dead end since black women are not on the track toward becoming news directors."

"None of us – black or white, male or female – has done a very good job of showing black women the wider range of jobs in the newsroom," says Sheila Stainback. "The local stations, in particular, have never cultivated this group. It has always been easier for stations to meet their commitment to affirmative action by making a black woman an anchor. We became the role model for others."

Women who aspire to managerial positions, however, do not all want to be news directors. "I am finding a lot of women get to the producer level and find the creative side more satisfying," says Sherlee Barish, who has operated a broadcast news placement and talent agency for nearly 30 years. "They're concerned about the paperwork of a news director and all the personnel problems."

Aspiring news directors also should consider whether the sacrifices, including the probability of relocating often, are worth it. "I don't think a lot of people, men as well as women, realize the stress of being a news director is phenomenal," says McCarthy, "the stress of politics and intrastation rivalries in particular. Or how time-consuming it is and what it does to your private life. I was single and many times my pager went off while on a date. That's intimidating to most men."

McCarthy went from Rockford to Greenville, South Carolina, to New Orleans before leaving the business two years ago to do freelance writing. "I had fully intended to become a news director again," she says, "until I found a wonderful life out there. I still get the urge to follow fire trucks, but I don't have to work 18 hours a day anymore or cope with gut-wrenching anxiety when the anchors and reporters behave like six-year-olds."

"The demands of the job are harder for women," says Penny Parrish, news director at independent KMSP in Minneapolis for the past nine years. "It's hard to run a newsroom without that being the top priority in your life. Going into television didn't help my marriage and probably led to my divorce."

Parrish's experience is not unusual. Many of today's successful women news directors are divorced or single or have unusual arrangements with their husbands.

"Being single made it easier for me to make the moves to advance my career," says Carol Rueppel of WDIV in Detroit, who has worked in six cities since 1973.

"My husband and I see each other every three months," says Kris Ostrowski of NBC's WRC in Washington. "He decided to stay in Green Bay years ago and I've moved around a lot. We raised a son and a daughter and they split their time with each of us. They're both with me now and in graduate school and it has made my job a lot easier."

By sacrificing a normal family life and being mobile, Rueppel and Ostrowski were able to take advantage of opportunities. But women may be less inclined to do that now, says Carolyn Wean, vice president and general manager of Westinghouse's KPIX in San Francisco, who was a news director in the group's Pittsburgh and Philadelphia stations during the late 1970s.

"People I know who are in positions to become news directors are progressing more slowly because they are choosing not to move," she says. "They have personal reasons and it's not always family. Sometimes they've simply chosen that place to live or they realize they have a pretty good deal already. Given the volatility of our business, the additional money and title may not be worth the move."

Even NABJ's Estes-Sumpter admits that the transient nature of the news director profession may hold some women back. "Women in general want more stability as we get older," she says, "and we're reluctant to drag a husband and children after us."

"It is much more difficult for a woman to make a move than a man," says Marci Burdick, who went from Rapid City, where she had been a news director for five years, to Springfield, Missouri, in 1988. "My husband was willing to give up 15 years of seniority and lieutenant bars as a police officer to come with me and start as a rookie. Not too many men would do that."

The news director Burdick replaced at KYTV was Joyce Reed, who had succeeded in making the station's newscasts the market leader. Reed, however, was single, while Burdick is married and has a child. Burdick's status as a wife and mother had an immediate impact.

"I was told Joyce had no other life and could focus 100 percent of her time on the demands of the newsroom," Burdick says. "I worried that the staff would resent me because I couldn't do that. At times they did because there would be breaking news and I had to leave and go pick up my daughter.

"But they soon learned that it cut both ways. Because I had a family, I had a sensitivity and appreciation for how their family lives affect their jobs. Not that Joyce didn't, but my perspective was different."

Reed, for her part, is adjusting to the plight of being a single woman news director on the move. She left KYTV to become news director at a Kansas City station but was ousted a few months later in a management shakeup. She went to El Paso and then, last September, to Richmond. "I notice when I unpack I don't have someone to help me," says Reed, who was once married. "I hate that. That's where a male news director with a wife has an advantage."

No woman can become a news director, say Reed and some of her peers, without encouragement from supervisors. Usually that means from the men who still control the industry.

"A lot requires being in the right place at the right time," Reed says, "and with companies that target minorities and women for upper management."

"The key is station ownership and station management," says Holly Steuart, who has turned the news ratings around at WHTM in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, since becoming news director in September 1988. "It's popular to bash management and talk about the glass ceiling, and I wouldn't sell that short. But I found a lot of men in management helping me because they wanted to, not because they had to."

"Some companies placed a value on grooming women in management long before others," says Rueppel, who had been a news director in Omaha and Norfolk before being hired in 1989 by the Post-Newsweek station in Detroit. "Companies like ours and Gannett have targeted a multicultural management team including both men and women."

Post-Newsweek also has a woman news director, Nancy Shafran, at its Jacksonville station, and another woman, Tina Guilland, running the Washington bureau. In addition, women head sales, programming and business departments at the three Post-Newsweek stations. And in the mid-1980s, Amy McCombs, now the general manager at KRON-TV in San Francisco, became the first female general manager in a major market when Post-Newsweek moved her from Jacksonville to Detroit.

"This company has always felt that women are every bit as capable as men in any role," says Bill Ryan, president of Post-Newsweek stations. "We promote them because they're good. It's too bad that isn't done more often in our industry. That should be the norm."

Mary Lynn Roper says management sometimes has to take risks to promote women. For six years she had been co-anchor of KOAT's prime news programs, then the leading newscasts in Albuquerque, when the station's news director job opened up.

"I actively pursued it," she says. "I also had been executive producer while anchoring, but making me news director meant breaking up our winning anchor team. But my general manager then, Max Sklower, and Pulitzer Broadcasting believed in me and I was news director for six years before my promotion to V.P."

Roper's successor at KOAT also is a woman, Lisa Breeden. General Manager Wayne Godsey, who has an extensive news background, says it's corporate policy to hire and promote women – but not because they are women.

"You can't take any woman," he says, "and just drop her into that newsroom environment, as complicated as it is today, if she is not smart and seasoned. What has changed is the number of women coming into the work force. These people have gained the experience that qualified them for management positions."

When it comes to women in executive positions in news, local station groups such as Post-Newsweek, Pulitzer, Chronicle and Westinghouse have been far ahead of the networks, even NBC. Neither ABC nor CBS has a female news director at any of their local television stations, although both have had at least one female news director in the past. Some people cite the absence of female news directors as evidence of pervasive sexism at the networks.

"There's a large number of women behind the scenes at the networks but not many in the upper ranks, and that's also true at the owned-and-operated station level," says Jan McDaniel, general manager and former news director of Chronicle Broadcasting's KAKE in Wichita, who worked for CBS News for 10 years. "One of the reasons I left in 1984 is that I didn't see an avenue at the network to grow."

Colleen Dudgeon is the only woman who has been a news director at a CBS-owned station. Starting as a writer, she had worked her way up through the ranks at Chicago's WBBM and was promoted to news director in July 1988. But she left in February 1991 when a new general manager arrived. Today, she devotes much of her time to raising a child.

"I don't know about the other CBS stations, but I never encountered anything holding me back because I was a woman," Dudgeon says. "When I left, more than half of my management team were women. And I didn't leave WBBM because of sexism. I respect any general manager's right to choose his own news director."

But sexism does exist at the network-owned stations and elsewhere.

No woman has more experience as a network-owned station news director than WRC's Ostrowski. A former news director at network-affiliated stations in Rochester and Green Bay, Ostrowski was the first woman to become news director at a network station when she joined Cleveland's WKYC, then owned by NBC, in the fall of 1981. After three years, she was lured to Washington by WJLA, owned by Albritton Communications. But she was fired after 13 months because of a personality conflict with her boss. WRC hired her as the assistant news director, and she was promoted to the top job in May 1990.

"Sure, I've seen sexism at stations," she says, "but what's really most important is the comfort level. When I was fired at WJLA, the general manager said he was not comfortable with me. He was a Southerner who was not comfortable with my style of management, which didn't fit his courtly way.

"Now, at NBC, we have an affirmative action plan and the company can say to follow it. But if the person above you, your male boss, is uncomfortable with you it won't make a difference. My boss, Allan Horlick, is very comfortable with women and men and so are the G.M.s in L.A. and Miami with their female news directors. That's the key."

So when a female news director and the male general manager who hired her are no longer comfortable with each other, what should the news director do?

"You start looking for another job," says Burdick. "I was 21 years old when named news director in 1979 and was so young I didn't even know what to do at a meeting. Two men quit because of my promotion. Eventually, the resentment toward me in the newsroom went away and I got along with the G.M. But I started to have some problems with him over an ethical question and he saw that I wasn't malleable. Did he think I would be because I am a woman? I don't know.

"But just because there are more women news directors now doesn't mean sexism has disappeared at the station or in the newsroom," she adds. "It's just less overt, more hidden, than it used to be."

Emily Rooney, the tough news director at WCVB in Boston, agrees. More women work in news management or as supervisors in her shop than perhaps any other major market station in the country. Three of her top four executives are women, and a majority of the behind-the-scene news personnel are women. Rooney, who has been at the station for 13 years and took over as news director in 1990, says some men in the newsroom question the balance.

"I hear a lot about 'the mix not being right,' " she says. "You didn't hear about 'the mix' 20 years ago when it was all male.

"I think many men are still uncomfortable being supervised by women or even accepting women as peers," she continues. "I've been very conscious of this at the last two RTNDA conventions. There's still an 'old boy' network. The men are not looking for women to say hello to. They avoid eye contact with women and seek out each other."

Rooney and others don't need a survey to tell them that women still make less money than men, although they agree that the disparity isn't as great as it once was.

"It's getting better," Rooney says. "I don't feel I've been cheated in my 12 years as a manager, but the records here show women were paid lower comparatively in the past. Salaries are starting to equalize now and not just for women but for the whole behind-the-scenes group."

"There's still some catching up to do," Roper acknowledges, "although that's not true at Pulitzer. But you can trace it back 10 to 15 years and there's not complete equity yet."

"It's even worse at the independent stations," says Parrish. "It was easier for a woman to become a news director at an independent rather than an affiliate, and women were willing to work for less just to get the chance. Even today, I think you'd find about a $10,000 difference between a man and a woman holding virtually the same job."

Although executives at WBBM will not confirm it, News Director Mark Hoffman reportedly makes at least $50,000 (including a bonus) more than his predecessor, Colleen Dudgeon, who, at least on paper, had more newsroom experience.

"I was very happy with what they paid me," says Dudgeon, who doesn't want to talk about the disparity, "and I was making a lot for a 36-year-old."

Ostrowski contends male general managers believe they can hire women at a lower salary than men, and they often do. "Women are much less inclined to push for more money," she says. "Men will definitely go in and make demands about salary. Men are much more used to selling themselves. Women don't do that. They don't want to come off too aggressive. Maybe they won't admit it, but it happens."

One method for women news directors to overcome any pay disparity is to control the money by becoming general managers. But even women who have risen through the news ranks to run stations say that may not be attainable.

"Primarily, G.M.s come out of sales and will continue to in the future," says KPIX's Carolyn Wean. "If there is a glass ceiling, it's probably because there are not enough female general sales managers in the pipeline."

"There still aren't many general managers who came through news and there's a good reason," says KAKE's Jan McDaniel. "The intensity of running a newsroom is so strong that most news directors have little time to get involved with sales or the overall station budget."

Female news directors recognize their quandary. "We have developed the managerial skills to run a station," says Rueppel, "but [news directors] need to be more aware of how sales works and how it integrates throughout the building."

"There are no women G.M.s at NBC and all the men G.M.s came from sales," says Ostrowski. "Al Jerome, who until recently hired the G.M.s, had nothing against women news directors. He felt all news directors were petulant children."

But as more women become news directors and if news directors become general managers, perhaps more of those G.M.s will be women. And when they make it, either as news directors or general managers, they should pause and give thanks to one woman in particular – and to her tie tack.

Pat Stevens was the pioneer. In the summer of 1972, she became the first woman news director of a TV station, at KGUN in Tucson. She didn't realize at the time how momentous that accomplishment was.

"I had grown up in Tucson and had been at the station since 1966 when there were only two of us in the newsroom," recalls Stevens, now the managing editor for the Ohio Valley region of Conus Communications. "I didn't realize TV was a man's world."

Then she attended a meeting of ABC affiliate news directors in Chicago. ABC expected a Pat Stevens to be there, not a Patricia.

"As I stepped off the elevator into the lobby where they were having a cocktail party, there was stunned silence," she laughs today. "All those suits were looking at me. Those poor guys were totally frustrated and didn't know what to do.

"The gifts they gave the news directors that year were tie tacks, and they apologized when they gave me mine. But I said, 'Don't worry, I'll find a place to stick it.' I knew from then on that this was going to be really something." l

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