Yes, Moms Can Be Great Editors  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1998

Yes, Moms Can Be Great Editors   

Interaction with the community is often more valuable than endless hours in the newsroom.

By Jan Schaffer
Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab, an institute for interactive journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Fact: Fifty percent of newspaper journalists 30 and under are female.

Fact: By age 50, it's only 22 percent.

So reports "The Newspaper Journalists of the '90s," last year's survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

No wonder, I say, when even female newsroom leaders, such as New York Times Metro Editor Joyce Purnick, are declaring there is no room at the top for women – unless they are, like her, childless.

Why should women remain in our nation's newsrooms, much less aspire to top management, when their contributions to the profession are not only devalued in the corporate culture, but are also demeaned in public forums? When they are encouraged to conform to politically correct behavior rather than to render as journalism the story ideas their special listening skills elicit, ideas often rooted in their ties as parents to the community?

ýttracting local news tips, spotting trend stories and achieving basic community understanding should be valuable assets to any news organization. They are precisely the values added every time a mom or dad journalist embraces the civic participation de*anded by soccer leagues and school volunteerism, or every time parents confront the daunting challenge of imparting values to their children.

"There is no way in an all-consuming profession like journalism that a woman with children can devote as much time and energy as a man can," Purnick told Barnard graduates.

Time? Maybe not. Productive energy? I respectfully disagree.

I've supervised and employed enough women journalists as a department head and an assigning editor in a 22-year career at the Philadelphia Inquirer to find considerable merit in the time-worn adage that if you want something done, give it to a busy woman.

She often doesn't have to stay until
9 p.m. to finish it. So why should we be measuring her contribution by the clock? She also, by the way, doesn't spend as much time on the racquetball court, or next to the water cooler, as perhaps some of her more correct colleagues.

"Should women and men who have taken the detour of the mommy/daddy track be as far along as those who haven't? Would that be fair? I reluctantly have to say that it would not be fair," Purnick is quoted in the Washington Post as saying.

That is, quite simply, the wrong question. A seriously wrong question.

The question signals a disturbing self-absorption with a dated corporate culture and a disconnect with the emerging culture of today's professional world. It's a world where a "can-do" spirit creates innovation and a "can't do" spirit leads to lethargy.

The question also suggests that journalists are doing journalism not for readers and viewers but for other journalists. It signals that journalists are more concerned about their newsroom rights than their community responsibilities.

The question news organizations need to ask is, how can we create news coverage that is more reflective of reality as our readers and viewers know it? Coverage that connects better with their concerns. Coverage framed in language ordinary people use, not the issue-speak of experts. Coverage that treats people as players in a self-governing society, rather than as victims or spectators of some civic freak show.

Will the news media be able to do this in an era when the public has already pronounced us too biased, too sensational, too inaccurate? When the public says the media all too often get in the way of society solving its problems?

I visit scores of newsrooms in my travels around the country. Strikingly, some of the most innovative and best-connected newspapers are now led by women, many of whom are mothers. Check out what's happening in Charlotte, North Carolina; Portland, Maine; Orange County, California; Phoenix, Arizona.

Our profession, if it is to retain its core values, needs to groom more such leaders, not throw them off a train that is already dangerously close to running off the tracks.

Our challenge is to build on the diversity of our assets – not push them into conformity.

Newsrooms need to develop a new cadre of managers who are resourceful, who are connected to their communities and who can think out of the box. They need leaders who can take risks and embrace change.

What better place to start than with those employees who have embraced the upheavals of parenthood, with its enormous risks and seat-of-the-pants creativity?

To Purnick, the mommy/daddy track detour is a liability on the balance sheet of time served at the New York Times. Little credit accrues on the ledger for experiences that round out the wholeness of life while enhancing journalists' understanding of the real world.

Purnick is a good journalist who has devoted her life to the Times. She says she forfeited the chance to have children for her career. She married her boss. That is a small world to live in.

It is a big world we have to cover. l

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