Poignant Lessons and Savvy Advice  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   April 2003

Poignant Lessons and Savvy Advice   

Survival Guide for Women Editors
American Press Institute
51 pages
Free at www.americanpressinstitute.org

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Talk about tough choices. Buffalo News Editor Margaret Sullivan's mother-in-law died on September 10, 2001. A day later "the most momentous news story of my lifetime" broke. How could anyone balance those competing pulls?

"I wanted to be able to grieve...and to support my husband and children," Sullivan remembers. "At the same time, I didn't think, as editor of the paper, I could walk away." She settled for "a great deal of driving back and forth...of talking on a cell phone, and a big--very draining--effort to be as present as I could be wherever I was at the time."

Although her example is unusually dramatic, it is just one of numerous "very draining" dilemmas described in this collection, which grew from an American Press Institute seminar on women newsroom leaders. The backdrop was an alarming rise in concern about women editors, partly based on a perception that the macho culture is resurgent in some newsrooms and partly based on hard evidence. An API-Pew survey last year found, for example, that nearly half of women editors expect to leave the business or their newsroom.

This online booklet was produced by 50 newspaper leaders--45 women and five men. Each offers a page or two of constructive guidance for "career conflicted" women. Much of it is standard sensible stuff. Form support networks. Follow your passion. Listen and communicate carefully. Speak out. Solve problems. Keep your sense of humor.

But because these writers are street-savvy veterans, their comments often crackle with the sting of experience.

"I'd tell young women to avoid the naïveté that plagued my early career," warns Newsday Managing Editor Charlotte Hall. "I took everything and everybody at face value, figuring in a sort of school-girlish way that everyone was exactly as they presented themselves. Innocence didn't work when I moved East and became a journalist."

"[T]he things I value now are very different from what I valued 15 years ago," says Jane Amari, Arizona Daily Star executive editor. "I now have a passionate interest that has nothing to do with newspapers and I am very involved in my community. And the result has been quite the opposite of what I thought.... I think I am a better editor, and a better journalist."

Like many colleagues, Julia Wallace, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor, urges women to take risks. But, Wallace wisely cautions, "make sure you have the support to succeed."

Adding poignancy are the writers' personal stories, especially about the never-ending strain of juggling work and family. Kay Tucker Addis, editor of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, missed so many of her daughter's sports contests that at one point "I realized that she was a senior in high school, playing No. 1 on her tennis team, and I had never seen her play competitively." Consultant and former editor Jody Calendar flew home from Kuala Lumpur to make her son's championship soccer match. Arriving on a delayed flight, she raced out of the airport without her bags and caught the last three minutes of the match – after 32 hours of traveling.

"My sons are 16 years apart," Calendar confides, "because I knew I could raise only one at a time and succeed at motherhood and journalism."

It may not be surprising, but it still packs power to hear so many seasoned journalists vote for more family time.

"As a wife, step mom, mother-in-law and new grandmother," says Carole Leigh Hutton, Detroit Free Press executive editor, "I'm clear that nothing is more important to me than my family, not even the career I love."

Family issues aren't the only concerns. Many of these women have done the same work as men for less pay. Others recount insensitive or sexually inappropriate remarks. Virginian-Pilot Editor Addis tells how a male editor once "assumed that I was a secretary and asked me to retype a story. (Horrors! I did it!)"

Yet these writers remain resolutely upbeat. They also avoid seeming over-victimized. "Men are not solely responsible for keeping women from soaring to new heights," writes Donna Barrett, an executive with Alabama's Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. "I have watched too many women voluntarily clip their own wings."

Consultant Bob Wall bravely observes that women as well as men can be unpleasant. "There may well be men out there who are threatened by strong women," Wall writes. But when women say this, he says, "It is often the case that the woman involved is not a very nice person.... [I]f you have the thought that you are threatening to men, take a good look at yourself."

Others, notably Akron Beacon Journal Publisher James Crutchfield, point out that members of minority groups also often feel marginalized, and, of course, men too face wrenching conflicts between family and work.

But the evidence seems clear that women widely perceive newsrooms to be less than supportive, and my own observations confirm their perception. Ultimately, the advice recorded here suggests two central strategies: master the current culture and work for reform.

Mastering means understanding and adapting. Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll advises, "If you're going to work in any office with a dominant culture, you have to learn that culture." Says Portland Press Herald Editor Jeannine Guttman, "From the moment you step into a newsroom, ask for coaching, ask for mentoring."

Reform requires digging in. "Stay in the business," exhorts USA Weekend Editor Marcia Bullard. "It may not be a perfect workplace now, but change can come from within and will be made most wisely and most quickly by those who choose to stay."

Of course, sometimes you just have to crash the party.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune Publisher Diane McFarlin grew up around boys and learned that females must "get rid of any self-imposed limitations."

"When I happened upon Jeff's 6th birthday party down the street, I crashed it under the assumption that my invitation must have gotten lost in the mail. It never occurred to me that I shouldn't be there."

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