Where Women Rule
The all-female leadership team at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune jokingly refers to its empire as "Amazonia." Does gender make a difference when it comes to management style and newsgathering?
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
THE LEGEND OF AMAZONIA in journalism started on a sour note.
The saga began in June 1999, as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's new executive editor, Janet Weaver, agonized over whether to ask a former colleague to apply to become the paper's managing editor. The colleague was smart, well-respected--and a self-proclaimed enemy. Weaver had collided with her over a job promotion more than five years ago, and the pair had not spoken since.
Weaver left the newsroom fray that morning and stepped into the sweltering Florida heat, hoping a walk around the block would help clear her head. "I figured she'd hang up on me," the editor remembers thinking. "But I couldn't get her out of my mind as a possibility. She had all the qualities I was looking for."
Back in the office, Weaver punched in the telephone number and left a brief voice mail message, thinking she had scant hope of a response.
Miles away in Pasedena, Maryland, Baltimore Sun Anne Arundel County Bureau Chief Rosemary Armao was settling back at her desk, listening to telephone messages. A familiar Tennessee twang exploded into her consciousness.
It was a voice she had not heard for nearly six years. Weaver's recording triggered an instant replay of awful memories--the stark feelings of rejection, the envy and mental anguish that once had been so consuming. Armao sank back into her chair and loudly exclaimed, "Wow!"
Later that day she dialed the Herald-Tribune and left a curt message: "Janet, why are you calling? I thought we were enemies."
Fast-forward 12 months to a dimly lit Sarasota bar where a happy hour crowd is swaying to the strains of Frank Sinatra's "My Way." Between sips of Chardonnay, Armao is baring her soul. "I was insanely jealous of Janet. Here was this young woman, promoted over me, with no experience. I thought, 'This is it, this is as far as I'm going to go. I'm a loser.' "
Armao quit her job at Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot in 1994 rather than work for Weaver, who is 13 years younger, when she received the job of deputy managing editor over her. Now Armao calls her "the perfect partner." Weaver says she pursued Armao because she wanted an ME who would "look me in the eye and tell me to go to hell.... Rosemary had passion by the bucketsful. She had a strong background in reporting and editing investigations. She was an inspirational leader."
Thus amid a flurry of voice mail and e-mail messages, some of them tense and pointed--Weaver once speculated on whether they would kill each other if they tried to work together--the era of Amazonia was launched at the Herald-Tribune.
Today, Weaver, Armao and Publisher Diane McFarlin are carving out a niche in the annals of journalism folklore. Media experts believe they are the first all-female senior management team to run a daily newspaper with a circulation of more than 100,000. The paper's two AMEs also are women, inspiring the nickname "the gang of five."
The all-girls club on the masthead has sparked a new and somewhat unorthodox chapter at the newspaper, purchased by the New York Times Co. in 1982. For instance, it's not unusual for editors to bring in lemon meringue pies, brownies and other comfort food to soothe a stressed-out staff. But if the women have any goal, it's to put out a hard charging, high quality newspaper in a more effective newsroom--one that is fun, family friendly and diverse.
"We only joke about being Amazonia," says Armao.
Historically, there have been few female publishers at large daily newspapers, making it a clear breakthrough to have all three top supervisory positions held by women at the Herald-Tribune, says Lee Stinnett, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors from 1983 to 1999. Margaret Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News, calls the Herald-Tribune's top brass "The Women's All-Star Newspaper Team."
Some staffers credit McFarlin, a neat-as-a-pin, personable boss who lists former New York Times editor Seymour Topping among her mentors, with setting the stage for the rise of women in the paper's newsroom. The publisher quickly disavows any grand hiring scheme. "I wanted the best possible talent I could find. I never considered whether that person was male, female, black or white. It's just that the pool of female talent is much deeper today," says McFarlin. "We don't hire by gender, no matter how it looks."
The three editors agree that they have a different management style than the male bosses who preceded them. They are more nurturing and pay more attention to employees' private and family lives, they say. They do more explaining and opinion-seeking with the staff of 164 and more outreach to the community. These differences aren't necessarily gender-based; they reflect changes taking place in the industry as a whole.
The fact that Weaver considered hiring an archrival for a top job shows a different leadership style, says Armao. The two openly talked about the tensions between them when Armao came to interview. "We were both very clear that we wanted to have the kind of relationship where we could argue and disagree," says Weaver. "I think because we talked through so much of this so openly before she took the job, our working relationship was able to develop a level of trust and comfort very quickly, and that's something the newsroom has definitely picked up on."
MCFARLIN, WEAVER AND ARMAO believe the morning and afternoon budget meetings have taken on a lighter air with more laughter, more cheerleading when reporters break stories, more collaboration. Weaver likens the atmosphere to a support group. "I don't remember being in meetings with male editors where it was like that," says the veteran editor, who has worked at the Virginian-Pilot and Wichita Eagle.
Weaver suggests that men in charge often move methodically, completing one point before moving to the next. Women, she says, are more likely to zig and zag between points, building off each other's ideas and creating a more circular conversation. While it might appear digressive, "We've never come out of a meeting when we haven't dealt with every item on the agenda," she says. "I do believe this is reflective of how women communicate with each other."
The women feel they're more astute at reading body language and gauging the emotional temperatures of their employees, and that they're more approachable. "People make fun of us because we're so loud and yell around the corner at each other," says Armao. "I was told when the boys were here, that didn't happen. There's a different kind of camaraderie. Not better, just different."
The difference is apparent in the newsroom, as well. Once, as reporters struggled through pagination, Weaver and AME Sara Quinn walked through the newsroom, flinging stuffed spiders and other insects that giggled hysterically as they slammed down on desks. "People looked at us like we were insane," Weaver recalls. "It was a loosening up kind of thing."
Then there is the legendary "I'm a Little Teapot" incident. On a dare one day, Armao and Quinn hopped onto chairs and serenaded their somewhat embarrassed staff with the preschool jingle. Armao says they wanted to show the staff that "we are not formidable and that working at a newspaper ought to be fun."
Finally, there are the infamous "pie nights." "I don't know if it's the nurturing thing or whether it's to make [the workplace] more social," says Weaver. "But food definitely has taken on a more important role."
However, Amazonia has not come about without occasional flare-ups of sexism, according to Herald-Tribune staffers. Once, a male job candidate wondered aloud if the three top editors were lesbians, playing favorites and only hiring friends and lovers. "That speaks to where we still are," says McFarlin. "But I think we have to be careful about being overly sensitive." A reporter was overheard in the men's room talking about the "female mafia." Another time the reference was to the "chicks in charge."
Those incidents appear to be the exception.
While the newsroom may be a bit more touchy-feely than in the past, employees say the same isn't true of their coverage. "We're a little louder in the newsroom, but it's a more exciting place to work and there is more energy than there's ever been," says Executive News Editor Kyle Booth, a 30-year veteran who has survived four publishers. "I think we are more competitive, aggressive and have harder-edged coverage than any time since I've been here."
Over Thanksgiving, the paper ran several stories about homeless children in Sarasota, who are often overlooked because of the city's widespread wealth. A series of articles throughout 2000 scrutinized the superintendent of Sarasota schools and his management style (he tried to push a tax hike through the state Legislature without voter approval, for instance). The superintendent has since resigned. In July, the paper published its largest investigative project to date, a three-part series on the Florida hot-button topic of rebuilding beaches.
The staff expects that trend to continue under Armao. The Syracuse University graduate--top of her class--turned down the first job she was offered in the 1970s because it was in the "women's department." That came at a time, she says, when greater numbers of females were entering the profession, sparking predictions and concerns that newsrooms would become "pink collar ghettos" where women in charge would soften the news.
In her feisty, blunt style, Armao calls those concerns of the '70s and '80s "bullshit." "By just looking at the content, you couldn't tell this paper is run by women. We are just as aggressive and demanding of excellence as any male editor," she says.
Armao is often seen in the newsroom, coaching reporters and editors. She tells them to "take the cute" out of stories and go for the jugular. "Rosemary wants to go for kick-ass coverage.... She raises the bar, there is no doubt about it," says senior editor Jay Goley, who has been at the paper since 1986. "She's set new standards for excellence in reporting and writing--different standards than we had before.... If it's not quality, she doesn't want it."
Armao, 50, and McFarlin, 46, grew up in the business working almost totally for male editors. Weaver's first three supervisors were women, but the 37-year-old found herself the only woman at the editors' table at the Virginian-Pilot.
After six years on the news side at the now-defunct Sarasota Journal, McFarlin joined the Herald-Tribune's features department in 1982. As with many journalists her age, it was men in the newsroom, not women, who influenced her career. McFarlin lavishes praise on key male mentors. First there was the hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor who hired her at Florida's Lake Wales Daily Highlander and another editor there who provided candid feedback and once read one of her leads out loud to the staff. "After that, I was addicted," she recalls.
Years later, Seymour Topping became a trusted mentor. The two met after the Times Co. purchased the Herald-Tribune in 1982 and Topping was sent to help with reorganization and redesign. "I was so blessed to have men like that who were gender blind," McFarlin says.
STILL, THE TRIO DIDN'T get to their lofty positions without making personal sacrifices. For McFarlin, Weaver and Armao, that included ruined and strained marriages, living apart from loved ones and delaying motherhood.
McFarlin's 17-year marriage to her high school sweetheart ended when "he got tired of calling me up and saying, 'I've got dinner ready. When are you coming home?' Unfortunately, I found that nothing was as stimulating as the newsroom. Nothing was as interesting or enjoyable," she says.
Yes, she does regret not having children. "It was something I intended to do. It just didn't work out," the publisher says. Then, after a moment of silence, she adds, "I am so envious of men who can have it all--a career and a home front that's safe. A wife who looks out for their lives and raises their kids. There is no one to help me get that done." McFarlin points to Weaver as a model for doing a "remarkable job" of balancing work and private life.
But early in her career, Weaver purposely delayed marriage and motherhood until she was promoted to deputy managing editor at the Virginian-Pilot. "I was very ambitious and I worried marriage would hold me back," she admits. Instead, she lived with her future husband, also a journalist who worked at the Virginian-Pilot, for nine years to avoid professional complications such as nepotism.
Today, her two young children are the focal point of her life. When it's a choice between her children's needs and the newsroom, there is no contest, she says. But Weaver has an advantage that most female journalists can only dream of: a marital partner who stays home to manage the household, make doctor's appointments, shop for groceries and mind the kids.
When she was the ME at the Wichita Eagle, her husband, Mark, was the business editor. After they moved to Sarasota in 1997, he decided to stay at home until their son and daughter reached school age. "There is absolutely no way I could do this if he hadn't made that choice," Weaver says.
After Armao was named director of Investigative Reporters and Editors in 1994, she brought new meaning to the term "commuter marriage." The position demanded a move to Columbia, Missouri, a universe away from the life in Virginia that she shared with three sons, who today range in age from 14 to 24, and her husband, a research scientist. Given the demands of the high-profile job and the complications of traveling from rural Missouri to Norfolk, she seldom made it home.
"I ran away from my family for six years," says Armao. "I am a terrible workaholic. People say, 'You need a life.' I ask, 'Why?' For me, life on the outside isn't as interesting as in this newsroom."
Her family now lives with her in Sarasota.
Armao notes that when she was having babies, maternity leave or flexible hours for newsroom staff was a rarity. If her sons were sick or had a school play, she didn't feel she could go to an editor and ask for time off. Instead, she would say that she was working on a story. "It was a risk, and I would be a nervous wreck," she recalls. "My children were a secret, and they always shared me with the newsroom."
The three managers feel that the personal dilemmas they faced years ago might be defused for women--and men--entering the profession today. They see signs among their own staff that the newsroom culture is changing (see "Deconstructing the Newsroom"). Young journalists balk at a feverish work ethic that demands grueling 14-hour days and little time off. "We are seeing a generation of people who don't feel they have to give up their life to have a rewarding career in journalism," Weaver says. That, she believes, could lead to a more hospitable workplace where nurturing is valued.
BUT SOME WORRY THAT a nurturing atmosphere can have its downsides.
Armao talks fondly of the old-style newsroom where editors chain-smoked, bellowed at reporters and took swigs out of bottles of vodka they kept in desk drawers. Does pampering the staff with a lemon-pie-and-brownies mentality soften a hard edge?
"Sometimes, I worry that it does," says the editor, who started as a reporter--briefly--for New York's Gloversville Leader-Herald before moving to Albany's Knickerbocker News. "Maybe we are softer and coddle reporters. Maybe it does relate to the fact that we are women."
Armao worries that some of her reporters--men and women alike--lack a hard edge and are soft on people. They don't ask tough questions or write stories in the sharpest way, she says. "I'm trying to teach them to go for the jugular--that's part of journalism. And to be more like the old-timers without the smoking and drinking."
Art and architecture critic Joan Altabe, who has been at the paper since 1986, says the staff appreciates caring gestures, such as the day Weaver brought in chocolate treats when the frazzled staff was learning how to use a new computer system. "Janet didn't just give it to a secretary to bring out to us. She came into the newsroom with the candy herself," the critic says. "It was mommy, taking care of her kids."
Still, Altabe says she finds some of those nurturing acts demeaning, and worries that they perpetuate stereotypes of women.
Goley says he wonders if the changes at the paper are due more to personality than gender. "Nobody yells at me anymore. People are friendlier." It used to be, says Goley, that if a reporter called a top editor or the publisher, they were left with the feeling that "they had better things to do than listen to you. Today, that has changed. People actually communicate in our newsroom. That improved a lot since Janet arrived."
Perhaps one of the biggest differences is that the editors are more flexible, especially for staffers juggling child care.
City Editor Lou Ferrara, 30, in his seventh year at the paper, has worked mostly for female bosses. "The men I worked for were great guys, but they led a life I did not desire. They were at the office all the time and spent no time with their kids. At many papers, it is the old school of journalism. Editors and reporters tend to forget they lead a real life."
Ferrara says the paper fosters a flexibility "that does not exist in other places." He says he has turned down other job opportunities because, "I like who I'm working for. We have a happy staff for the most part. I'm willing to work harder and give it all I've got. My payoff is time at home."
Ferrara's schedule allows him to spend time with 3-year-old son Maxwell after preschool classes some afternoons before returning to work. One male reporter has to pick up his child twice a week at 4 p.m. Another reporter has "homework night" with his child on Wednesdays. When breaking news comes up, reporters might have to shift gears. But Ferrara finds that reporters tend to be more productive when their bosses are flexible.
Ferrara questions a management approach where "you can't make anything happen without driving people nuts and driving people out." The biggest difference at the paper, he says, is not in the areas of news judgment and decision making. It is in how the top brass handles people.
IT IS EARLY AFTERNOON AND` news is breaking in Sarasota. Two high-profile murder suspects have surrendered to police and have been delivered to the courthouse. Ferrara is talking on two phones at once, issuing orders. Armao rushes up to her city editor and asks, "Did we have anyone there?" Ferrara informs her that a reporter happened to be on the scene when the story broke and had excellent color. ###
The ME looks to the heavens, strikes a dramatic pose and shouts, "Thank you, journalism god!" Ferrara rolls his eyes at his managing editor and, after answering her series of rapid-fire questions about the coverage, says, "Now, go away!" They exchange playful glances as he grabs a ringing cell phone.
Armao rushes to her office to prepare for the 3:30 p.m. budget meeting and begins pounding notes into her computer.
"Gawd, this is great!"