Many people I’ve met throughout my adult life — especially during the period when I was climbing through the ranks of daily newspaper journalism and leading journalism academic programs — have asked me how I gained personal confidence and leadership chops as one of the first African-American women editors in daily metropolitan newspaper newsrooms.
As a student, I was editor of my high school and college newspapers. In the 11th grade, I took a my first journalism class, taught by Mrs. Ella P. Law. She was an English teacher who was demanding and strict in her classes. As I recall, my best friend, Virginia and I were looking for a class that would be a diversion from all of the challenging math, science and language courses that we were required to take in our college track curriculum. We chose Journalism I, the first of two journalism courses.
At the end of our junior year, Mrs. Law pulled me aside and said she wanted to appoint me editor of our school newspaper if I would be willing to take Journalism II as a senior. She said she recognized that not only was I a good writer, but she noticed my leadership skills.
I accepted the appointment and earned an A in both of the journalism classes. I was on my way to identifying my career, with aspirations for newsroom leadership.
After only a handful of years in entry-level newsroom roles as a copy editor, I started zooming up the career ladder in bigger roles at newspapers in Providence, RI, Miami, Washington, D.C., and other cities until I reached my career goal as executive editor, the top newsroom position, in Montgomery, AL. Along the way, I was the founding executive director of a program to teach journalism to non-traditional students, and eventually I became department chair for journalism and mass communications at a university in Savannah, returning (and coming full circle) after the long career in newsrooms. Through the years, I ran news meetings, hired and trained staff, created internship programs, joined industry boards and committees and did lots of public speaking.
Ultimately, while my title was editor, my duties were so much more when I took on leadership roles. In several cases I was engaging commercial realtors and shopping for new newsroom space in New York and Los Angeles, helping to design newsrooms, managing tens of millions of budget dollars, launching new news products, serving as a project manager, working on community service activities and responding to readers when they had issues with coverage. It was also my responsibility to help support the strategic plan of newspapers to be sure we were reaching our audiences in ways that supported the company’s financial goals.
One thing I learned is to take advantage of every reasonable opportunity that comes along, even if it seemed impossible to fit it into my life. My personal confidence and leadership came from years of participating in leadership classes and with opportunities to lead. I rarely sought new opportunities; they mostly came to me.
One opportunity that I almost passed up came in June 1987, a year after I joined the staff of USA Today, the national Gannett newspaper that was just three years old at the time I started as deputy managing editor of the Cover Stories team. Ron Martin, USA Today’s executive editor who was the editor who had hired me as a copy editor at The Miami Herald 13 years before, called me into his office one day.
“I want you to consider this program,” he said, pushing a brochure across his desk for me to review.
The program was MTC — The Management Training Center at Northwestern University, based at what was then the Kellogg Graduate School of Business (now “Management”). The eight-week program in Evanston, IL, north of Chicago, was an intensive course to train newspaper professionals and get them ready to become top leaders. I learned that the program was loosely known as a “mini-MBA” for newspaper professionals, or “publisher’s school.”
I scanned the brochure, which indicated that training would take place five to six days a week, that participants would be required to work in cohorts to produce a case study using the instructional topics of circulation math (ugh, my least favorite subject in school), managing change in a corporate environment, business ethics, conflict resolution, performance assessment, marketing and advertising, media law and antitrust, joint ventures, women and minorities in management, strategic planning, information systems, capital and operational budgeting, First Amendment issues, and aspects of production and pressroom leadership. A few weeks into the program participants would be required to complete a two-week, on-site, internship-type visit to a newspaper to work side by side with a publisher, the CEO of a newspaper, to put into practice many of the concepts we learned in the classroom.
The curriculum outline was daunting, but that’s not what made me hesitate.
“Ron, this is flattering but I can’t possibly be gone for two months,” I found myself telling this generous man who was showing his confidence in me.
“I can’t possibly leave my family and go off to school,” I responded, thinking about my husband and assuming he could not take care of our daughter, Shelby, who was four years old at the time, without me.
“Take this,” he responded, pushing the brochure that I had put down back across his desk toward me. “Think about it overnight.”
That evening during our dinner conversation, I said to my husband, Willie: “You’ll never guess what Ron wants me to do,” sharing some of my conversation from earlier that day.
“And why can’t you go?” he asked me.
Before the evening was over, my husband who for more than four decades has encouraged me in everything I’ve ever endeavored to do, had taken the lead to cobble together an amazing support group that included next-door neighbors on both sides (who would care for Shelby in the morning when he went to work), another neighbor down the street who would deliver her son and Shelby to the same summer camp, and his sister who would take some of the weekend duty by having Shelby stay with her family, which included Shelby’s sister-cousin, Jessica, two years old at the time. Weekend duty meant making sure the girls got to the youth choir practice at our church on Saturday mornings and to church services on Sunday. They all wanted me to feel confident that this village of support would nurture Shelby, and that I should not pass up this opportunity at Northwestern.
The next day I confidently went into Ron’s office and accepted the opportunity to accept enrollment in the program at Northwestern, which USA TODAY supported financially.
I was no stranger to professional challenges. I’m the Georgia girl who accepted a newspaper internship all the way in Rhode Island, and returned there after college for two years for my first full-time job. I’m the one who had the guts to successfully ask my managing editor to give me a three-month leave of absence in Rhode Island so I could go to New York City to teach and edit in the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at Columbia University (at 22, I was younger than all of the students in the program that summer). I’m the one who moved to several states, each time accepting another great professional opportunity that came my way. I’m the one who took a sizeable pay cut when my husband and I considered the benefits of me leaving a big newspaper and taking on a bigger role in a smaller newsroom. I’m the one who was the first African-American and/or the first female in more roles than I can count.
I’m the one who led a big national survey called “Muted Voices: Frustration and Fear in the Newsroom” for the National Association of Black Journalists. It was a survey that forced the media industry to revisit the dialogue about why black journalists were not being hired or promoted at a rate that would bring parity to newsrooms and racial accuracy to news reports. I’m the one who left daily newspaper journalism and dragged my family across a couple of states to become the founding executive director the Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University, a program to recruit and train non-traditional people of color and prepare them for guaranteed newsroom jobs. I’m the one who walked away from that program (best job I ever had) to return to daily journalism to take a role at my last newspaper, as executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, my dream job and my career goal.
I am also the one who never rejected newspaper industry change and always embraced new technology, sometimes raising my hand to be a beta tester for new systems.
Confidence comes from finding ways to stay a step ahead of the game and also believing in yourself so you can say “yes” when opportunities come along.