More Women Become Newspaper Publishers

By: Joe Strupp

Denise Palmer had been publisher of The Sun in Baltimore, her first time ever in such a post, for less than a year last June when the Tribune Co. paper faced one of its toughest labor battles ever. For weeks leading up to the end of its last contract, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild made sure readers knew negotiations were not going well, and made clear a strike would occur on June 24 when the previous agreement expired.

For Palmer, the ultimatum did not mean backing down on issues such as a wage freeze and a new merit raise system that she and the paper considered important. Instead, management made moves to bring in scab employees from other Tribune papers to publish during a likely walkout. Faced with such a counterattack, and fears that a strike could drag on and eventually kill the union, the guild voted 319 to 102 to accept a new four-year deal, even though Guild president Bill Salganik admitted he did not support it.

“Nobody liked the contract,” Salganik said at the time. “But the message was, ‘do what we say or you will be sorry’.”

Palmer, a 23-year Tribune Co. veteran and only the second woman publisher in The Sun‘s 166-year history, said she approached the union issues with a fair but hard-line approach, knowing the paper needed certain concessions. “I suspect they thought I would be easier on them than a man would be,” Palmer, 46, says. “There is a natural tendency to think that, but I think they found it wasn’t true.”

Baltimore is not the only place where newspaper employees, readers and observers are finding women a powerful force in the publisher’s chair. Stereotypes and prejudices that have kept women out of the front office for years seem to be fading, according to statistics that show the percentage of women holding the publisher title at top papers more than doubling in the past three years. Although women still make up a small fraction of the publishers at the country’s highest-circulation papers, surveys and anecdotal information suggest they are being given more opportunities at smaller papers, as well as middle- and upper-management spots at major papers that are a prerequisite for promotion.

But even with opportunities opening up, the percentage of women running newspapers still lags far behind the number of women who read them or hold upper management spots in many other industries. Partly this is because many of them find it difficult to take on the responsibility of a top post due to the demands of a home life, if they have children. A number of female publishers who spoke with E&P admit they would have had a more difficult road to the top if they had youngsters to raise.

“I see women with kids struggle with the kind of work they have to do,” says Susan Hunt, 42, who became the first woman publisher of The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., two years ago and has no children. “You find a lot of high-level executive women in this industry who have to make a choice to have a career.”

Still, women are reaching publisher positions at a rate markedly higher than just a few years ago. Although women have held publisher spots at major newspapers — among them, Katharine Graham of The Washington Post and Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post — they had not taken the power positions in large numbers until recently.

Whether the increase is due to newspapers and owners making a concerted effort to hire more women, as some executives contend, or the result of a long-running push by women to work their way to the top, the influence of women in publisher’s positions is being seen more than ever. “The increase has been on the slow side, but I think it has been an effort on the part of newspaper companies to do it,” says John F. Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America.

The numbers don’t lie

According to a survey just completed by the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, which looked at all 137 daily newspapers with a circulation of more than 85,000, 18% of them now have female publishers, compared to 14% last year and just 8% in 2000. In raw numbers, that means 25 of the 137 papers have female publishers, more than double the count from just three years ago.

The same survey showed the number of women editors at the same papers also increasing, from 26 in 2002 to 30 this year, a rise from 20% to 22%.

The female-publisher numbers are better than the percentage of women in Congress, which stands at 14% in the House and the Senate, but below the 21% of college presidents who are women, according to a recent study in Fortune magazine. That same review estimated that women make up only 8% of corporate top-level executive positions, and revealing that just eight of the Fortune 500 CEOs are female.

While only four of the top 30 circulation papers have women publishers, all of those women were appointed since 1999, with two of them promoted within the last two years. So while the percentages remain low in the upper ranks, the speed with which they are improving indicates women are getting more of a chance at the top newspaper publishing posts.

“It is not surprising, given that women have been in the workforce in this industry in considerable numbers for years,” says Karen Elliott House, who was named publisher of The Wall Street Journal last year after nearly 30 years at Dow Jones and Company, which owns the Journal. “Women have earned the opportunity.”

But even though House has nearly 30 years of experience with the Journal, dating back to her start in the paper’s Washington bureau, her appointment to publisher did not come without some accusations of favoritism since her husband is Peter R. Kann, chairman and CEO of Dow Jones & Co.

Along with Palmer and House, the other female publishers at the top 30 newspapers are Linda Dennery of the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. and Sue Clark-Johnson of the Arizona Republic. Clark-Johnson is also one of more than two dozen female publishers at Gannett Co. Inc., which boasts 25 of its 94 papers run by females. Known historically as one of the first companies to begin training women for top newspaper executive positions as far back as 25 years ago, Gannett officials say allowing them to earn their way to the top is just good business.

“The key is to reinforce that you are expanding your talent pool,” says Jose Berrios, Gannett vice president for human resources and diversity. “We have a lot of talented women in our workforce.” He also points out that four of Gannett’s eight newspaper groups are headed by women, helping to keep equal opportunity a top priority.

Gannett’s efforts to train women for top management began in the early 1980s, according to Berrios, when the company started placing women as “executive assistants” to publishers, a post that eventually led them to overseeing their own papers. “They basically showed them how to run a newspaper for a year or two and then they were assigned to a newspaper,” he says. “That program no longer exists, but it has led to real management development programs around the country that continue to train them for the role of publisher.”

Several of today’s Gannett publishers include women who have been with the company for decades and credit its early diversity with giving them a chance. “When I went to my first newspaper, I think there were only about 12 women publishers in the Gannett chain,” says Nancy Monaghan, four-year publisher of Gannett’s The Daily Journal in Vineland, N.J., who has also run Gannett papers in Huntington, W.Va., and Chambersburg, Pa., during her 14 years with the company. She adds, “Women publishers are not such an odd thing here.”

Barbara Henry, publisher of The Indianapolis Star, could be the poster child for Gannett diversity. Having been with the company for nearly 30 years, she made history as the first woman publisher at three Gannett papers — the Star, The Des Moines Register, and The Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune. “We hardly talk about it anymore, it is not a big deal,” she says. “When I started at those papers there was a reaction at first, but after that it was invisible.”

Do-right women

At the Tribune Co., which ranks second among major newspaper chains in percentage of publishers that are women, the numbers also have been rising quickly. Among its 10 daily papers, four have women publishers, with all of them having been appointed within the past three years.

In addition to Palmer, who took over in Baltimore a year ago, the company installed Hunt in Allentown in 2001 and Kathy Waltz became the first female publisher at the Orlando Sentinel in 2000. Waltz had previously made history as the first woman publisher at Tribune’s Daily Press in Newport News, Va., where she served from 1998 to 2000 before being replaced by another woman, Rondra Matthews, who still holds that post.

“If you let women rise, they rise,” says Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co. But Fuller stresses that newspaper companies have to make sure women are given the training and the lower management experience needed to qualify for top publisher roles. “You have to have people who make these decisions who are open to moving women into those jobs,” he explains. “All you have to do is let rational thinking lead you.”

But none of these top company executives are giving women publisher jobs out of charity. Each is quick to admit that no publisher, man or woman, is going to last very long if they are not doing well. “They have to be the best person for the job,” says Gary Pruitt, CEO of The McClatchy Company, which is the only major newspaper chain with more women publishers than men. “There is no goal set out, they just happen to be the best people.”

With six of its 11 daily newspapers headed by women, McClatchy boasts the highest percentage of women publishers of any major newspaper company, according to the Media Management Center study. Asked if the women publishers are holding their own, Pruitt points to statistics that show circulation increases and ad revenue surges that rival those of any McClatchy newspapers run by men.

McClatchy’s flagship, The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, for example, has averaged a 4.5% advertising revenue jump each of the past five years, while circulation has increased 3.5% over that entire span. Pruitt credited much of the gain to publisher Janice Heaphy, who has operated the paper for three years. But McClatchy’s best scorecard may belong to Sara Borton, the 10-year publisher of the chain’s Hilton Head (S.C.) Island Packet, where circulation has increased an average of 3.9% annually under her leadership, with ad revenue up at a rate of 10.7% each year since 1993. “I would hope that it encourages other people to put women in the (publisher’s) position,” Borton, 44, says of her success. “Women can marshall the forces and operate with a vision.”

Six of Knight Ridder’s 31 newspapers have women publishers, all but one appointed since 2000. Company officials credit the increase to ongoing training of women for top management positions. Knight Ridder Chairman and CEO Anthony Ridder did not respond to requests for comment, but said in an interview last year that preparing women for top jobs was crucial to the company’s diversity goals. “The first thing we do when we have an opening, is say ‘what women do we have in the pipeline [to fill it] and what minorities do we have?’,” Ridder told E&P in 2002.

Knight Ridder also boasts several female corporate executives, including Hilary Schneider, president and CEO of Knight Ridder Digital, and senior vice presidents Mary Jean Connors, Alice Wang, and Jenny Fielder. “They do a lot of recruiting and promote a more diverse pool,” says Jayne Speizer, who became publisher of Knight Ridder’s The Herald in Monterey, Calif. in February and whose executive editor and editorial page editor also are women. “There are always diversity goals and training.”

Gender a non-issue for some

But the success stories for women publishers do not make up the entire picture. Some newspaper executives and independent owners say female promotions are a non-issue, the playing field is level and, if women deserve the jobs, they can earn them.

“It seems inconsequential to me,” says J. Stewart Bryan, CEO of Media General inc. which has 25 daily newspapers, including the flagship Richmond Times-Dispatch, and only one woman publisher. “We look for the best person for the job and it doesn’t have to be a man, a woman or a hermaphrodite.” He also criticizes those who would seek to fill a publisher’s role with a woman partly because of her sex. “You don’t have to have the same percentage of females in the job as there are [females] in the country,” he adds. “It does not have to be the same ratio.”

Several women publishers contend that while they are accepted for the most part, there are enough roadblocks and prejudice remaining to make the equality difficult.

“It is certainly not an equal playing field,” says Stephanie Pressly, the newly named publisher of the Idaho Press-Tribune in Nampa, who spent five years at the nearby Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. “I have been in some very conservative communities and there have been undertones here and there. At industry meetings, I am far outnumbered.”

Marcia McQuern, who served as publisher of The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. from 1994 to 2002 and was the first female president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, echoes Pressly’s view. “It’s not Nirvana,” she says of the state of women in publisher jobs. “There are still not that many women at the top levels, but it is getting better.”

“I do hear from women that people still call their offices and want to speak with a man,” says Virginia Morehouse, publisher and chairman of the board at The Bakersfield Californian (and this year’s E&P Publisher of the Year). House, of The Wall Street Journal, contends that some executives still view women as being less ambitious. “There is a tendency to look at women as having jobs, and men as having careers,” she says. “There is less of a tendency to help a woman plot her career.”

Not exactly a family affair

Beyond any prejudice or lack of training or even poor performance are the ongoing demands that many women face trying to balance a home life and family with the responsibilities of newspaper executive work. Nearly all of the female publishers who spoke with E&P have no children and say that made it easier for them to work their way to the top.

“That is a huge issue,” says Monaghan of the Daily Journal in New Jersey, who is divorced with no children. “There are no 9-to-5 jobs in the newspaper business.” The Allentown Morning Call‘s Hunt, who is unmarried and childless, agrees. “You find a lot of high-level executive women in this profession who make a choice to have a career,” she says. “I see women with kids struggle.”

For Pressly in Idaho, having two children and running a daily paper is only possible because her husband, Rod, a former editor, stays home to take care of them. “I have been fortunate,” she says. “Most newspapers are not on the edge of employee flexibility.”

Hunt feels the situation can only change if newspaper owners, large and small, make a real effort to be flexible around family issues so women can have it all. “There is always going to be a limit to accommodating,” she adds. “On a broad basis, most women are choosing not to do both.”

But not every woman is willing to be flexible and many opt for the home life over top management, according to Mike Reed, president and CEO of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Although his company boasts 21 women publishers among its 100 daily papers, he says finding qualified women for the top management slots remains tough. “When you have an opening, 80% of the resumes are from men,” he declares. “There is less of a pool. The industry has not done enough to help that.”

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One thought on “More Women Become Newspaper Publishers

  • February 28, 2019 at 6:42 am

    Isabell Iorfida was the publisher/ owner of the Bollingbrook , romeoville, lisle, lemont Ill. 1978 to 1984
    ” the Beacon ”
    Isabell Iorfida she was 41 years old at the time
    the papers “The Beacon” were sold to the Naperville Sun in 1984.


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