Study: Fewer Women Hold Top Editor Jobs

By: Joe Strupp

Correction posted at 11:10 a.m., Sept. 20: The original version of this story inaccurately characterized the timeline of Vivian Waixel’s rise to the editorship of The Record in Hackensack, N.J. In fact, she joined the newspaper in 1972 and was named editor in 1997, a span of 25 years.

Although Chicago had four daily newspapers in 1972, Ellen Soeteber had essentially one option when she went looking for her first newspaper job in the Windy City that year. Because of informal in-house rules limiting the number of women reporters to a handful at the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, and Chicago Tribune, Soeteber could work only for Chicago Today, she recalls.

“It was not that unusual at the time,” says Soeteber, now 52 and the first woman editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “There has been a lot of change in just my time in the business.”

But is it lasting change? Or are recent promotions of women to top editor slots at major newspapers a fleeting fad that masks a continuing problem?

While the appointments of women editors for the first time at papers such as the Detroit Free Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and others have raised hopes that women are finally gaining more newsroom power, other data suggest the rise may be illusory.

Among the nation’s top 30 daily-circulation newspapers, only eight have women editors. Of those 30 papers, 19 have changed editors within the past three years, with only four choosing women to fill the vacant posts. Three of the papers — the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and The Arizona Republic in Phoenix — chose to replace departing women with men.

According to a study released in June by the Media Management Center, a training and research program at Northwestern University, the percentage of top editor positions held by women at major papers actually has declined over the past two years, to 20% this year from 25% in 2000. The study, which covered all 137 newspapers with daily circulation of more than 85,000, revealed that the number of women holding the highest editor posts at those papers dropped to 26 this year from 34 two years ago.

The reasons for the reduction vary, according to researchers, who say sexism and discrimination can be blamed for only part of the disparity. Research indicates more women are declining the top editing jobs, or are facing obstacles in getting them, because they want to devote more time to their families. Other findings, based on E&P interviews with more than a dozen current or former top women editors, suggest that the status of women in the newsroom hierarchy is stagnant because of their limited social access to higher-ranking executives who hire editors.

“It is not always overt sexism,” says Mary Arnold Hemlinger, head of the journalism and mass communication department at South Dakota State University and one of the key researchers on the Media Management Center study. “A lot of it is cultural. Women are not networking as much and are more in the caretaker role at home.”

Still, Hemlinger and others in the industry — both men and women — say the fact that women hold less than a quarter of the most powerful editor jobs is a sign that some sexism is at work. Women at the very least are not being given equal consideration for top jobs at the same rate as men, even when it is purely neglect and not blatant discrimination.

“You have to look a little harder because female candidates [for top spots] might not be so visible,” says Timothy M. Kelly, president and publisher of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, who hired the paper’s first woman editor, Pam Luecke, in 1996 and replaced her with another woman, Amanda Bennett, when Luecke left for a teaching position last year. “You have to do your homework,” Kelly says.

Gregory Moore, the recently hired editor of The Denver Post and chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) diversity committee, agrees. “Guys have an advantage,” he says, “because guys make the decisions.”

Buffaloing the lyin’ king

Margaret Sullivan had been editor of The Buffalo (N.Y.) News for less than a year when she made noise at ASNE’s 2000 annual conference in Washington by sparking the biggest news story of the day. After Sullivan asked a startled President Clinton if he would accept a pardon from Al Gore were Gore to become president, the president was forced for the first time to confront the issue, responding with a firm “No,” making front-page news.

In a way, Sullivan’s aggressive move, made in a room with male editors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other big-city papers who declined to press the president on a significant campaign issue, signaled yet again that women editors could mix it up with the big boys.

More than two years later, Sullivan believes women have continued to make their mark and have, essentially, broken through the newsroom-leadership “glass ceiling.” She cites first-time women editors such as Ann Marie Lipinski at the Chicago Tribune and Karen Jurgensen at USA Today. “I think I have a lot more company than I did three years ago,” says Sullivan, who began at the News as an intern in 1980. “Newspaper journalism seems to be open to women in the top spots. I don’t see any grand plan — I think it is happening naturally.”

Other first-timers concur, claiming demands for women to quickly reach the 50% level among newsroom bosses — which would about match their numbers in the general population and, incidentally, among newspaper readers — are unrealistic and that equal-rights activists should instead seek the slow growth they claim is happening, at least among larger papers.

“There was a huge stall for about a decade in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” says Sandra Mims Rowe, one of the industry’s veteran editors with 19 years in the top spot. She was the first woman editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, from 1983 to 1993, and currently is editor of The Oregonian in Portland. “For a while, there were always five or six of us, and that was it. Now it is getting a lot better.”

Carole Leigh Hutton, who became the first woman editor at the Detroit Free Press in June, succeeding the late Robert G. McGruder, agrees. “I don’t think it’s unusual or exceptional anymore,” Hutton says.

Others are not so sure. “We’ve chipped at the glass ceiling, but we haven’t broken through,” says Jodi Enda, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder and president of Journalism And Women Symposium (JAWS). “You can name a number of women who are [editors] at major papers, but it’s still just a small percentage.”

Pam Johnson, who served as executive editor of The Arizona Republic from 1996 to 2001, also thinks the number of women editors remains too low. “I share concerns about women still not being at the top levels,” says Johnson, who took a teaching position at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., after an ownership change at the paper. “It seems like we’re stalled, and I don’t know why.”

Fitting the job to the tee

Most publishers contend that a major requirement in choosing an editor is finding someone who shares their vision for the paper, their approach to news coverage and daily operations — be it man or woman. In theory, that approach should put most candidates on an even playing field as they contend for the top editor’s spot. In reality, however, it tends to give a man the advantage if the one doing the hiring is also a man.

“The male culture at newspapers tends to be self-perpetuating,” the Media Management Center study states. “Those in control follow the human tendency to hire and promote others like themselves.” Ten of the 15 CEOs and presidents interviewed for the study said the informal network at newspapers still favors men, researchers add.

While the same study indicates the percentage of women publishers is up, to 14% this year from a paltry 8% in 2000, the group hiring top editors is still overwhelmingly male and likely to hire other males. “They are not playing racquetball with the publisher or meeting in the locker room,” Enda of JAWS says of women editor candidates. “We don’t play the political game that men have mastered in order to climb the ladder.”

Jurgensen of USA Today says the favoritism can change only if pressure is put on newspaper owners to give women an equal look. “It takes company executives who will make it a priority to promote women for women to get hired,” says Jurgensen. “It takes really proactive management.”

All shook up

Publishers also seem to be taking fewer risks with women they don’t know than with men they don’t know, seeking to promote women to top editor jobs from inside the organization instead of going outside. Among women editors hired at major papers in recent years, nearly all — such as Jurgensen, Lipinski, Hutton, and Sullivan, as well as Executive Editor Vivian Waixel of The Record in Hackensack, N.J., Melanie Sill of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and Vicki Gowler of the Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press — already were employed there.

“I think there was a relief that there would be a continuity,” says Hutton, who had served as managing editor for six years prior to taking the top post. “They knew me. They knew what to expect.”

But waiting for your chance and putting in the time at a newspaper doesn’t always mean a promotion at the end of the tunnel. Just ask Pam Fine, who served as managing editor for eight years at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, only to be passed over for the editor’s job this year when Editor Tim J. McGuire retired.

Fine, 45, didn’t wait long to leave the paper after President and Publisher J. Keith Moyer chose Anders Gyllenhaal of The News & Observer to replace McGuire, announcing her resignation within a few weeks. “When I was leaving, many women staffers came to talk to me about how much they valued having a woman in the top leadership roles,” Fine tells E&P. “I think they felt a kinship.” Moyer did not return calls seeking comment on Fine’s departure.

It is hard to write off Fine’s experience as sheer sexism — or, on the other hand, sour grapes — given the many elements involved in a publisher’s choice of an editor. Moyer may have wanted to find an outsider to give the paper a fresh viewpoint, or he may not have shared a certain vision for the paper with Fine.

In the ghetto

Still, it points to the fact that many publishers who are happy to hire women as managing editors, as metro editors, and for other supervisory posts, remain reluctant to promote women to the highest jobs. Some longtimers contend that certain newspapers believe having a woman in the second-tier or third-tier positions of power is enough.

“It’s become the ghetto,” says Arlene Morgan, a workshop director at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and former assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, describing the managing-editor position for women. “I think some places want a mix — that means a woman managing editor and a male editor.”

Statistics show women are making some strides at the managing-editor level, with the percentage of women among managing editors in the top papers at 39%, according to the Media Management Center study. That’s a slight increase from 38% in 2000 — and nearly twice the percentage of women in top editor slots.

Some industry leaders believe women need to first hold those secondary jobs for experience before grabbing top editors’ spots. “It takes a certain amount of training and time to become qualified,” says Allen H. Neuharth, retired chairman and CEO of Gannett Co. Inc. and the creator of USA Today. “More men than women have been there longer, and there are still some decision-makers who don’t believe woman should be in those [top editor] positions — that will be overcome.”

The Record‘s Waixel, who spent about 20 years at her company before being named managing editor, agrees that time for training is important. “You have to have a meaningful pool to choose from,” she says. “You have to have people with the credentials in waiting.” But, she adds, that should not be used as an excuse to make women wait.

And it doesn’t explain why the number of women being hired as managing editors apparently is still going up, while the number reaching the next tier is going down.

Family ties

But even when women get that chance, a certain number are apt to turn down the promotion because they don’t want to put strain on their families and home lives, according to publishers and newsroom veterans. Although more working women are trying to “have it all” with a career and a family, few want to jump from the moderately heavy workload of a managing editor or metro editor to the even more demanding responsibilities of top editor.

“I’ve found it much harder to talk women into the roles of greater responsibility than I thought,” says Lipinski, who recalls her own decision to reject a promotion eight years ago when she was on maternity leave. “Many women don’t want to give up the time, or cannot give it up.” Julia Wallace, who became the first woman editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July, says juggling time for her 7- and 10-year-old daughters remains a tough task. “My kids were raised on many a copy desk,” Wallace says. “After Sept. 11, 2001, they didn’t see Mom for a month.”

Responding to the needs of today’s women as mothers, wives, and, often, family leaders, is occurring slowly in the industry. At least one newspaper, The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, has its own day-care center, while others have instituted more flexible schedules for all employees who must deal with family needs.

“It is a high priority for us,” declares Gary B. Pruitt, chairman and CEO of the McClatchy Co., the Bee‘s parent. “We strive to have a culture where there is a tolerance and acceptance of that diversity.”

Moore, ASNE’s diversity chairman, says more companies must follow the Bee‘s lead. “Newsrooms have got to become more family-friendly and mother-friendly,” he says. “Create an environment where someone with commitments to family can do it without sacrificing careers.”

Pressure points

While accolades and making history come with being named the first woman editor of a major newspaper, so does a special pressure to perform, some newswomen say. For at least a few, feeling that they are carrying the torch for women in the business can create even more anxiety in an already stressful job. Should they succeed, of course, the praise will come. But if they fail, does that mean another woman will have a tougher time getting the same job in the future?

“I wanted to do well and not let women down,” says Debby Krenek, who became the first woman editor of the New York Daily News in 1997 and was replaced in 2000 by Edward Kosner. “I felt like if I did a good job, it would help all women,” says Krenek, now associate editor for special projects for Newsday in Melville, N.Y.

Soeteber in St. Louis agrees. “There is still a fear that if you fail, they might be less willing to choose another woman,” she tells E&P. “It makes you more perfectionist, maybe too much so.”

Some have left the industry altogether, at least partly out of the need for a calmer lifestyle. Geneva Overholser, who spent 6 1/2 years as editor of The Des Moines (Iowa) Register before stints as The Washington Post‘s ombudsman and a syndicated columnist, left to teach journalism at the University of Missouri in 1999 to give herself some peace of mind. “I spent years following my job, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” she writes in a piece for the Media Management Center study.

Overholser adds that she recently received several offers for editing jobs that she likely would have jumped at in the past, but now would not want to take. It’s unlikely that one of the reasons she cited for that decision — being in the final year as a parent “with someone still living at home” — would come from a male editor.

Quitting the fast track in your prime to avoid stress is hardly a female-only phenomenon. But is it more pervasive among women? Martha Steffens, who was top editor at the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, N.Y., and the San Francisco Examiner before taking her current job at the University of Missouri, says the male dominance in the publisher’s office can drive some away. “The majority of publishers are still men,” she tells E&P. “You end up with a clash in working styles.”

Overall treatment by the public, some staffers, and even the publisher who hired the editor also can take a toll on women editors, some of them say. Several editors, especially those who broke the barrier for women at their papers, report being seen in a different light.

“Part of it is the image people have of what an editor is,” says Sill in Raleigh. “I would put it under the category of one of those issues that never get solved.”

Veteran newspeople say the key is not to let it affect your best news judgment and not just imitate the man who came before. “I worry that [such pressures] cause some women to put pants on and become men,” says Columbia’s Morgan, stressing that a woman who just repeats the work of a man is not taking advantage of her position to exert a woman’s influence. “Then you have no effect.”

Coming soon: An in-depth look at female publishers.

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