Elissa Vanaver and Miami Herald news executives discuss how to lay out the front page for the Sept. 11, 2002, issue.

Photo courtesy Miami Herald

Ellen Soeteber of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with her managing editor, Arnold Robbins (J75)

Photo by Jerry Naunheim/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Atlanta Journal-
's Julia Wallace presides at a meeting of department heads. Behind her hangs a portrait of Jack Tarver, former publisher of Atlanta Newspapers Inc.

Photo by Joey Ivanson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Elain Kramer holds a planning meeting in the Orlando Sentinel newsroom.

Photo by Roberto Gonzalez/ Orlando Sentinal

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Ellen Soeteber (J72) knows just how much the climate has improved for women in newsrooms at big city dailies.

While she was still a student at the Medill School of Journalism, her first newspaper job title was “copy boy” for the Chicago Daily News. There were four Chicago daily papers at the time, and three, including the Daily News, had quotas restricting how many female reporters could be employed in their newsrooms.

When the Chicago Tribune hired her in 1974, she was among the first group of women on the copy desk to work the late shift. Female reporters were not allowed to work nights. “It wasn’t considered safe,” she says.

Soeteber faced further overt resistance working as assistant city editor on weekends, when she found herself in charge of a group of veteran men. “Some older guys wouldn’t even talk to me in the newsroom,” she says. “They tried to tell me I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to work hard to gain their respect.”

Three decades later, in January 2001, things certainly had changed. Soeteber became the first woman editor of the Post-Dispatch. In the past few years women like Soeteber, such as Julia Wallace (J78) at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Margaret Sullivan (GJ80) at the Buffalo News, have grabbed the top editorial posts at several large-market newspapers. Women now edit papers with huge circulations, such as the Chicago Tribune (Ann Marie Lipinski) and USA Today (Karen Jurgensen).

“As a little girl growing up on the wrong side of the river in East St. Louis [Ill.], the notion that I’d be editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was beyond my wildest dreams,” Soeteber says. “It was unfathomable. Editors were wealthy men named Joseph Pulitzer.”

Uphill Battle
Yet despite these high-profile hires, the national picture for women in newsrooms remains murky. A report released in 2002 by Northwestern’s Media Management Center, “Women in Newspapers: Still Fighting an Uphill Battle,” showed that at the top 137 newspapers with circulation over 85,000, just 20 percent of top editors are women, a 5 percent decrease from 2000. And the percentage of papers with female managing editors, typically the No. 2 editorial spot, has risen just one percentage point in two years, from 38 to 39 percent.

Likewise, a newsroom census of all daily papers conducted last year by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that women make up 34 percent of newsroom managers, flat from the prior year, while the percentage of all newsroom jobs held by women declined slightly from 37.35 percent to 37.05 percent.

Women’s status “seems to be stagnating,” says Cynthia Linton, publications editor at the Media Management Center and an adjunct lecturer at Medill, who coauthored the report. “We did a head count a couple of years ago and found women held 29 percent of executive jobs at newspapers. We did another count in 2002 and found the percentage had dropped to 26 percent.”

There are several theories to explain the contraction in the number of women in news management: conflicts between work and family, a weakening economy, lack of opportunities at the top, the male culture in newsrooms and the prevalence of male publishers who are the ones who hire top editors, just to name a few.

“In an economic downturn, people take their eyes off the ball of diversity,” says Elissa Vanaver (GJ82), vice president of human resources/special assistant to the publisher at the Miami Herald and former managing editor of features and operations. “The focus waxes and wanes depending on the business climate.”

“The newspaper business is not exactly expanding,” adds Sullivan. “I think for a long time, newspapers were a bulletproof franchise. They could do anything and be highly profitable. Now, all bets are off. We have to find a way to interest a new generation of readers who may be more comfortable with the Internet.”

“I think every voice has something to offer. The more diverse we can be at the new decision-making level, the more successful we'll be.”
- Elaine Kramer

Appealing to a diverse population is a great way to attract new readers, editors say. So if newspapers stop focusing on diversity when the economy goes south, they may just speed their decline. Women editors, however, are on top of this issue.

“Half of our readers are women,” Sullivan says. “A lot of newspapers don’t look like they are put out for audiences that are half women. I try to show images of women as well as men.”

Sullivan also tries to make her newsroom reflect the community. “I’ve pushed to get more minority staffers,” she says. “Because I was the only woman in daily news meetings for so many years, I think I’m aware of the perspective of people not in the majority.”

Elaine Kramer (J79), managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel, spent two years in Africa with the U.S. Peace Corps, “a breathtaking experience in diversity” that even today shapes her news judgment.

“I think every voice has something to offer,” Kramer says. “The more diverse we can be at the news decision-making level, the more successful we’ll be.”

Kramer notes that her style is more collaborative than that of most men. For example, she started a guest editor program in which any newsroom employee can apply to join the news meetings, critique the paper and vote on front-page stories for a two-week period.

“People rotating in have great ideas,” she says. “It really adds to the mix. The senior people get to see new people in action, and the folks who are rotating in get to see how decision making works.”

So if diversity makes good business sense both in and outside the newsroom, why does gender inequity persist? The majority of students in college journalism programs since 1977 have been women, according to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and over the past decade Medill has enrolled at least two undergraduate women for every man.

Where are all these women going?

“I have two stepdaughters who are journalism school grads,” says Wallace. “One is in the Air Force, and the other went into PR. It’s a hard business. You really have to be committed to it. It’s not as glamorous as they make you think.”

A survey titled “The Great Divide: Female Leadership in U.S. Newsrooms,” released by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the American Press Institute last September, found that just one in five of the nation’s top female editors definitely expect to move up in the newspaper industry. Almost half expect to leave their company or the news business altogether.

“Women at a certain point are hitting a concrete ceiling and moving out of journalism,” says Michele Weldon (J79, GJ80), author and senior lecturer at Medill. “People get tired of the fight, so they move on to things that are less time consuming and more lucrative.”

Sullivan, who attended an API seminar on women and newsroom leadership last year, doesn’t necessarily think this phenomenon is negative. “The research shows women are not always ready and willing to take the next step,” she says. “It speaks to women perceiving they have a variety of choices.

“It’s kind of a paradox,” Sullivan adds. “Maybe there’s still a ceiling, I’m not sure. But the flip side is that women have a little more choice about what to do with their lives. When there’s less societal or internal pressure, women are more likely to ask, ‘How does this play out for my family? Is this really what I want to do, or is it about a model of success that’s traditional?’”

Still, 64 percent in the API survey who felt their opportunity to advance was blocked identified sexism as the reason.

Former New York Post Sunday editor Maralyn Matlick, the paper’s top female editorial staffer until she was fired in February 2002, filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the paper of discriminating against women in its selection of senior news executives.

“It’s not pervasive, but there are still people who see women in a support role,” Linton says. Women still complain about a “subtle exclusion by the male network: playing golf, going out for a drink and talking sports.”

Linton also found that some male bosses still believe “women aren’t as comfortable with command, aren’t as decisive,” she says.

“People are naïve if they think gender doesn’t make a difference,” says Vanaver. “The nature of newspapers is aggressive and confrontational, and most papers are run by men. The skills, temperament and power women have are not always recognized and seen as effective. I think it’s easier to see a guy in that role [editor] than a woman because you’re more used to seeing it.”

Hanging Tough
Soeteber dealt with the sexism she encountered on her way to the top by digging in her heels and copying the style of the gruff men around her. She developed a steely exterior and expressed her frustration only in private.

“I internalized a lot,” she says. “I worked hard not to let my emotions show because I’d be damned if I was going to cry in front of these guys.”

Instead, when men gave her a hard time, she’d duck into the women’s restroom and bang on the walls of the stalls. “I thought that if I showed any sign of weakness, it would be, ‘Aha! She’s a little girl,’” Soeteber says. “I worked as hard as I could to come off as tough as any of the guys.”

These days, “I think sexism is still a factor, but far, far less,” she says. “Each decade, it lessens. You’re going to find a lot less sexism from men in their 40s.”

Despite the lack of progress for women the past two years, Soeteber takes a longer historical view and sees the vast strides women have made since those early years of her career. “It’s night and day. It wasn’t all that long ago there weren’t any [women editors],” she says. “Fifteen years ago, to have as many as we have now would have been shocking. In 30 years, there’s been a remarkable degree of change.”

The recent data, while discouraging, “are probably a blip,” she suspects. “So many women are coming up through the ranks of journalism now, it’s going to be hard to keep them down. Progress never moves in a straight line. We need to see more women as publishers because they most often choose the editors. And some men are still not real comfortable dealing with women.”

While women may be more open to hiring other women, those who reached the top ranks often had male mentors who helped them. And these women believe their gender may have been an asset. “I think the need to develop women made my star shine a little brighter,” Vanaver says.

The Sentinel’s Kramer concurs. “It did help that I was a woman,” she says. “I was seeking higher-level positions at a time when managers were starting to understand that it’s a good thing to have diversity.”

Many successful women journalists wish their gender weren’t such big news. Sullivan was the first female managing editor at the Buffalo News, and when she was promoted from that position in 1999, she became the paper’s first female editor and the youngest female newspaper editor in the nation. She was named vice president in 2001, and despite all these “firsts,” Sullivan downplays the significance of her gender.

“I’ve been at the paper a long time, since I was a summer intern in 1980,” she says. “It seemed like a really natural progression through the ranks. For me and for the staff it didn’t seem like any sort of gender revolution. It seemed like a normal occurrence.”

Persistence and Risk Taking Pay
Even though most women who become editors are breaking new ground at their newspapers, “these women have been paying their dues a long time,” Sullivan says.

“It’s very important to be persistent and not be deterred,” she says. “The people who do well are resilient.”

A family tragedy led Sullivan to consider personal concerns as well as professional goals, forcing her to show patience with her career path. In 1987 her mother died after a car struck her as she was crossing the street. Sullivan’s father became a widower at age 78, and because of that pivotal event, Sullivan chose to remain in Buffalo.

“I felt a real obligation and desire to stay here for him,” she says. Sullivan knew that many editors have to move around the country to get promoted, but she was devoted to her father, and she wanted her children to live near their grandfather.

“I was features editor for a long time, and it was a good spot, but there came a point when I was ready to move out to a broader newsroom role, and it took some pushing and persistence and some hanging in there,” she says.

Sullivan encourages women to find what they love to do and never give up on that dream. “I think it’s terribly important to follow your bliss. If you stay really close to what you’re good at and what feels right, I don’t see how you can go wrong.”

Wallace believes women need to take charge, take credit for their work and take risks — without being afraid of the results.

“I worry that in an effort to get ahead and to get along, women become facilitators and organizers: ‘Tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it,’” she says. “You have to be a take-control person. You have to figure out what to do.

“I think some people are naturally risk takers, comfortable in leadership roles. It’s nothing I’ve ever been nervous about doing. I don’t have a fear of making mistakes and doing the wrong thing.”

Leadership didn’t come quite as easily to Vanaver, who encountered a setback in her career when she was passed over for a promotion she thought she deserved.

“I had more experience, but I was never invited to apply,” she says. “There was internal movement I wasn’t privy to, and I went to the boss and said, ‘You didn’t even ask me.’ He said, ‘You have a self-confidence problem.’ He told me I needed to be a leader, and I said, ‘Hell, I’m going to do it.’”

Even though her first inclination was “to run and hide and feel humiliated,” she didn’t give up. “I spent some time being self-critical. I became more attuned to how I’m perceived as a leader. In retrospect I said, ‘Well, the other guy was a better leader.’ I was his No. 2. He taught me a lot, and when he left, I got his job.”

Vanaver feels she was fortunate because “I was not inclined to see obstacles. If I hit a brick wall, I’m not going to get my forehead bloodied. I’m going to find a way to get over the wall.”

Family Track
Perhaps the tallest brick wall for women is finding the right balance between work and family. Whether by choice or not, women typically still bear the greater load for child-rearing and household work, which means juggling and making tough choices and sacrifices. Women editors at newspapers handle those choices in radically different ways.

Sullivan was a reporter in 1985 when she married another Buffalo News reporter, Charles Anzalone, who is now editor of the Sunday magazine. They have two children, aged 10 and 14.

“We both work full time, and we both have lots of duties and pleasures with the kids,” Sullivan says. “We tend to share. The way we chose to work things isn’t gender traditional or specific. We both do everything.”

Even so, Sullivan, like many women, feels it’s a constant source of conflict. “It’s been difficult. I never feel I’m at home enough, and I just never feel I’m at work enough. You can’t get beyond that. I would love to be able to spend more time at each.”

Sullivan dealt with an extreme example of this everyday conflict during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On Sept. 10 her mother-in-law died, and the wake was held on the day the Twin Towers crashed to the ground.

“It was a very intense collision of the personal and journalistic worlds,” she says. “I did what I always do: I tried to be in two places at once.”

Sullivan’s life sometimes seems like a whirlwind. “The roles of managing editor and editor that I’ve held collectively the past five years are extremely consuming and really do require a lot of attention and energy,” she says. “There’s no question it takes a toll, but it’s also very stimulating and a whole lot of fun. There’s not a single day I felt was drudgery.”

“These women have been paying their dues a long time. It’s very important to be persistent and not to be deterred. The people who do well are resilient.”
- Margaret Sullivan

Wallace was five months pregnant when she went into labor on her way to South Korea in 1988 to cover the Olympics. She lost the baby. Pregnant again three years later, she was managing editor of special projects at USA Today, and her bosses encouraged her to relax and take it easy.

Today, Wallace has two children aged 8 and 11, and her husband works part time as a teacher and freelance writer. “I can’t imagine myself as a stay-at-home mom,” she says.

Still, there are moments. In the fall Wallace flew to Cuba just as “my baby was turning 8. My parents flew in for the party, and I missed it,” she says. “I think my kids are proud of what I do. All the other kids think my children have a cool mom. But kids still want to be like everyone else.”

Vanaver struggled to find the right job early in her career because her husband was a newspaper photographer, and most papers had rules prohibiting husbands and wives from working together. He now serves with her as deputy director of photography at the Miami Herald.

Vanaver was working for the San Jose Mercury News in 1987 when she was one of the first managers at a Knight Ridder newspaper to become pregnant, causing some confusion among the chain’s upper level about what was the appropriate maternity leave policy.

As it turned out, her husband changed jobs while she was on leave, they moved and she joined the Herald. There, too, Vanaver had to work to convince her bosses that she was serious about developing her career, even after her child was a year old. “They were not prepared to believe that I was serious about working full time with an infant,” she says. “That was frustrating.”

Kramer chose a different path, and it didn’t hold her back. She scaled down to part-time work from 1990 to 1996 to raise her two children. Her husband, a social worker, added extra hours to make up for her pay cut, and now that she’s back to work in such a powerful position, he stays at home to care for the children, who are now 11 and 12.

“There’s no way I could do this job if my husband worked a 40-hour week,” she says. “I know how rare of an opportunity I have that my husband is willing to say, ‘I’ll stay home with the kids.’”

Kramer also gives a lot of credit to Mike Waller, her mentor at the Hartford Courant, for allowing her to take the family time without hurting her career. “He gave me a chance to work with him in a position of high visibility before I adopted my children,” she says. “I wanted to be home with my babies, and Waller told me, ‘If I’m still here, I will do everything I can to help you when you’re ready to come back.’”

She has absolutely no regrets about staying home with her children. “If I hadn’t done that, I would never forgive myself,” she says. “But if I hadn’t been so lucky restarting my full-time career, I might have resented staying home.”

Kramer is sensitive to women who work for her and face the same choice. “It’s scary for people,” she says. “They’re taking a risk, but you have to do what your heart tells you. During that time you’re out of the limelight, other stars will rise. Yours will still be there, but it may not be as bright. The risk is that you would never get back. It’s all timing. You have to be flexible about when and where you come back.”

The API study found a wide gulf between women its authors labeled “career confident” and those who are “career conflicted.” Family circumstances and the presence or absence of mentors are the key factors determining whether women are confident enough to seek leadership roles.

Weldon, for one, is taking steps to make sure the support is in place right from the start. She’s creating a mentoring program that will pair female journalism students with professionals who are in a networking group called the Journalism and Women’s Symposium.

“The point is to nurture women when they’re coming into careers as journalists,” says Weldon, who asked herself at the recent JAWS symposium, “Are career-confident women born or made? What can I do to help create women who are career confident?”

Kramer also tries her best to help women gain the experience they need to lead newsrooms one day. She set up a mentoring program at the Sentinel, and “every time we have a choice assignment or job opening, I say, ‘Hey, have we thought of a woman?’ In grade school the teachers always called on the boys. It’s important to call on the girls, too.”

As greater numbers of women make it to the top, there are more and more signs that things might be turning around. For the past few years, Sullivan has hired more women than men as summer interns, reflecting the dominance of women in journalism schools.

“Who knows? Maybe someday, we’ll look up and see the same thing in newsrooms,” Sullivan says. “But we’re not quite there yet.”

Jenny Hontz (J93) is a freelance writer based in Venice, Calif.


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