Baltimore Sun publisher Denise Palmer

Photo by Sara Glik/Baltimore Sun

Elizabeth Brenner of the Tacoma News Tribune with a press maintenance machinist

Photo courtesy Tacoma News Tribune

Room At The Top

Shooting hoops didn’t hurt.

Whenever Baltimore Sun publisher Denise Palmer (KSM84) gathered with her male coworkers during “down time” at conferences, they’d play basketball. “I didn’t score many points, but on defense I’d hold my own,” Palmer says.

Hold her own, indeed. Palmer is one of a small but growing number of women to achieve the elite position of publisher, the top job at any newspaper. In the largest 137 markets, only 19 women as of last year had reached her level.

In a field overwhelmingly run by men, exclusion from informal male networks often holds women back and perpetuates the imbalance, according to a recent study released by Northwestern’s Media Management Center. Palmer never allowed herself to be shut out of those networks, but it took a toll. “As a woman, I had to curb my personality somewhat to fit in better,” she says. “I had to act like one of the guys more than I do today.”

Palmer joined the Sun last fall after holding a variety of corporate media jobs in the Chicago market. She arrived at a time when the newspaper was definitely feeling the pinch of the recession.

Indeed, an unrelenting focus on the bottom line is one factor driving women out of the newspaper industry, according to the center. But you can’t have one without the other, Palmer says: “Being a publisher is so much more than running a business. It’s a commitment to civic responsibility. Our mission is what keeps us special. That has to come first, but I think you have to be smart.”

Elizabeth Brenner (J76, KSM78), the publisher of the News Tribune in Tacoma, agrees. “As an industry, we have two responsibilities,” she says. “The thing that makes us special is that we do have a constitutional calling, but we can’t do that if we don’t make money. We have to do both simultaneously.”

It’s easy to see why. As publisher of the News Tribune, she revamped a weak circulation department and achieved three straight years of expansion in the midst of a recession. “I’m so proud we had great growth both daily and on Sunday,” she says.

While Palmer has no children, Brenner is thankful she rose to the position of publisher before juggling work with motherhood. At age 44, Brenner’s housekeeper died, and Brenner became the guardian of the woman’s two daughters. “I acquired instant family and came face-to-face with what working moms deal with,” she says. “The burden falls disproportionately on women, although that’s changing slowly. The level of family involvement I see in the men working for me is encouraging.”

Brenner believes male and female publishers face the same challenges in making their workplaces family friendly. She looked into starting a day care center at her newspaper, but “we couldn’t make the numbers pencil out,” she says. “We make decisions the same way men do; we probably just take more pains to communicate.”

— J.H.

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