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Louise Seals: Keynote Spring 2007

Nuggets from the Newsroom

Should “Hanoi Louise” wear pink in the newsroom?

Keynote address by Louise Seals,
Spring Awards Luncheon, April 20, 2007

I am honored to have been asked to talk with you today. It’s a privilege that I greatly appreciate. . . . But what a challenge!

Being told you are a role model is a little like reading your own obituary.

It also makes me ask if we have done enough to recognize the many women who paved the way for me and others of my generation, who are now moving aside. Myrtle Barnes, a dedicated community journalist who was managing editor of the Newport News Times-Herald and Daily Press, was a key. But there were others before her.

Women like Martha Gellhorn and Margaret Bourke-White covered World War II and got into trouble for chafing at the limits placed on them or, more audaciously, ignoring the limits and doing things like taking photographs on a real bombing mission. The D-Day Memorial at Bedford has a gift store with great books, and I call your attention to one in particular: “They Wrote the War,” reporting in great detail how women with intelligence and moxie reported from Europe and the Pacific well before the war and during the war.

Then there was Marguerite Higgins, who gained fame for covering the Korean War, a dirty, nasty war with few of the comforts the World War II journalists enjoyed, and who lost her life covering the Vietnam War.

Many other women covered Vietnam, including a number who worked for the major wire services. Back home in the late ‘60s, Gannett Corp. and Knight-Ridder started moving women up in both newsroom management and management of the entire newspaper and expanding the number of women in their newsrooms. More in a minute on how that benefited me.

Back in the early and mid-‘60s, there were Sigma Delta Chi as the professional journalism organization for the guys and Theta Sigma Phi for the gals. Now there are the Society of Professional Journalists for both, and NFPW for both, among numerous professional journalism groups.

My getting into newspapers, at least at the start, reflected the separatism that I just mentioned.

I majored in scientific journalism at WVU in the mid-‘60s because I thought I wanted to write for the slick monthly farm magazines published then. Good people, a way of life I loved, being paid to write about it — what a job!

An interviewer for the best of those magazines came to the campus and interviewed the two of us who were in the scientific journalism curriculum, a guy and me. I had a very good interview, I thought, and was surprised as it wound down when the male interviewer asked if I typed. I said, “Of course I type, I’m a journalism major.”

“Well,” he said, “ women have to start in this business as secretaries.”

I don’t know whether my jaw dropped, but I sure saw my dream job fly away.

Somewhere I got the courage — heaven only knows where this came from, because I was not raised to voice open disagreement — I dredged up the indignation to stand up, tell him, “I didn’t spend four years in college to be anyone’s secretary,” and walk out!

After that, I ended up in Rochester, N.Y., one of the earliest diversity hires of the new Gannett corporation, working copy desk to start. I was the first woman on the desk since World War II, I learned. And boy, did I have a lot to learn — about journalism, about how business in general operated and about how newsrooms operated. But you had to work hard then to get me to believe that.

I’m not at all like Robert Fulghum who wrote, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which became a bestseller and is still making him money. Maybe I’m a slow learner, or maybe it’s because my hometown in north-central West Virginia didn’t have kindergarten when I was growing up. Whatever the reason, I needed a long time after kindergarten to learn these nuggets from the newsroom that I am going to share with you – for free.

Think of them as a thank-you for years of support, friendship and professional development from Virginia Press Women, NFPW and so many, many individual members.

Here goes.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. BUT. . . be sure you know what the small stuff is. Toilet paper, it turns out, is not. To the T-D staff, a sudden switch from decent toilet paper to roughing-it quality was a very big deal. Complaints were vociferous and vehement. Just before I sent a copy boy out to buy some good stuff for election night, I called the person responsible to inquire why the change. Turned out it was a mistake by the cleaning service that she had ordered corrected that very night!
Which leads me to the next insight:
  • Don’t expect all your colleagues to apply their reporting skills to newsroom or office rumors. That would take all the fun out of gossiping and speculating. Asking a colleague to share a ride with me to a funeral out of town started a wild buzz about a non-existent reorganization of the newsroom.
  • Let that memo cool down to room temperature. One of my mentors, Alf Goodykoontz, taught me and other editors who liked to shoot from the hip a lesson. He sent our memos about problems in other departments to the department we complained about. You quickly learned to stick to the incident at hand and what you knew and to avoid discussing motives. Better yet, you wrote the memo before you went home, slept on it, and rewrote it in the bright sane light of day.
  • If you don’t feel it, fake it! Dragging today? If you don’t say good morning with a big smile anyway, the person you failed to greet will wonder if you are angry with her. Not up to that big presentation you have to make today? Square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and do it! It’s on the agenda this week but may not make it next week. This philosophy works, at least long enough to return greetings to staff members, to make the presentations, to get through tough meetings.
  • Recognize your mentor or mentors, take the best they have to offer, and show your gratitude. You never know when a good word will redound to your benefit. And remember, journalism is a very small world!
And, I would add in light of this week’s tragic events at Virginia Tech, you never know when you may not get another chance to say thank youl
  • Opportunity doesn’t always knock when it’s convenient. My VPW presidency overlapped the chaotic time when we were planning to merge the two newspapers, but I didn’t turn down the opportunity to lead the redesign team. Before that, leading the T-D newsroom’s training for its first computers postponed the completion of my master’s at VCU — taking just a course a semester and time off for the computer installation, it took me 7 years to get the MS.
  • Be careful what you wish for because you may just get it. One Christmas I asked for nightgowns — and I wore them in Henrico Doctors’ Hospital after surgery. Maybe I should rephrase that to “Beware of the potential for unintended consequences.”
  • Learn which gift horses to look in the mouth. Theater tickets and clothing discounts are no-brainers. So are compliments and collaborations with co-workers, and the big, big news stories that keep you going on adrenaline for days!
But not long after I started working the T-D copy desk in 1968, some men on the desk wanted to ask management to give the other woman and me parking spaces next to the newspaper building so we could get to our cars safely at 1:30 or 2 a.m. At that time, there were probably fewer than 20 parking spaces there. We both declined, though none of the men were happy with our explanation that such special treatment could translate easily to questions about our fitness for the job and how much we got paid.
  • And then there are the dear readers! You can’t please everyone, especially when they aren’t reading the paper.
One fall when the stars and planets aligned perfectly and Virginia Tech and Virginia were both having good football seasons, a Virginia Tech fan called every week to complain we were shortchanging Tech fans. We knew we didn’t – the sports staff actually measured column inches of stories and photos. Finally, the week before the big game, I ran out of patience with him.

How on earth could he say we favored Virginia when we had carried X, Y and Z Sports Section front stories on Tech earlier in the week? Oh, Monday and Wednesday? He was only buying the paper on Friday when he thought we would be writing about the game.

You might call it, “Don’t bother me with the facts.”

A woman was all exorcised that flu shots were not available and we needed to investigate that and write about it. She kept ranting on even after I told her that we already had — with a 6-column headline across the top of the front page that very morning. Finally, she stopped berating me long enough to say she never reads the paper until the evening, because that was when she read The News Leader. It had been more than 10 years since the afternoon News Leader and the morning Times-Dispatch merged.

Finally, I’ll get to part of the title for this talk —
Never wear pink in the newsroom.

A few years ago, I took part in a panel discussion at West Virginia University of women working in newspapers. Most were managers at small West Virginia papers. Besides “Never wear pink in the newsroom,” the panelists also advised, “You can be a mentor but not a mom to your reporters.”

The pink thing stayed with me. When I found a couple of pink suits I loved, I decided that if I wasn’t secure enough after 30 years in the business to survive wearing pink, I might as well quit. After I bought them, though, I wore them to work only occasionally — low-rub ink still rubs off and the suits had to be cleaned after one wearing!

It was a short step from pink to red! Today, I own a lot more red than pink clothes. Red became my go-to-hell color. If it was going to be a tough day — a budget battle, a difficult personnel issue, a tough staff meeting — I opted for red whenever possible. That was my version of “don’t let them see you sweat!”

These next three nuggets go together, as you’ll see quickly:

Anonymity breeds meanness in phone messages, email.

Even jerks sometimes get it right. Getting past the “jerk factor” to the valid complaint can be a real challenge.

If bullies mistake politeness for timidity, that’s their problem. Alas, you usually can’t say what you’d really like.

This is where the nickname “Hanoi Louise” comes from. A critic of T-D coverage of politics and international relations finally gave up on chastising me over the phone, then gave up on e-mails, and at last resorted to only an occasional letter. He called me Hanoi Louise because when he complained, I would ask why we should limit our coverage to articles that kept him happy. I was supposed to bridle at being compared with Jane Fonda.

Then there was a former attorney general of Virginia who once spent almost an hour threatening to sue if we used his high-profile client’s name in the next day’s story about a business fraud. I wasn’t about to tell him that we’d just had a big ethics discussion about whether it was fair to mention his client at all since he seemed to be guilty of nothing more than bad judgment in selecting business partners.

More than one bully tried to persuade us that up is down and the sky is green.

One public official widely respected for his financial acumen once tried to tell T-D editors that you don’t count the cost of borrowing for a project that is going to be financed with bonds. He was in our conference room peddling this baloney because after days of favorable coverage, an article had the first cost estimates on the governor’s pet project, and the gov hit the ceiling.

From then on, of course, the projected cost was in every story on the pet project – as our readers had the right to expect.

Another former high public official brought his lawyer along and tried to convince us that we should never mention his name in stories about the legal difficulties facing a former associate whom he had appointed to a position managing a great deal of money. That associate was cleared eventually of any wrongdoing. Alas, by the time the official came to complain, the story was out of the headlines and we did only a couple more follow-ups. However, his name was in them.
  • One of the nuggets I prefer to keep among us journalists is: Never rush to fill a silence. That’s often when you get your best material, even in a job interview. Being a good listener may be the second most important trait for a good journalist. I never cease to be amazed at what people will tell a reporter, especially a reporter who is courteous and empathetic
  • Get all sides before you rush to judgment. Whether in print or on personnel matters or whatever. I once reprimanded a reporter who had handled a dispute with his boss very badly. Once we had the full story, it became clear his editor probably deserved a reprimand, too. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?
  • Never lie. You can’t always talk about everything you know on a subject, but you can avoid lying or misleading people.
  • March to your own drummer on ethics decisions if you are convinced you are right, even if no one is beside you or behind you. Make decisions that you could defend in front of a roomful of readers who disagree with you. What people may want to know and what they need to know are not always the same, and reporters are not always the best judges. But do be willing to talk about the issue — you may all learn something.       
As an industry, though, I’m not sure newspapers as a whole have learned one lesson: The need for diversity in the ranks and up the ladder.
In the 40+ years since Katherine Graham became president of the Washington Post Co. after the suicide of her husband, women have made surprisingly little progress in the news business.

For many years, the late Myrtle Barnes was the conscience of Virginia journalism on newsroom and management diversity. She used every opportunity to remind her mostly male audiences of executive editors, managing editors, and assorted other editors and educators that they were missing myriad opportunities to improve their newspapers and their management by not hiring and promoting more women and also minorities. Myrtle sure did her part as far as we women were concerned — she was my role model and one of my mentors, and many other women can tell you about how she helped them.

But back to the lack of progress.

June Nicholson, a past VPW president, a VCU professor and a longtime friend, is bringing to fruition a book she conceived about the current status of women in newspapers. It’s called The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press. Some of it is pretty depressing reading.

Among the statistics she cites:

The percentage of women hasn’t increased in three decades. About 1/3 of the full-time journalists at daily newspapers are women, the same as in 1982. These stats come from David Weaver of Indiana University who does a study of journalists every 10 years.

In 2000, for comparison, of course more than 50 percent of the U.S. population was female, and women made up 47 percent of the civilian work force. Those comparisons are from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, reporting on Weaver’s numbers.

Lack of retention is a huge issue, for a number of reasons. Weaver found that 60 percent of journalists under 25 were women.

But listen to what happens to women as they gain experience and grow older: In 1992, the group of journalists with less than five years experience was 55 percent men and 45 percent women. A decade later, that same group of journalists now was only 34 percent female.

Also in 1992, the next older group of journalists, those with 5-9 years of experience, were 58 percent men and 42 percent women. A decade later, that same group of journalists was only 26 percent female.

It wouldn’t take those of us sitting in this room more than 10 minutes, if that long, to pinpoint the major reasons women are leaving the business, so I won’t belabor the obvious.

In 2005, ASNE reported that only 1/5 of the editors at the 100 biggest newspapers were women. This spring, it reported that the percentage of women supervisors versus men supervisors in daily newspapers was 34% to 60%, and these figures for the first time included online journalists moved from separate departments into newsrooms. The ratio has been generally 2-to-1 male-to-female for years.

And then there is the pay gap. In 2002, women journalists made 81 cents for every dollar men journalists earned.

The lack of change is puzzling when you look at the state of the news business and the communications industry. If ever there was a need for the talents that women bring to the work place — collaboration, inclusiveness, multi-tasking and adaptability — that time is now.

Northwestern University’s Media Management Center has studied news organization cultures and found that those with more diverse and creative cultures and managers performed better. That includes the holy Bottom Line.

Let’s consider what Virginia Commonwealth University’s mass communications students recently heard about what they’ll find when they enter the work force.

Doug Adams, the Martin Agency’s CEO, called this the most exciting time to be in the communications business since it started.

Reid Ashe, executive vice president and COO of Media General, said journalists must “be the conveners of community conversations and the facilitators of local community discussion.”

But journalists without a high tolerance for ambiguity need not apply. Adams said the business now “is almost like jumping off a cliff and figuring out how to make a parachute on the way down.”

I would argue that between the financial demands on publicly owned news companies from Wall Street and the pressures on all news companies from the lightning-speed changes in consumers’ information-gathering behavior, many news organizations are struggling to figure out which cliff they should jump off, with or without a parachute.

More than ever, news organizations need diversity of experience and skills, of ways of thinking, and of management styles.

It’s small comfort to hypothesize that only those organizations that bring more women and more minorities to their ranks and to their corporate leadership will thrive, but wouldn’t it be ironic if that is ultimately the message of the marketplace?

I am no longer involved in making any contribution to trying to answer these momentous questions — and I will undoubtedly live longer because of it.

But I care deeply how these questions are answered, and I’m sure all of you do, too. Not just news organizations but our entire society needs committed journalists who hold dear the First Amendment and the highest ethical principles AND who also understand the realities of operating in the marketplace.

I’ll be able to tell how well we’ve done in redefining news communication — in about 10 years.

A VPW member since 1983, Louise Seals has served and supported our organization in many ways, including her presidency (1990–92). We’ve honored her as Press Woman of the Year and as NFPW’s Communicator of Achievement. She is ensconced in the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. She retired last year from the Richmond Times-Dispatch after 38 years, the last 12 as managing editor. Since then, she has increased her longtime service to her alma maters, the Perly Isaac Reed School of Journalism at the University of West Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University School of Mass Communications.