As the director of Photography and Video at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Danese Kenon believes the role of an editor is to best support their team working to cover stories on a day-to-day basis.
“I think the work that I’m doing now is important because visual journalists, photojournalists, and videographers need somebody to advocate for them in their work,” Kenon said.
I spoke with Kenon as part of Women in Journalism, a project published in Solution Set to shine a light on the successes and struggles of women working in news, lift up their stories and achievements, and share their words of wisdom to guide young women in the space toward finding their own success.
Prior to joining The Inquirer, Kenon was deputy director of video/multimedia at The Tampa Bay Times, assistant managing editor/visuals at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a photojournalist at The Indianapolis Star.
Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of my conversation with Danese:
Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?
I don’t know if I chose it or if it chose me. I loved reading and my parents bought me a camera when I was seven, so I’ve always loved photography. Photojournalism is kind of a combination of the two. I’ve taken pictures for as long as I could remember, I just didn’t think you could make a career out of it in this way because I didn’t know of anybody who did this.
I would take photographs, and then I would be more curious about what that person’s life was like and what they did. So, I would ask a lot of questions and it was natural. I just didn’t know it could be a career. I thought it was a hobby.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism field or in general that you look up to?
I have tons of mentors and I think that’s one of the most important things that a person could have, not just in journalism, but in general. I’ve had some of the same mentors since I was 19; I talked to one of them yesterday.
You can ask them questions that you don’t feel like you can ask anyone else, like “How much should I get paid?” or “This happened with my boss. How should I respond?” or “This is what I’m thinking of doing next. What do you think?”
They are invested in your wellbeing, but also in your career path. I love having a host of mentors, like a small team, that I used to call my Great and Wise Photo Council. On that council, there would be older men and women, people of different races, and people of different ages. I could ask them all different things, but they were all in my corner.
I think mentorship is critical. It helps move your career, but it also helps keep you grounded and sane. That’s one of the things that I tell people all the time: get yourself a mentor. It’s extremely helpful.
What advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in journalism?
I wish I could talk to that 21-year-old girl. I would tell her to enjoy life more. I would tell her it’s not about the job all the time; you’ve got to make room for yourself. I would tell her to be more business-minded. I don’t think we talk enough about business, and I say that because it’s been a shaky industry for the last 20 years in terms of layoffs.
I would tell her to just enjoy the ride. I’ve worked for a really long time and just work, work, work, work. I love this job, but far too often, I just kept going. I wish I had slowed down a little bit more because 20 years go by really fast.
One thing that I have an appreciation for now that I didn’t have when I was 20 and 21 is how short life is and how fragile it is. You see a lot on this job and you need to be really aware of how it affects your mental health. I think that the younger generation does a really great job of saying, “This is what I need and this is how I’m feeling.”
My generation did not do that. We would say “What’s the job? What is the address? I’m on the way” If we were feeling bad, we just kept moving. We didn’t stop to say, “I’m feeling bad. What should I do?” We just took it. So, I think I would tell her to be mindful more.
How do you feel women are represented in your area of reporting? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?
First of all, I think that there are a lot more women who are sustained in this field more than when I was younger. When I was younger, you had some women in it, but by the time they were ready to have families or kids, not all of them made it back into the industry. Not because they didn’t have a desire, but there was not a support system that they could see or even feel.
I feel like there are a lot more women now in this industry that are sustained. I think there’s more work to be done, though I think there’s a lot of work to be done in traditional newsrooms in particular, especially as it comes to young women coming into this field that they feel supported and heard.
It is especially hard in these times with a global pandemic and the media being targeted. People used to welcome you into their homes and they still do, to a certain extent, but it’s really difficult to do your job now because of the way the media is being targeted.
I think there are a lot more women in this field, but many cannot see places for themselves beyond being on the street. There are more female editors, but I think we still need to do a better job because I don’t think they feel as supported as they could.
That’s up to us. That’s up to management. That’s up to up to us to say, “I see your work. Have you ever considered being a photo editor?” I don’t think they’re getting asked those questions. They put the work in, but what’s their path? I have another 25 years until retirement, but who’s taking my place? I think we need to start looking at that right now if we want to develop future leaders.
Do you feel like you need to make sacrifices in your personal life to compete with male coworkers?
I don’t know if it’s to compete with male coworkers. I think every photojournalist, male or female, makes sacrifices to have this job. I’ve been at plenty of family functions like, “Hey, I have to go. There’s a double homicide and they need a photo. I’ll be back.”
I was on a date once and there was a major news event and I showed up in stilettos and a black dress. My date was in the car waiting for me to finish but I felt like I had to go because I was young and I needed to make this photo.
So, I don’t know if it has to do with gender, but this is a hard job and news doesn’t wait for convenience, you have to go. So, I couldn’t compare it to gender, I think it’s the job. You make sacrifices much like first responders do because news happens when it happens.
Are there ways that being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to your journalism?
It’s hard to say because a woman isn’t one way. There are all different kinds of women, and I think it has to do more with your personality in terms of allowing you to get access and allowing you to dig deeper into people’s lives. I can’t say it’s gender.
I think it’s your personality because I know there are some men who can work their way into a situation and stay there for months or a year. I don’t know if I can say it’s about gender.
I hesitate because I don’t want to put women in one little box and say because you’re a woman you can do this particular thing. It just really depends on the kind of woman you are or the kind of man you are. I think it’s more of a way you carry yourself and a way you engage with people.
Having said that, I am not going to sit here and say that this is equal or that everybody is on the same foot. It’s a male-dominated industry, but we are making gains, but I think it takes a certain personality to engage with people, regardless of gender.
What point in your career was the most difficult for you (either an age, certain role, or specific instance) and how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and where it’s going?
I think the hardest part of my career is still happening. It’s the transition between being a journalist on the street and being in the office, fighting for digital journalism. It’s difficult. You have to really pace yourself because when you’re in an industry like this, you want things to happen quickly and that’s just not possible.
So, you make little changes that turn into big changes, and being patient can be very difficult, especially when you’re passionate about something. I loved being on the street. I loved talking to people as they told their stories. I loved engaging in that way and I do miss that, but I think the work that I’m doing now is important because visual journalists, photojournalists, and videographers need somebody to advocate for them in their work. I know where they stand because I’ve done some of the things that they’ve done.
The industry is changing rapidly, but the foundation is the same, so I think my experience in the street has made it not easy but helps me to understand their position and it helps me to advocate for their work and their stance better.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
I do and sometimes it just happens naturally. I was a student in the National Association of Black Journalists and that’s how I came up because there were no women photographers. I didn’t even know Black women were in the photojournalism field until I met my mentor now. But they do exist. It’s like seeing a unicorn in the wild. I was like, “Oh my God, there’s another Black woman photographer.”
So, I came up in that environment, and then I was taught to give back. I’ve had women behind me, say “Danese, how do I do this?” It’s a natural occurrence and it’s a give and take with mentorship.
You’re giving information, but they’re also giving me information too. I have a bunch of mentees who are in great positions, and now I call them and say, “How do I do this thing?” They’re like, “Oh, I got you. This is how you do it, you know?” So, it’s an exchange of information, but also people that you check in on. Hey, are you? Are you OK? We’re in a pandemic. Are you OK? And they check in on you. Hey, I know you’re stressed out just want to let you know that you know I’m doing well checking on you.
And so yeah, I do, have I? I do have young women that I mentor because it’s a hard industry and you’re dealing with a lot of hard topics. And so, it helps when somebody knows exactly what you do. To talk to me.
What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field? What are your hopes for them? What would you like that space to be like?
I hope that the space for the next generation will be developed by them based on what they need and what they want. I hope that they reach back to the generations that come up behind them to help them get in these positions. I hope there’s a clear pathway to leadership and that when they get to this space that they don’t feel like it’s just them.
I hope that they have a network of women who are supportive and I hope they have a network of men who are equally supported. I hope that it doesn’t feel hard. I hope that it feels like they can lead the way they need to and not worry about, “If I cry, will that be perceived as weak?” Long story short, I hope they get the space they need to be successful and innovative and not overwhelmed.