As a newsroom leader, Robyn Tomlin says one of the biggest privileges of her career has been the opportunity to mentor the next generation of women in journalism.
“My main approach to mentorship is really just to be a good listener to try to be a good support system,” she said.
I spoke with Tomlin 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.
Tomlin is the Editor at News & Observer/Herald-Sun, as well as the Southeast Regional Editor at McClatchy. She previously served as the VP/managing editor of The Dallas Morning News. She was also the founding editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome.
Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of my conversation with Robyn:
Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?
I had my oldest son, who’s now in his early 30s, two months after I graduated from high school. I worked my way through college as a single mom. I started a home daycare and had five children in my house who were under two years old. I did that for a few years and realized that I did not want to be changing diapers for the rest of my life.
I realized I needed to find a better solution. I fell in love with reading newspapers during those years where I was a single mom taking care of kids. I had this wonderful way of connecting with the rest of the world at a time when my world felt very small.
After a few years, I went to community college and took an English class where the professor had us write articles. He pulled me aside one day and said, “You know, you’re good at this,” and suggested taking a journalism class. I loved reading the news, but I really didn’t have a sense of being a part of it. I took a journalism class, and I got hooked.
I helped start the college news newspaper at the community college where I was going. I then transferred to the University of North Carolina as part of the journalism school. I was involved with the student newspaper all while raising a kid, so it was a big juggling act.
I really liked to know about what was happening around me. I like being able to tell stories about people and issues that might otherwise have been ignored. I like being able to ask really tough questions and dig to find information that ultimately shapes public policy. I also like being around journalists who were smart, and funny, and driven to make a difference.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism field or in general that you look up to?
I have so many mentors over my career. I’ve worked in and lived in a lot of different places and I’ve had the real privilege of working with some of the most amazing people.
I don’t really have a specific role model. What I’ve always done is tried to find people who have attributes or skills or knowledge that I don’t have and to spend time with them to learn from them. I really learned from a ton of people that I admire and have taken parts of my own leadership style and my own approach to journalism from so many of those folks along the way.
What advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in journalism?
I probably would tell myself to slow down a little bit. Maybe it’s because I got a late start and I felt like I had to catch up. I moved through reporting into editing really early and I probably would tell myself to enjoy those years a little bit more and be kinder to myself. I’ve always been tough on myself and had really high expectations for myself. I think over the years, and part of this is just age and experience, you learn that a lot of the time you spend beating yourself up is wasted time.
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?
There’s a lot of data out there that will tell you that women are underrepresented in top leadership roles in newsrooms. I think that’s getting better. I see more and more women in these roles than when I first began my first job as an executive editor in a small newsroom in Alabama about 20 years ago.
There were women who had been in those roles, but so many times, I’ve taken jobs where I was the first woman. It’s nice to be in a place now where you’re not the first woman, maybe the second or the third. That’s really good, but there’s still a long-standing issue. I’ve seen a lot of women who were either in those top leadership roles or on track to be in them, opt-out. Each of them has had their own reasons for doing so. For some, it was just the relentlessness of these jobs.
Being the editor of a news organization does mean a lot of work and it can be really difficult to manage being effective without working too many hours. That’s a struggle for a lot of people, men and women. It’s not a good place to be if you can’t balance.
I’ve also seen a lot of women opt out because we’re in a place economically where we have to make some tough decisions. We have to make heart-wrenching decisions sometimes, whether it’s a difficult budget decision or choices about layoffs. It adds a layer of stress to already stressful jobs.
When faced with tough decisions, I know a number of people, particularly women, who have decided to step aside and that’s been hard as well. I’m encouraged, however, by the number of women who are moving into these roles and the support system they are finding from others who have been in them for a while.
Do you feel like you need to make sacrifices in your personal life to compete with male coworkers?
I’ve made plenty of personal sacrifices along the way, but I’ve never done it because I felt like I needed to compete with anyone. Like I said, these jobs are hard. They take a lot out of you. There have certainly been times where I had to make tough choices, but I’ve always tried to prioritize what’s most important, both personally and professionally. Whether that’s major family events or the most important goals that we’re trying to accomplish within the news organizations that I’ve been working with.
I’m lucky. I have a husband who stepped out of his career path to really help make sure that we were able to balance work and family in an effective way. I was blessed really with that opportunity so we could team up to make it easier, but I don’t know any journalists anywhere who have not had to make sacrifices. I just never felt like those sacrifices were being made to compete. They were just made so that I could be successful at the job that I was doing.
Are there ways that being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to your journalism?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t want to over stereotype here because neither women nor men or monoliths. We’re all different but I think women, on the whole, are more empathetic. I also think women, especially those who had to learn how to juggle family life and professional life, are empathetic managers. They care about their people and they’re more likely to check in with people to make sure that they are doing okay.
I think that’s been especially important in this last year that we are being empathetic and being thoughtful and caring to the people who we are leading. Also, I think a lot of women that I know are effective at juggling multiple tasks, and that makes them good project managers. It also means that they tend to hit deadlines and communicate better.
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?
In my first few years as a reporter, I was also a single mom, so I was raising a kid. My first job was actually as a cops and courts reporter, so I would get called out to murder scenes at 2 o’clock in the morning. Those were rare, but they happened. Figuring out what to do with your kid in the middle of the night or not ever wanting to let down the people who had given you this opportunity was always a really tough challenge for me.
I was lucky because, after a few years, I met my current husband who was a journalist at the time, so we would tag-team a lot for a number of years. But then eventually when my second son was about two or three years old, we decided that it was actually better for us to have one of us working from home as a full-time parent. He did that and I worked, and so that partnership really made it easier from a journalistic perspective.
The most difficult periods have always been periods where we’re having to make really difficult decisions. I’d say this last year has been pretty darn challenging. Just because there are so many new things we’ve been having to deal with. Whether that’s figuring out how to operate an entire news organization remotely or being worried about the safety of your staff members whether they’re out covering protests or whether they’re covering Covid. All of these things have added new layers of stress that have made it difficult. Then of course the economic challenges that journalists face just amplify that to a degree.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
Yeah, I have a really wonderful privilege of having a lot of mentoring relationships. Most of those are women with whom I connected with through various work opportunities, whether it’s in places where I’ve worked, where we’ve had mentorship programs, or I’ve met women through different networking opportunities.
The best mentorships actually have not been assigned, mentors. They are people dealing with a challenge and there’s a recognition that you have also worked through that challenge at some point, and so there’s a shared opportunity and opportunity for sharing that is natural.
My main approach to mentorship is really just to be a good listener to try to be a good support system.
Most of the people that I’ve mentored have the answers to the questions that they’re struggling with already. They just need that validation and support and encouragement. And sometimes they need someone to ask clarifying questions that help guide their process as they’re developing or learning in a particular area.
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 think we all wish for a day when we don’t have to think about or wonder whether the differences between us are impediments to our success. That’s not just for women, it’s really for anyone who has felt that for any reason. I think that’s probably my biggest wish for journalism overall.