Welcome to the first installment of Women in Journalism, our celebration of Women’s History Month. This issue is focused on – The Beginning. We’re learning about the early careers of a group of successful women in journalism. We discuss how they got into journalism and how their mentors helped to share their experience in the field.
I’m Kyra Miller, The Lenfest Institute’s advancement associate. This is a month-long project, sparked by my awesome colleague Maddie Vassallo, to celebrate women in journalism, lift up their achievements, and share their advice and hopes for future generations. We’ll be sharing new interviews each week in Solution Set. Sign up here.
Maddie and I connected with women from all different backgrounds, areas within journalism, and points in their career and asked them the same questions. It has been so interesting and inspiring to see how their stories are all so different, yet the shared experience of being a woman in the news industry creates parallels that tie them all together.
Women are at the forefront of change and progression in the journalism industry, and their lived experiences bring so much added value to their work that can’t be replicated or replaced.
Below you’ll read about the unexpected ways in which these women found themselves in the journalism space, who they have looked up to, and what advice they would have given to their younger selves at the start of their careers.
Here are the ten incredible women we interviewed for this project:
- Akoto Ofori-Atta, Co-founder and Executive Editor at Capital B
- Chabeli Carrazana, Economy Reporter at The 19th*
- Cierra Hinton, Executive Director-Publisher at Scalawag
- Danese Kenon, Director of Video & Photography at The Philadelphia Inquirer
- Errin Haines, Editor at Large at The 19th*
- S.Mitra Kalita, CEO and Co-founder at URL Media Publisher, Epicenter NYC
- Kristen Hare, Editor of Locally at Poynter
- Rebekah Monson, Co-founder and COO at WhereBy.Us
- Robyn Tomlin, Editor at News & Observer/Herald-Sun | Southeast Regional Editor at McClatchy
- Snigdha Sur, Founder & CEO at The Juggernaut
1. Why did you choose to pursue a career in journalism?
CHABELI CARRAZANA, Economy Reporter, The 19th*: I was always really interested in reading and writing as a kid. I came here when I was five years old from Cuba, and reading and writing quickly became something that I could hold on to as one of my strengths when you’re an immigrant kid who is trying to adjust. When I was in high school, I had a really influential English teacher who said, “You know you might actually be really good at this.” … When I thought about what I wanted to do, I really wanted to do work that helped people in some way or raised up people’s voices and stories in some way. Journalism just seemed like a natural combination of the things that I really enjoyed.
CIERRA HINTON, Executive Director-Publisher, Scalawag: I did not choose a career in journalism. When I applied to be publisher of Scalawag I had been working in nonprofits since high school graduation, specifically in development. I felt like I had a good understanding of what it takes to run a nonprofit. … Along the way, I figured out that much like education, journalism and media is an important tool for driving generational change within our society and moving closer toward a more just, equitable, and liberated place for all. I love journalism, I love news, I enjoy all the work that I do, but it’s all to the end of liberation.
ERRIN HAINES, Editor at Large, The 19th*: I was not one one of those people that was born with ink in their veins … What really got me hooked was when I found a Black newspaper in Atlanta, which is where I’m from, The Atlanta Daily World … That was a really foundational year for me because it gave me the confidence to know that I could actually become a reporter, but also made me realize that telling stories about the Black community was something I was really interested in. I knew that was something I was going to do no matter what my actual beat ended up being. That was a theme I’ve had in my career even before it was my official title.
KRISTEN HARE, Editor of Locally at Poynter: I don’t think I had a choice about whether or not to become a journalist. I just always was. I have the typical story of trying to start my own newspaper. It was in the 4th grade or the 6th grade, I’m not sure when. I won a reflections writing contest for a short story when I was 10, in the 4th grade, and I remember thinking as sort of the awkward nerdy kid, “Oh! There is a thing I’m good at. I should do more of this,” and I just really loved writing … My dad said to me at one point, “If you’re going to be a writer, you should be a journalist at least so you can get paid.” Which, looking back, is hilarious!
DANESE KENON, Director of Video & Photography at The Philadelphia Inquirer: 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.
2. Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism field, or in general, that you look up to?
CHABELI CARRAZANA, Economy Reporter, The 19th*: I found one in my first job working at The Miami Herald as a tourism reporter, Amy Driscoll. She was my editor on a few really big projects I worked on, particularly around the Parkland school shooting in South Florida a few years ago … She was really focused on trying to help out young women journalists in a field. There’s a lot of things spoken about the way that women journalists have to behave versus the way that male journalists have to; the way that you talk or dress or how you present yourself in interviews or how you build sources or how you get people to trust you. It’s a little bit different for women and so she helped guide me through that a lot.
ROBYN TOMLIN, President and Editor, News Observer and The Herald Sun: 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 that 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?” … 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.
REBEKAH MONSON, Co-founder and COO, WhereBy.Us: So many. I had a professor when I was in college, Dave Kurpius, who was incredibly important to my formative journalism training. I learned about civic journalism under him, and I just fell in love with the role that journalism can play in the community and the intersection with social justice. Mitra Kalita is somebody who is very important to me and is a friend, but also someone who I know will tell me straight what I’m thinking and check my thoughts. She’s also a big and ambitious thinker and I admire that.
I’m always paying attention to what Stacy-Marie Ishmael’s doing and Millie Tran, both of whom are doing incredible work with The Texas Tribune. Both of them have had a massive impact on my universe in journalism, whether they realize it or not, there are huge inspirations to me.
AKOTO OFORI-ATTA, Co-founder and Executive Editor, Capital B: Yes! My friend and one of my very first editors, Teresa Wiltz, who is now at Politico. She just launched a new race newsletter. She is someone who shared a lesson with me that I still carry, which was to always be thinking about your voice and how you want to convey the reporting and bring it to life. That, and those standard lessons like accuracy. It is one thing to go to J-school and learn all of these lessons and it is another thing to have hands-on experience working with an editor on all of these things.
3. What advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in journalism?
DANESE KENON, Director of Video & Photography at The Philadelphia Inquirer: 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 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 goes 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 do a really great job of saying, “This is what I need and this is how I’m feeling.”
S. MITRA KALITA, CEO and Co-founder at URL Media Publisher, Epicenter NYC: The beginning and middle of your career, you’re looking around a lot to see what everyone else is doing and how you measure up. It’s really important early on to get a sense of who you want to be as a journalist and what propels your ideals and career. This way you can look forward as opposed to looking behind you or to the side of you at others.
KRISTEN HARE, Editor of Locally at Poynter: I would tell myself that other people’s ideas of success aren’t going to be yours. The goal isn’t necessarily to make it to The New York Times, or on television, or to become a famous journalist. The goal is to love a place, to cover it in a way that serves that place, and to build a life there that you can enjoy when you’re not working. And so the pinnacle isn’t where you work, but it’s the work that you do and the people that you work with.
ERRIN HAINES, Editor at Large, The 19th*: There is a lot of conversation, especially for young journalists, about objectivity and not having bias. I think that can be confused with the benefit of understanding how your lived experience can help you tell better stories … Too often you’ve got folks who, if they are not white and male, are thinking they need to leave my identity at the door when they walk into the newsroom. That is actually wrong. Every single one of us has things about us that make us uniquely qualified to tell the stories that we tell. That was something I didn’t fully understand at that time. As I’ve gone through my career I’ve gotten much more comfortable with embracing the aspects of my identity as assets to my storytelling instead of potential liabilities.
CIERRA HINTON, Executive Director-Publisher at Scalawag: Be open and stay curious. In my first year or two at Scalawag my imposter syndrome had me so scared. I felt like people would know or think that I was fucking something up or not know what I was doing. I also was very set on being right and being the leader and having the idea of, “I’m the leader, so I need to know exactly what to do or else I’m not a good leader.” Mindset shifts to curiosity, toward nonattachment to being right, toward learning and understanding that everything is an opportunity to learn more, is really important.
ROBYN TOMLIN, President & Editor at News & Observer/Herald-Sun | Southeast Regional Editor at McClatchy: 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.
That’s all for the first installment of Women in Journalism. We’ll be back in your inbox next Monday with the next installment, where these women will talk about their path to success and how their identity brings value to their work.
See you next week!