The Path: How women in the business of news navigate their careers

Part two of Women in Journalism 2022

Hello! Welcome to the second installment of Women in Journalism, our series to celebrate a diverse group of women breaking ground in business advancement and news representation. 

This issue is focused on The Path. We’re highlighting their experiences and knowledge on what it means to be a woman in their field and their personal outlook on women impacting the media.

I’m Samiya Green, The Lenfest Institute’s Program Analyst. This is a month-long project to champion women in journalism, talk about their accomplishments, and share their hopes on what they would like to see in the future for journalism. You can read the first part of the project, The Beginning, here

We’ll be sharing more from each woman on their careers, along with the full transcripts of our conversations with them, each week in Solution Set through the end of the month. If you haven’t already, click here to subscribe.   

Here are the women we interviewed for this project:

The answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do you feel women are represented in the business and development side of journalism? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field? 

Kyra Kyles, CEO, YR Media: Well, I feel that the representation of BIPOC women is the same as it is across all the different departments of media — not enough. There are definitely these big, cool, outlets and projects, but I think that there are still big barriers and challenges there. We’re starting to see more people overcoming them and I think that the business side is evolving. But again, the pace is slow and we just need to keep pushing and insisting upon equity and not allowing people to treat us as less than when it comes to funding or pigeonholing us. Please don’t just come to me during Black History Month. There are 12 months in the year. If someone is only interested in me in February, I’m not interested. We’re actually seeing a resurgence, interest, and appreciation that I hope is not a fad but something permanent.

Anna Nirmala, Vice President, Portfolio Success, American Journalism Project: I actually do think that we are seeing a lot of women in leadership in journalism. I think it changes when we start talking about race, but I have been inspired as to how many women leaders we are seeing lead newsrooms and lead organizations. I feel like there’s been a ton of movement there. I think part of the unfortunate but also fortunate kind of transition of legacy really facing a deep decline has also brought opportunities for new leadership and women leading organizations. Particularly when it comes to the business side,  that’s still such an emerging area within the sector, there’s so much opportunity there. In development and philanthropy we actually do have a lot of women, [but] what we need to do is diversify across race.   

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson, Publisher & Editor-In-Chief, The Jackson Advocate: I can say that, from my experience, there have been some times where I felt like I had to speak up. My mom, some of the best advice she ever gave me was, “No one’s going to fight for you, but you.” And they may, but you can’t bank on that. You have to fight for yourself. I have a personality that I have to speak up for myself sometimes to be heard. I think that’s what has always drawn me to voice, because when I’m on stage I’m present, people hear me, but in my normal life, I know I have to fight to be heard. When I do, I know what I’m saying is important for the community, and that is why it’s important for me to speak up. I believe that my voice has been heard in spaces even though I have had to be more vocal about it and insert myself, nobody’s just going to hand me time and space to be heard. I have to present that and it has been a good experience so far.

Mary Walter Brown, CEO & Founder, News Revenue Hub: I definitely think women are underrepresented in the journalism field, but I have a lot of friends who are strong, entrepreneurial women in this field. I choose to surround myself with people who inspire me. News Revenue Hub is primarily a female-led organization, and a lot of the newsrooms we work with are led by females or they have females in leadership positions. I do think there are more women who are leaning more towards the business side because they want to change what they see is broken. You have to do that from within. You have to create brand new organizations or you have to enact change in organizations in more legacy operations. You do that through the business side. You do it through the bottom line. You have to show that there’s a business purpose for this type of change. I’m inspired by what I’m seeing happen, both in the newsrooms we work with and in the leadership roles that females are taking, and I am blown away on a daily basis by the women who work for me –– their creativity, their commitment, their drive.

Sandra Clark, CEO, StoryCorps: I would say that I’m feeling pretty positive about women in journalism these days, especially when we’ve seen both women being promoted to the top positions in organizations in a way that I think we have not seen so much in the past, so that’s a positive sign. Frankly, there’s a realization that women have been holding organizations together for a long time, so to see some people actually being able to get all the way to the top is great. We’re seeing that motion across all sectors of media, which is a great thing. I think women are also becoming entrepreneurs in media, and creating their own spaces. The 19th is a great example of that. Capital B is a great example of that. There’s probably a whole list that you can look at, and these are also women of color who are creating substantial spaces too. There’s positive signs and at the same time, understanding that the real work of getting funding and having the right kinds of support around you is still a work in progress. 

What point in your career was the most difficult for you? And how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and how it’s going?  

Kiran Nazish, Journalist & Founding Director, Coalition for Women in Journalism:  I’ve faced many, many challenges from misogynistic newsrooms in Pakistan, to working in South Asia. I’ve been through a lot of difficult different scenarios, I’ve been called a spy in three different countries at the same time and all of those things. But I think nothing really bogged me down more than being in a great newsroom and not having the recognition and responsibilities that I expected to have. That really changed my mind. I think about the fact that actually being a woman was really, really difficult. I thought I could overcome misogyny and other challenges, but I think that I couldn’t overcome inequality from a place where I expected good values. I think that is what propelled me to do the work that I’m doing now.  

Mandy Jenkins, Head of Product, Factal: When I was coming out of my fellowship at Stanford, which was a fantastic opportunity, I didn’t expect to get diagnosed with breast cancer and start treatment for that. I’m in that position of getting this treatment and wondering what’s going to happen to the rest of my life, but also the program is almost over —  you need to go get a job now. You have to go get a job and not tell them that you have this disease that takes a lot of your time and your energy, but at the same time you don’t want to be the jerk that surprises them with that. That was really difficult to navigate. Because I was like, I’m not going to not do this, even though the wisest choice at the time probably would have been to just take time and go through treatment. But hey, I’m not rich, I don’t have a ton of money to pay bills. I didn’t want to move back in with my parents or something. I’m an adult, I need to be out in the world. So being straightforward with that was important to me, and I hope that it actually set a standard a little bit later when I was the boss that my employees all knew what days I had treatment or a doctor’s appointment. I was very open with them. We all have other lives besides what we’re doing for our employers, and I’ve been lucky enough to always have workplaces that are very responsive to that. How we treat each other is really important. We all just have to be patient with each other because we have way more important things than whatever we’re doing at work that day.

Gillian White, Senior VP of Programming and Revenue, Capital B: The very beginning of my journalism career was probably the most difficult. I think landing those first few jobs and really figuring out where you want to be in the journalism space is difficult. I was seeing a lot of people that I graduated Medill with go into PR or comms pretty quickly —  leave what we think of as traditional journalism, and take these kinds of corporate communication jobs. It’s really easy to think that it’s just impossible to make it in journalism or impossible to make a real living, or impossible to make it to those publications that you actually want to be at when you’re not seeing it around yourself. Having that faith and trying to think about what I really wanted and not get sidetracked. There were a lot of publications that people wanted me to apply to that people thought made sense for me. When I thought about working there, I got that same pit in my stomach that I got from my days in banking where I just knew that’s not the audience I want to be writing for. It’s not the type of journalism that I want to be doing. It’s not where I want to be. I was, again, lucky enough to not have to do that and lucky enough to be able to trust my gut and say no, I want to wait for something that really resonates with me where I want to write for that audience, where I want to write for that publication. It’s the type of journalism that makes me feel like 15-year-old Gillian would be really proud of this. 

Anna Nirmala, Vice President, Portfolio Success, American Journalism Project:  I think because there are so few people within this sector that come from for-profit private sector work, outside of media, outside of journalism, outside of just the nonprofit sector, it creates a very lonely environment where it can be hard to perhaps show or be an evangelist for some of the thinking and strategies that are very well-proven outside, but there aren’t enough people inside that can speak to that. So how do you effect change? How do you drive change, when maybe you’re the only voice in a certain room or scenario? That takes a lot of empathy. It takes a lot of patience. I think it takes a lot of being willing to prove things out first, versus getting buy-in around things that just might seem a little bit too outside of the norm. That’s been a big challenge. But I think it’s also been really exciting to be able to bring people along and show them what’s possible, by thinking through new ways, but also just by bringing in more people into the sector that come from those worlds.  

Jessica Sweeney, Development Director, The Salt Lake Tribune: I think probably for me, it was having my first child. I just came back from maternity leave with my second, and the Tribune has been really great to work with. I think we see this all over the country, but just with COVID, too — just trying to balance being a parent and working is so hard. You really have to have your priorities figured out if you’re going to survive that transition from not having children to having children and working. Especially in a news environment, it moves really fast, so make sure you have a supportive employer because it’s not worth it if you don’t. I think just being really efficient with your time that you do have has been the biggest eye opening lesson for me.

Amanda Zamora, Co-Founder & Publisher, The 19th: There have been lots of inflection points in my career, but I will say the year that we were in that included the murder of George Floyd and the January 6 insurrection… as someone who is leading in this capacity of trying to create a newsroom that solves some of these problems and serves these communities in new ways — I think I just will never be the same. To do that, just being more comfortable inhabiting my own identity has been a big growing point for me. It’s not something that I necessarily learned to do in nearly two decades of journalism, where you were expected to leave your identity at the door when you came in to do the work. That’s been a real challenge, but I’m really grateful for Emily and our entire team. I think we are trying to figure out what it means to build a newsroom and that has that kind of culture of diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality that translates into the journalism that we hope is nuanced, complex and really tries to get beyond the one dimensional headlines or coverage that we’re accustomed to seeing in mainstream political news. 

Sandra Clark, CEO, StoryCorps: Certainly in my younger days, I think like most people, I was trying to figure out who I wanted to be, what I wanted to be, and how I wanted to be. Here we are in 2022. We’re still having the same conversations about diversity and inclusion. Equity has now surfaced, when all along that’s really what we want. If the diversity is lagging, inclusion is lagging, then equity most certainly is lagging, right? That has been a lifelong battle. For me, it’s been a lifelong battle, for those who came before me, and my wish is that it is not a lifelong battle for generations behind me. But the reality is those same kinds of conversations we’ve been having for years and years. We see some movement, we see some inroads, but in my younger days, it most certainly was exclusively working for an organization that was not diverse. 

Women often face a number of unique challenges in professional settings. What are some challenges you faced in your career and are there any sacrifices you’ve had to make that your male counterparts may not have had to?

Kyra Kyles, CEO, YR Media: One of the challenges that I faced was where I knew that someone who was a man or was white would not be asked the same questions as I would be asked. There was a situation where my former employer asked me during my interview whether my father graduated from college. I said, “My father is not applying to work here.” When I got the role, I asked the others if anyone asked them that. No, nobody asked them that. There was another time where an employer asked me something when I was leading one of their departments. When we would refer people there was a cash incentive, and when I referred someone it just happened to be a Black woman that I had met. A leader pulled me aside and asked if it was a friend of mine or if I was related to her. I said, “Have you asked anyone else?” Some people call this a microaggression, but I actually believe they’re macroaggressions. It’s very rude and disempowering.  

Mary Walter Brown, CEO & Founder, News Revenue Hub: I think I’ve been really lucky in that I don’t feel like being a woman has really held me back in any facet of my career and the various paths and iterations that it’s taken. I’m the youngest of four with three older brothers, so I was raised to be strong and competitive and not to allow the fact that I’m a female impact whatever it was that I was trying to do. I haven’t really felt massive discrimination or have had the door shut in my face, but I definitely faced this sense of, “You’re young, you’re blonde, you may not know what you’re talking about.” I had to really fight just to be taken seriously, sometimes. That was so ingrained in the women of my generation. It wasn’t until I was in my mid 40s that I felt I was finally taken seriously.

Mandy Jenkins, Head of Product, Factal: It was, especially in the beginning, a little bit of a challenge. The person who hired me at my first job was super sexist. I really didn’t get it because he had daughters, his wife was accomplished. I’m just like, how do you exist in this world this way, where you clearly are harder on me than you are on anyone else on this team? We can all just be respectful of one another. If someone isn’t doing a good job, tell them and help them get better. But at the same time, making assumptions about someone based on their age was also a thing. I can learn so much from others, no matter who they are, whether they’re younger than me or not, whether they’re in a similar job to me or not. It benefits me as someone who wants to be a good employee and a good journalist, and now a good product person, to be listening to them and to try to learn from everyone and every experience around me, because it’s going to make me a more well-rounded professional.

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson, Publisher & Editor-In-Chief, The Jackson Advocate:  When my mom used to tell stories like, “Oh, I had you and then I went right back to work. I had you and you were on my lap as I was working at the computer,” or different things like that, I didn’t understand just how much of a sacrifice it is to be like a woman and a mother at the same time. I have been married for almost seven years and my husband and I really want to start a family. But where’s the time? So I have to make time and I have to not work so hard that I can’t do the other things in my life. I had to cut myself off and say this is it. Because I have to live. I think that women in journalism sacrifice a lot of time with their loved ones and family and just doing stuff that they love because of being just engulfed in what we do. I’m getting to the point where I’m like, okay, I have to have a life outside of this, and I think that’s one of the biggest challenges and sacrifices. 

Jessica Sweeney, Development Director, The Salt Lake Tribune: I probably unknowingly sacrificed raises or promotions because I didn’t ask for them, whereas my male counterparts, whether they deserve them or not, just felt it was time to ask for those things. Whether it was when they were first getting hired or only been there for six months. I think [I felt] like I needed to prove myself before asking for those things, whereas I don’t think men necessarily constrained themselves in that way.

Amanda Zamora, Co-Founder & Publisher, The 19th: One common pattern for me in my career, I have often been the person who wanted to create a process to establish a method to the madness to manage the project, to get people organized, to get people on the same page, and often hit a lot of resistance from male, white male, colleagues more often than not, who did not want to be bothered to think about things like process or to have to re-examine their own process. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to create a news organization where people understand why process and equity are synonymous. If you don’t have a transparent process, there is no way that you’re going to have a chance at real equity, period. How decisions get made, how the work gets done, who was able to contribute and participate — a baseline process that is clear to people that they understand how everyone is going to have an equal opportunity to participate to the full extent that they should be able to.   

Sandra Clark, CEO, StoryCorps: I was asked one time at a job interview, “Have you ever had to walk into a situation where you had to build credibility quickly?” And, there was a reason they asked that question because that was going to be the requirement for the new person. But my answer to that is every time, and it’s not just when you’re walking in and you’re new at a place –– it’s every time you walk into a room, that credibility thing is always on your mind. It’s not the kind of thing that should paralyze us or should cripple us. It’s just what we know. We are both proving ourselves as women and women of color. Those are two separate things, because we also see plenty of spaces where we’re still trying to penetrate spaces where white women are sort of the dominant group too.  

What ways has being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to the way you approach your work? 

Kiran Nazish, Journalist & Founding Director, Coalition for Women in Journalism: I was able to be one of the only female correspondents to go to and have access to places where men did not have access to and that was because I was a woman. I was able to interview the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and travel to tribal regions in Afghanistan and down in Pakistan because I was a woman. I’ve been able to have a lot of access to people, refugee areas where only women are allowed, but not to talk to men. I’ve had a lot of access from top to bottom in my career because I was a woman.   

Gillian White, Senior VP of Programming and Revenue, Capital B: I think I’m more empathetic and insightful. I think I’m able to read a room because I spend so much time trying to read them just as a woman. Studies that show women are more attuned to what is happening, they’re more attuned to other people’s feelings — they have to be. They have to think about those things. They have to think about people’s responses to them. I think that has been really helpful because part of the thing that helped me rise in newsrooms isn’t that I’m the most aggressive. It’s that the people who work in the newsrooms I work in trust me, believe that I have their best interests at heart, and I think they believe that because it’s true. 

Anna Nirmala, Vice President, Portfolio Success, American Journalism Project: In the start of my career, I was working with people in retail and consumer and telecom and healthcare, in all types of companies and industries. I think that enabled me, and also the work that I did in undergrad as well in the sociology space, just helped me to come with a level of being able to stand in other people’s shoes, regardless of where they come from, what their life experiences are, and translate that into an ability to hopefully help drive change.  

Mary Walter Brown, CEO & Founder, News Revenue Hub: I think by being a woman and being a woman who has wished for things and not been afraid to stand up to my peers, or ask for what I think I deserve, I was able to get where I needed to go by sort of demanding it. Early on in my career I wasn’t good at salary negotiating or anything like that. It wasn’t financial gains, it was just opportunities to do mostly projects and things that I was excited about. I would say, “Hey, this needs to be done. Why don’t you let me do it?” As an executive, I like it when people come to me in the organization and say, “I can help fix this problem.” I think that’s a smart thing for women to do – instead of asking permission just say, this is what needs to be done and I’m here to do it. 

Jessica Sweeney, Development Director, The Salt Lake Tribune: Especially in fundraising, I think you see that there are a lot of female fundraisers in development for nonprofits. I do think to be a successful fundraiser you need to connect on a personal level. Not that men aren’t capable of doing that, [but] I think that a lot of them are just used to working in a “business first” kind of manner. I think a more personal touch allows you to be more effective with fundraising.  

Amanda Zamora, Co-Founder & Publisher, The 19th: I will say that I think, not just as a woman, but as a woman who has gathered a team of racially diverse, gender diverse people, all of us come to work as people who want to bring our lived experiences to the work, who want to feel valued. Accuracy, credibility, civility, excellence, and independence — those are values that we’re accustomed to hearing about describing the news and journalism and the craft of journalism. Those are values that we adhere to and and that we stipulate in our employee handbook. Additionally, we talk about diversity and equity and community, kindness, empathy, transparency — not just in making a correction on a story when we make a mistake, but transparency internally, with our team, with our readers about how we make decisions.

That wraps up our second installment of Women in Journalism. My colleague Hayley Slusser will be back in your inbox next week for the third installment of the project. See you then!

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