Women in Journalism: Q&A with Mary Walter-Brown

Founder and CEO of News Revenue Hub

It has been important to Mary Walter-Brown to be constantly challenged in her career.

“You really have to really push yourself to not get stuck in one place and to keep moving and pursuing different paths. It’s that collective experience that you have that strengthens you and makes you more versatile from one job to the next…  I want to always push myself to be in a position where I am a little bit over my head at the beginning and where you really have to fight and scrap to learn and to gain competency. I think if you allow yourself to get too comfortable in a position for too long, you stop learning and getting excited about your work.”

Walter-Brown is Founder and CEO of News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit organization that helps newsrooms produce reliable reader revenue.

I spoke with Walter-Brown as part of Women in Journalism, a project published in Solution Set to celebrate women in journalism, lift up their achievements, and share their advice and hopes for future generations. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Before we start, just tell me who you are and a little bit about yourself.

I’m Mary Walter-Brown, and I’m the Founder and CEO of the News Revenue Hub. I consider myself an entrepreneur in the business side of journalism. I’m really motivated by the strategic side of journalism, and the role it plays in communities and democracy. We started as a project at Voice of San Diego in 2016, where I was the publisher. I took a circuitous route to get to Voice of San Diego. I started out in journalism as a producer and a writer and majored in broadcasting. Then, like many people, about a quarter of the way into my career I decided to make the difficult decision to leave journalism to pursue a path that I felt might have a little bit more diversity in terms of options that I could pursue, and something that would allow me to stay in San Diego without having to move around. Most of my journalism friends at the time were having to make the difficult decision to leave and go to different markets in order to kind of work their way up the path. I really wanted to stay in San Diego. I grew up in Indiana, so I knew once I got to San Diego that I didn’t want to have to go back to the Midwest. So I left journalism in my early 30s and went to the nonprofit space to work in marketing. I spent seven years doing nonprofit marketing and fundraising and communications and really started to understand what it’s like to have to help a community or particular constituency understand the value of a charitable organization or a cause and how important that is. I did that for several years and then went off on my own to become a consultant. That was the route back into journalism.

The newsroom side of the journalism world is often romanticized, but the business aspect can be considered less sexy to some. What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field? What appealed to you about the business of journalism?

Like a lot of people, I went off to college with this broad notion that I was interested in communications. I just  let myself follow whatever I became interested in and found myself taking more and more communications classes. My particular college, Northern Kentucky University, had a great broadcasting program that was very hands-on with the Cincinnati broadcasting industry. I got to do a lot of great internships early on at really famous legendary public radio stations that did really really strong journalism. I was thrust into situations at 18, 19, 20 years old. I was going out and covering stories with a big microphone and a giant recorder in my hand. I was being asked to get a sound bite from the governor who was in town or a senator, and I just remember not even knowing who these people were. But I was told just not to overthink it, to just go up and ask him this question and fight your way up there to get this microphone on the podium. I just constantly found myself in situations where I was way over my head. I was really lucky that my university experience allowed me to get out into the real world and learn a lot about it. 

I also became very active in the TV studio at the school. Although I did some on-camera stuff, I was much more drawn to directing, producing, and orchestrating the newscast. I loved the building blocks of how you put a show together, how one story flows from another, and the overarching theme you’re trying to convey. I really liked the whole strategic formula of putting a broadcast together. I was much less concerned about reporting the story, but more interested in how you piece stories together so that they make sense and make an impact. I was really, really motivated to make sure that we were selecting stories that gave voice to underserved communities. How do we tell a story, and how do we make sure that we’re representing everybody in that storytelling?

I wasn’t doing so much of the actual business piece of it until much later in my career, but I did really seek out that more strategic contribution and I got to do that a lot more when I left journalism and ended up working at the San Diego Blood Bank. The whole goal of the blood bank is to get people to voluntarily donate their blood. How do you get someone to do the very, very difficult thing of making time in their busy schedule to roll up their sleeves and then sit there and literally have a needle in their arm, just for someone that they don’t know? I learned how to tell a story that made people feel like they were heroes and lifesavers as opposed to talking about the blood and the needle.

Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism, publishing, or business fields or in general that you look up to?

I have a mentor, who I ended up working very closely with when I was at the blood bank. This person is now the chairman of my board at News Revenue Hub. His name is Eric Poerschke, and he really taught me how to craft a communications plan that is built around the value proposition of what your organization does and the impact it can have on the community. I have since taken that at every single job I’ve had since then, both in nonprofit and out, to help really crystallize how a business or an organization communicates. Eric taught me all the nuts and bolts of how to do that and has been a guiding force in my career ever since then.

I had a very strong female support group and friends who aren’t in the business. They are all risk takers and entrepreneurs themselves. One of them told me, “It’s not like, you’re never going to work again. You can quit this job, and do your best to create your own consulting agency or find the next job. You’ll do whatever it takes.” And I did. I did whatever it took during that time. I did multiple different jobs, I had tons of tiny clients. You do whatever you have to do to survive in those moments. That’s usually when you’re really out there most aggressively looking for what’s right for you, because you’re in that position where you have to. Again, it’s the discomfort that spawns  ambition and aspiration.

Everybody’s taking a break. A lot of people are quitting very lucrative jobs and reassessing. I think that’s amazing. We should all allow ourselves to, at some point in our life, do a temperature check and ask if you’re really feeling fulfilled. Are you getting what you want from your career? And if you’re not, do something about it.

What advice would you give to your past/younger self when you were just starting out in the journalism industry?

Just keep moving. Take chances. I call myself a late bloomer because I didn’t have kids until my mid 30s. It was at that moment that I was like, I really need to kick into gear. I need to start to take some chances and put myself in a position where I can really get to the next level. It’s kind of the opposite path that most people take, after they have kids. For whatever reason, that experience just lit a fire under me to not do something that I’m not completely fulfilled at anymore. So I literally quit my job in the midst of a recession in 2009. I went out and became an independent consultant. I was working as a marketing and fundraising and journalism consultant. It was really that “jump off a cliff” moment that led me to Voice of San Diego and ultimately to the position I’m now in at the News Revenue Hub. We have to take chances because they can really be transformational in the end.

You really have to really push yourself to not get stuck in one place and to keep moving and pursuing different paths. It’s that collective experience that you have that strengthens you and makes you more versatile from one job to the next. Anytime I was at a place for more than three to five years I would start to get antsy. I would feel like I almost learned as much as I can from here. I want to go to the next level. I want to always push myself to be in a position where I am a little bit over my head at the beginning and where you really have to fight and scrap to learn and to gain competency. I think if you allow yourself to get too comfortable in a position for too long, you stop learning and getting excited about your work. So, I think it’s really important for young people to keep pushing themselves in their careers into new and challenging positions.

It’s great when you finally get to a point in your job where the first year is crazy. It’s usually very difficult – you’re learning all the time and you’re making mistakes. Then the second year, you’re feeling more like you’re making a contribution and your third year, you’re starting to really operate on all cylinders. So that all feels good and it’s very tempting to want to stay in something like that a long time, especially if you’re continuing to make an impact. But then in that case, I think you just need to make sure that you’re orchestrating opportunities for growth within that position. If you really land at the place where you feel like it’s a great fit and it represents everything that you’ve been looking for, then I think you just need to keep pushing to grow your role and make sure that you’re still learning and testing your limits.

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

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. So 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. All the women that work for me have this common trait where they believe things can be better, and they are specifically aligning themselves with efforts both at the Hub but also just in affinity organizations that they’re involved with, in the space to really bring about change.

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

I was working at the San Diego Blood Bank as a marketing manager and was planning to stay there. I had a really juicy role and we brought about a lot of change in a pretty traditional style nonprofit. It was very rewarding and fulfilling, but there was no room for advancement. There was no place for me to go, I wasn’t even allowed to know where my salary was in the salary range. I was hitting a ceiling even though my team and I  were outperforming everyone. That was really frustrating because there was nowhere to go. That’s when I really decided I need to spread my wings.

It was difficult in that it was scary, but as soon as I did it I was like, “This is awesome!” For the first time I had control of my life. My success wasn’t dictated by someone else telling me what to do and how well I was doing it. I was creating my own path forward. I mean, I was my own boss, and I really have been my own boss ever since.  I immediately loved it. I think anybody who works with me now will say that I’m completely driven by that experience because I’m not really afraid of anything anymore. If I see something is broken, we just put a plan together to fix it. If I see there’s a gap in the industry and we’re the best ones to fill it, then we just put a plan together to do it. If there’s a service we’re not providing and we see that news organizations need it, then we put it together, we make it happen. I think it created just a sense of urgency in me that if things are broken and no one else seems willing to fix it, then we should just do it instead of waiting around for someone else to fix it. So, I think if I didn’t jump off that cliff and made it work I wouldn’t have the confidence that I have today that any problem can be solved with the right people in the room tackling it.

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

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 to 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.

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

I think 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.

Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship? 

I absolutely feel that mentoring is a responsibility and something that I am passionate about with my children, with the people that I work with, and with my friends. I feel it is really important to empower, encourage, and help women work through strategic decisions, whether it’s where to go to college or how to decide what job to take, or navigating the myriad of other life choices that can have a huge impact down the road. 

I think at work, it’s really important to lead by example and to try to bring everybody into the conversation. We’re a startup, so I say to our team all the time, “You can literally shape the future of this organization. You just have to believe that you have something to contribute, and you have to be vocal enough to make that contribution.” What’s really fun about running my own organization now is the culture. Everything we do is open for debate and input. It’s really fun seeing it mold itself from within. As I said, the majority of people working for us are female. A lot of them are helping shape this entity as it’s evolving, and I think that’s one of the main things that draws people to the Hub –– you can have an impact on how this service is formed and shaped and and you have an impact on what it can do for the journalism industry.

Publishers are looking for new, sustainable business practices given the ever-changing nature of the journalism industry. In what ways do you think business changes can lead to cultural changes within the industry? How do you see yourself taking advantage of these changes to create a more equitable environment for women in journalism? 

We think about the culture of newsrooms a lot in the work we do, because we found that there are certain traits of really high performing digital newsrooms. Now we’re in a position where we’re working with 70 different newsrooms and we get this really interesting vantage point into each of them because we are in the trenches doing the work with them on a daily basis. Just like any work environment, the culture really has an impact on how things are done. What are the workflows, who has access to what, who’s doing what? We found that some of the top performers have shared these common traits, and one of them is a culture where people feel empowered to help bring about change, or help come up with new solutions or experiments. Here’s the kind of culture that inspires success. It’s when people in low to mid-level positions are empowered to come up with a solution or lead an experiment, or are given the opportunity to try out a different role, or to be a bridge, or play a bridge role in a news organization. So, with every new engagement with every newsroom we really tried to get the CEOs, the publishers and the editors in chief to understand that this industry is changing so much, and the newsrooms who are able to succeed are the ones who are nimble enough to be able to change with it quickly and embrace new ideas. So culture in that regard of just making sure that people feel empowered to contribute, and not stay in their boxes is really important.

Secondly, culture to make the work that we’re doing more freely accessible, and representative of the communities that these newsrooms serve. A lot of that is making sure that it’s available to communities of color, making sure that the newsroom itself is more representative of its community, and making sure that everyone has a voice in what’s covered, and then how that information is delivered back out into the communities that they aim to serve. The best way for us to do it is to model it ourselves in our own culture and our own workplace, but to also then spotlight newsrooms who are doing it well so that others have a real tangible understanding of what it means. Most importantly, how does that impact the bottom line? Because we again, it all kind of comes back to –– why is it important to have this culture of experimentation? Why is it important to empower mid-level business development people to have a say? We’re always trying to connect the dots back to the revenue component, because we know that’s the Trojan horse, through which you create change.

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 the space has become a lot more moldable. I think it was very, very structured in this old world network when I came on board. It took me a lot longer to navigate a career path through it because I wasn’t interested in the traditional role in a newsroom. That’s why I left it. It was stagnating and boring, and too formulaic for me. Now I think there’s a whole myriad of different ways that you can come straight out of college and make an impact. You can start your own newsroom, you can be a content creator, you can try to change legacy from within. There’s every different medium, from podcasting, to print, to digital. The trajectory has been expedited exponentially in  today’s landscape of media. I think there are so many more doors to go through. I think the challenge is really just as I said in the beginning, positioning yourself so you get a taste of everything so you can find what you really fall in love with.

The more versatile, the better. We really feel like people who come in and work as a project coordinator or project manager at the News Revenue Hub are really getting a crash course in how to be a digital newsroom leader of tomorrow, because they’re understanding how to do business development, fundraising, how to deal with audience development, how to do community outreach, how to make sure that editorial is closely aligned and in lockstep with community engagement and audience development and membership development. So, I just think there’s a lot more opportunities now.

One thing that we have been challenging each of our employees to do is to figure out what their superpower is ––  what is it that they are really good at and they want to own that skill, or what they want to be really good at and acquire the knowledge through either career development, or by tag teaming with someone else on another team. My goal is that we all have a variety of superpowers. If we have a client who says, “Hey, I really want to figure out how to do better at community engagement” then I can say, “Abby’s got that superpower.” Really, everybody has the freedom to attain whatever superpower they want. It’s really not up for debate as to what their superpower should be. They have to figure out what drives them. 

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