Women in Journalism: Q&A with Sandra Clark

CEO of StoryCorps, Inc.

As a bold and experienced leader at StoryCorps, Inc., Sandra Clark believes that it is a promising and exciting time for women in the journalism industry. 

“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,” Clark said. 

I spoke with Clark as part of Women in Journalism, a project published in Solution Set to highlight the successes and struggles of women working in news, their stories and achievements, and share their words of wisdom to guide young women in the space toward finding their own success. 

Clark is the CEO of StoryCorps, Inc. Prior to joining, she was an executive at WHYY as their Vice President for News and Civic Dialogue. Before leading WHYY’s news operation across all platforms, Clark was Managing Editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer where she was a member of the Executive Committee and newsroom senior leadership team. She began her journalism career at the Inquirer back in 1983.    

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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?

I have to admit, when I got into journalism, I didn’t have any career aspirations. I don’t think I really understood what it meant to be a journalist. The importance of journalism, the rigor of everything that we do. The trust-building with the community, how necessary that was, and this is where I think journalism has not entirely succeeded with that. There were so many things, the bigger kinds of questions about journalism that I didn’t quite understand until I got a little bit further into my career. 

The other day I was listening to a StoryCorps episode. It’s about a Filipino son and his mother remembering the devotion of her mom to the family. And one of the things they came to realize is, “Your job is what you leave behind at the end of the day. Your work is everything you leave behind at the end of a lifetime.” It really made me think about, what’s the work to be left behind at the end of a lifetime? It’s not all tied to your job, but I suppose that’s how I would look at journalism. It was more than a job, it is an incredible privilege, but a huge responsibility. I think we don’t always realize the full scope of what that responsibility is. 

At the local level, I think every time I spoke to a community group, synagogue, in any kind of community organization, and really show the stories that were produced, whether we were meeting with residents and just talking about some of those stories. When people realized what we’re looking out for and for whom, they really started to understand also what journalists do, because most people have never met a journalist. They have no idea what we do. That continued connection between community and journalists, for both sides. Journalists have much to learn about the impact on our communities and communities deserve to have a window into what journalists do too.

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

The person who brought me into journalism certainly always was a role model for me both in terms of achievement and struggle and what it takes to pay it forward. That I got from Acel Moore and continue to work in the high school program and I think that orientation very much was something that he helped shape for me. I didn’t even realize I was doing it a lot, it was just something that just sort of became part of the DNA. One of the things that I’ve realized is always having this feeling of being a bit unsettled. I’ve always felt like an outlier in newsrooms, which is maybe a strange thing to say, as somebody who’s led newsrooms. Part of that comes from just feeling like there was a deeper place that we needed to get to as journalists. Often what I saw in newsrooms, as important as journalism is, I saw places that needed work that needed reform, because I always thought about, is that information really going to connect anyone? Who are we serving? Is it really going to connect to anyone in the way we see our stories? Is that going to really connect to the people who are impacted the most? Asking those bigger questions was related to that unsettled feeling. We really need to look at what we do slightly differently too. 

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

I think with my younger self, I would ask, “Why?” I would ask the why question more. Oftentimes, when we think of a career, we think of, “What do I want to do?” But I think asking the why question gets us to a place of purpose that then makes us do some research into who has also asked that same why question. I would most certainly have had mentors. I feel like I didn’t seek that out enough. It also was a time I think where formal mentorship was not as much talked about. Later in my career I had more mentors than I did earlier in my career, because I was thinking, oh, I got a job and here I am. But I think that feeling of, why am I here? Where can I level up? How do I actually understand what I’m seeing and what can bring perspective for me? Was probably something I didn’t do enough. In terms of seeking out people who could have done that, I certainly have people around me, but I think in a more formal way I didn’t do that enough.  

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 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? How did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and how it’s going? 

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?

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.  

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? 

Business always requires us to think about what’s the need of the customer, the consumer, the audience, the community. Always keeping their eyes on the prize in that regard — who are we there to serve and what kind of person does it take for us to actually do this? I think that’s where a lot of businesses actually struggle. It’s easy to say let’s be innovative, [but] innovative for what purpose? It’s easy to say let’s keep everything the same because it’s working. The pandemic has brought that to very much to bear — the assumption that let’s go back to where we were, as though everything was working perfectly. Then we’re going to lose the opportunity to reimagine if that is what we’re trying to get back to. Having the voice of many, and in certainly a diverse group, at the table, is incredibly important. 

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

Yeah, I mentor all the time. I always open up time to just do meet and greets, when people were still in college and just to hear where they were. I have a couple of, I wouldn’t even say formal mentorships, in terms of once a month we’ve got this program where we’re meeting each other. I do a little bit of that. I always think it’s important for us not to act like wherever we are, that there’s some big secret about where we are. My office was always a place where I wanted people to come in and talk about stuff, brainstorm, share, share things that we may not have felt comfortable just sharing it so openly with other people. I think it’s really important to have that space, so I always make time to mentor and I keep track of where folks go. Anytime I can send a little note out to say just “I see you” — I think it’s really important to do that.

What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field? What would you like that space to be like? 

I hope for the next generation of women to [not just] have opportunity, but embrace opportunity. I think as women our life cycles are different than men. I often say that our windows open and close at different times in our lives. There are times when the window is wide open, there are times when we feel it shutting, and then there are times when it is shut right for us. We should think about prying open windows a little bit more for ourselves. Oftentimes we are not handed anything and so we should just put ourselves out there to have confidence. 

Most people move into positions without having all the knowledge and without necessarily feeling 100% confident. That’s a tougher space for us to embrace, but I say embrace it, because what we’ll find is actually we have many more skills than we knew we had — and not just skills in terms of academia. I’m talking skills in terms of really having eyes on all sides of our head, of having a certain kind of emotional intelligence, of having had a history of already managing multiple things. 

I would say let’s not make assumptions about what is the best space for us. You’re the only one who knows yourself. You’re the only one who knows what excites you. There’s no one looking for that space. Yes, diversity is imperative. Inclusion is most certainly imperative, but to get to an equity space; there’s a lot of work involved in that. We need to have opportunities to fully form ourselves. We need to have opportunities to have others look at us when we’re not fully formed and say, hey, you know what, I see this in you. And we need to be able to contribute in a way that is not always about screaming, to have our voices heard. 

As we go into looking for work, or as we’re trying to figure out our career paths, make sure you interview, wherever you’re going, the people well. You interview the company and whoever the representatives are, but that is not to say look for perfection. I think perfection is the enemy of us all and we tend to want to strive for that perfection because we think people expect perfection from us. The reality is, nobody has it. And so that should never be a barrier. I might have said this last time and if I didn’t, I’ll say it again. I always tell people, decisions feel so weighty sometimes. I think we need to think about what we can gain. Whether it’s just learning from someone, whether it’s honing our skills. I mean all these kinds of things. 

Decisions, oftentimes there’s nothing fatal, and there’s nothing permanent. Even if you’re someplace for a year or two, if you’re someplace for five years, not everything rides on that one basket. I’ve actually hired people who I knew I only had them for two years and frankly, I only wanted them for two years because I knew that they had an entrepreneurial spirit about them. I knew that they actually saw things in a way that they knew it was going to be confining for them to just continue to be in a newsroom, for example. But I also knew the company had a lot to gain from having them there, to model some things, to really bust open a little bit of culture that needed to be changed. There’s a kind of mutual aid sort of way of looking at this too. I think not looking for that perfect thing, but also not bouncing too fast. Take time if you’re in a place where you’re still growing. If you are in a place where you are still gaining something, then don’t don’t be so quick to assume the grass is greener on the other side, because those opportunities will be there as you continue to grow yourself

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? 

As women it’s important for us to lift each other up and to share knowledge and information with each other. Because oftentimes if you’re the only one or you’re one of few, then the message to you is, “we’re only going to have one or two of you.” You could either try to keep your position, or you could decide you want to share. That’s just a ridiculous way of looking at stuff. I think that we are seeing signs, I don’t want to say that we’re there by any means, but certainly seeing signs of recognition that leadership of women and women of color, change organizations. We are balancing so many things at the same time and have to think through the eyes of so many people. That’s not required of everyone and every business leader. We have an opportunity to really create these spaces that take advantage of a lot of different kinds of thinking. 

There are more role models now. I think there are more young women journalists than there were in my career ever. Don’t hesitate to do outreach. There’s probably more people like me out there than most people know, who are more than happy to take some time to ask questions. Every time I talk to young journalists, I’m not there just to be the person who’s sharing knowledge. In fact, some of them probably leave thinking I’ve just made them a one person focus group, because I’m so interested in how they think and how they look at culture, what kind of information they’re consuming, and what they think their barriers are to getting to where they are. That also helps me be a guide in a relevant kind of way.

Is there anything that you would like to talk about on this topic that I didn’t ask ?

I would just say let’s not assume that people who look like us are each other’s biggest supporters, because that’s not always the case. I wish it were but it’s not always the case. We shouldn’t have just one mentor, we should have a number of mentors. Not every mentorship is the same. We should always have mentors who will tell us the truth. My mentorship kind of goes between cheerleading and just being an honest voice about what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing. Embracing this moment isn’t about just shouting for generational change and just assuming that everything has to be blown up because the reality is, most things are not going to be blown up. I said to you before, I’m excited about the entrepreneurial spirit that we’re seeing with young women and particularly young women of color who are not trying to retrofit themselves into a culture or a structure that maybe won’t get the best out of them. But meanwhile, let’s leave space for people who work in those kinds of places and are perfectly happy, or are finding ground for growth in those kinds of spaces, too. It’s not one or the other. Sometimes when we talk about career and success, we force people into these sort of binary choices where we make each other feel worse instead of better. I just say, let’s leave room for all of it, because there’s an opportunity in every one of those spaces.

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