The Beginning: How 10 women started their careers in the business of journalism

Part one of Women in Journalism 2022

Happy International Women’s Day, and welcome to the first installment of Women in Journalism, our celebration of Women’s History Month featuring women on the leading edge of business innovation and sustainability in news. 

This issue is focused on The Beginning. We’re highlighting early-to-mid-career successes, challenges, and lessons learned by a group of women working in product, revenue, and in journalism support organizations. We discuss how they got into journalism and how their mentors helped to shape their experience in the field. 

I’m Mabedi Sennanyana, The Lenfest Institute’s advancement co-op. This is a month-long project 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 through the end of the month. If you haven’t already, click here to subscribe.

My colleagues Hayley Slusser, Kyra Miller, Samiya Green, and I connected with 10 women from diverse backgrounds and areas within journalism, and asked them the same questions. It has been exciting and inspiring to learn how their journeys have led them to paving the way for a more equitable space for women in journalism.

Here are the women we interviewed for this project:

Below you’ll read about these women’s unconventional entries into journalism, their experience on the revenue and product side of the industry, who they have looked up to, and what advice they would have given to their younger selves at the start of their careers. (Not everyone is featured in this first installment, but you’ll hear from each of these women over the course of the month. We’ll also publish complete transcripts of our conversations in the coming weeks.) 

The answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field?

Mary Walter-Brown, CEO & Founder, News Revenue Hub: 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 famous, legendary public radio stations that did really strong journalism. I was thrust into situations at 18, 19, 20 years old where 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 in 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 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?

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson, Publisher & Editor in Chief, The Jackson Advocate: It’s kind of my life story. I just grew up in the environment. That’s what I did after school. 

A part of growing up in a certain type of field you also feel the need to have individuality, to rebel a little bit — especially when people are like, “Oh, what are you going to do when you grow up? Are you going to take over the paper?” My gut reaction was no, I’m going to do something else. I’m going to try my own path because it kind of seems like it’s placed upon your shoulders, that your path is already laid out, and sometimes, depending on your personality, you tend to rebel against that. But as I grew older I realized the importance of the written word –– how powerful that is, and wanting to continue the legacy that my dad invested a lot of his life in. 

Then my goal became to continue his dream, and to make sure that we still had an African American newspaper in our community that would inform us, but also highlight our triumphs as well and the issues that are going on in our community. So first and foremost, that has been the goal. 

I’ve always felt a very strong affinity for using my voice. I think that translates into what we do as a Jackson Advocate being the voice of Black Mississippians. Now my goal is to continue to use my voice and uplift others.

Kyra Kyles, CEO, YR Media: The interest in journalism came really, really early. I think it was between three to five years old. How many people get to actually work in the career that they dreamed about when they were children? I mean, it’s not without its challenges, because even as a child, I did notice there weren’t very many people who look like me on the television screen. That’s something we’re still grappling with. 

I think I got more into the business aspect once I joined Johnson Publishing Company, that iconic brand of Black media. Instead of just writing or just doing on-air producing, I started being an editor. With that, you get a more of a sense of what it’s like to deal with advertisers, milestones that we need to meet, or the KPIs that we need to hit in order for us to keep creating. I always consider myself a content creator, and I continue to produce and continue to write for other outlets.

I like to think of it as making it possible and making it sustainable for people to be able to create. The young people that we work with are between the ages of 14 to 24. Most of the adult staff are super talented industry professionals, but what they want to do is pour into the young people. None of us are really writing or creating within YR Media, we’re providing mentorship. In order for us to be able to do that and have cutting-edge technology and have the money to pay our youth contributors, we really have to focus on storytelling. It is interesting telling the story of volunteers to funders or potential donors. It really ties everything together, because storytelling is what I love to do. And now I’m just doing it from an operational perspective.

Anna Nirmala, Vice President, Portfolio Success, American Journalism Project: I had this real crisis of consciousness senior year of college because I had already committed to a full time job at PricewaterhouseCoopers and was like, what am I doing? I’m entering corporate finance; this doesn’t feel right. I asked my mentor to hold me accountable and said, I want to go into business to learn from some of the best of the best and then take it into areas and sectors that need them the most. So after four years or so at PricewaterhouseCoopers, I transitioned into media and started at Hearken. That kind of set off this whole whole train of events. That’s how I stumbled into the sector.

Gillian White, Senior VP of Programming and Revenue, Capital B: I actually started out not in journalism at all, but it kind of makes sense that I ended up on the business side of journalism. I studied economics in college and a huge portion of folks who study economics in my college went on to banking. I was pretty competitive and wanted to do the thing that people were doing as well. So I landed at a bank right around the time of the financial crisis. I realized pretty quickly, probably after an internship or two, that I really did not love Wall Street. But I had that competitive 22-year-old mindset about me and really wanted to get in there and prove that I could get a job, prove that I could be good at it. 

I landed at a bank after college. I was working in high-net-worth wealth management. Eventually, probably about a year into that, they culled my entire class because it was the beginning of the really horrible part of the recession. So I spent a summer being “fun-employed” and really trying to think about what I wanted to do next. In high school and before high school, the thing I’d always wanted to do was journalism — the thing everyone thought I would do. I actually got into Northwestern’s journalism program for undergrad and just felt like it was way too early to be committing to one particular career track. 

So I took a job that was going to let me write about Wall Street and equity specifically, so kind of a bridge between those two worlds. I took a class at NYU’s journalism school just to make sure that I liked journalism in practice. I did, so I spent about two years just preparing to go to journalism school because I knew that no one would believe that an ex-banker could actually write in a legible, consistent way. I applied to a bunch of journalism schools, which was really good timing because I had a background and expertise that not a lot of journalists had — which was some pretty in-depth understanding of economics and the world of finance — which was obviously in really high demand in the years right after the recession. I ended up going to Northwestern and spent a year learning how to become a journalist and then finagled out of that a job at Kiplinger, which was a small personal finance magazine that I used to read when I was in banking, and work there, first as a economics reporter, and then pretty quickly moved up to being an economics editor. I knew I wanted something more than that. 

I knew that I wanted to write for a more diverse and accessible audience and actually started tweeting a ton about my thoughts on economic findings, on indicators, things that I was writing about. Within probably a year and a half, two years, I got a DM on Twitter from an editor at The Atlantic, saying that she had been following what I was writing and wanted to talk to me. So I joined the Atlantic in 2014 as a reporter and editor on the economics desk, and then just evolved that role from there. I wrote, I edited, I became a senior editor, and then became a deputy editor doing kind of a mix of special project things.

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, and what appealed to you about the business of journalism?

Anna Nirmala, Vice President, Portfolio Success, American Journalism Project: I was so ignorant coming in. I had no idea about this editorial-business divide and how fraught it was. It wasn’t until I joined Hearken and was having conversations with hundreds of newsrooms, globally and domestically, that I started to get this tension. I also saw that whether it was huge organizations in the corporate space, like the Gannetts and the McClatchys of the world, or the small resource-strapped public media organizations, no one was connecting all of these things like audience, product, and revenue. I was really shocked at the level of senior leadership and that a lot of these newsrooms didn’t have a comprehension of the business.

I then became passionate about helping to solve some of these issues as well. Hearken really enabled me to enter in through journalists and reporters that really cared about audience and product, and I was able to develop a lot of trust with people that were thinking in those ways, and established myself as someone that’s trying to help journalists and reporters that are leading these organizations to solve some of these issues. 

Jessica Sweeney, Development Director, The Salt Lake Tribune:  My background is political fundraising so I’m fairly new to the journalism nonprofit world, but it’s kind of been a perfect match because the Salt Lake Tribune is new to the nonprofit world — we just got status in 2019.

I think, especially here in Utah, I really was drawn to fundraising because I love the chase of it, but I also love to get to know people and you find that people are giving because they’re passionate about things. Being able to connect with folks on what they’re passionate about makes for really interesting, exciting relationships and conversations. In Utah, those who give politically — it’s a symbiotic relationship with those who really care about preserving an independent and free press. 

Because of my fundraising background, I have a lot of experience with big datasets and large numbers of donors coming in. That’s been an asset coming into the Tribune and really being able to figure out how we’re going to move subscribers to donors, donors to subscribers, and working in all those big datasets.

Mandy Jenkins, Head of Product, FactalI was so lucky to be able to start my career somewhere like the Journal Sentinel, and Milwaukee, because it was one of the few places that was making money online and had a very robust online experience, which was still not the case everywhere. I wrote my master’s thesis about what lots of leading newspapers are doing on the internet and how it was very different from place to place and how successful it really was for them. The fact that I actually got to work for one of the publications that I’d interviewed for my thesis was great. It was just a great learning ground for journalism innovation at that time.

I worked overnights in my first full time job with the Journal Sentinel. One day I said, I don’t get enough exposure to other jobs in the newsroom by working at night, and if I really want to learn more about this newsroom, but also learn more about this business, I really need to have more exposure to the reporters, editors, photographers, designers — the people who were doing this work during the daytime. I would love to have at least one day a week where I can be here when everybody else is. So I had a very fast turnaround between Thursday nights and Friday morning. I would get off work at like 1am and then be back in it by like 9 am at the latest. So that was not great, but I really cherished being able to do that. 

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

Mary Walter-Brown, CEO & Founder, News Revenue Hub: 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 –– Eric Poerschke. 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.

Kiran Nazish, Journalist & Founding Director, Coalition for Women In Journalism:  There are so many people who inspire us in different kinds of ways. I think sometimes when we are younger we’re looking for one inspiration, but what happens in life is the real answer to those questions, and sometimes you find different people who inspire you for different things. You will find people who’ve done it themselves. I would say I have a lot of people who have helped me navigate a lot of the things. 

The reality is, women don’t always have the resources equally available. There are lots of opportunities, fellowships, and mentorships, but it will never be the case that all women from all backgrounds will have access to them. That’s something that we are trying to change. We literally look for women who are not on the top of the industry and most connected networks so that they can have access to something. One of the realistic things I want to point out is that for those women who don’t have it, you don’t always need to have a mentor to guide you. There’s so many resources available. I would urge all women who are trying to be a journalist, or an editor, or a mentor, or someone who wants to innovate and change things in the industry, that they can take inspiration from the material available online and don’t ever get bogged down if they get rejections. Rejection is one of the number one causes of demotivation and can also be mentally stressful for a lot of women. Women should go find mentors and people who can root for them, but if they don’t, no problem. They can take inspiration from the work that is available online. 

Kyra Kyles, CEO, YR Media: I have so many, but I would say, my all-time person that inspires me and I look at as just being a reservoir of wisdom is quite honestly my mother, who was an educator for 30 years and the most creative person you’ll ever meet. She was interested in journalism, but she grew up in the segregated south. There weren’t as many opportunities for her as there have been for me, and I’m convinced that she would have beaten me hands down as a journalist. She would have decimated me.

Gillian White, Senior VP of Programming and Revenue, Capital B:  I had a tremendous number of mentors in the journalism community –– a lot of older Black journalists who are just so willing and helpful and will just talk to me about my career and can really understand the nuance of what it is like to try to be a person of color in largely white spaces. It’s really hard to make a decision when you’re in the thick of it, but for folks who have been on the other side of that, or have been in the industry for a while, kind of see the lay of the land. It’s really helpful to have somebody say, “This feels like a big risk now, but it’s not that big of a risk.” Or, “Taking this one job doesn’t mean that you’re permanently foreclosing other opportunities,” and help you see what that path could be, because they’ve seen other people walk it or they’ve walked it themselves. 

I have a godmother, A’Lelia Bundles, who was a journalist for years at ABC. She is now an author, and is still very active in the journalism community. Kevin Merida, who is the executive editor of the LA Times, has been just a wonderful mentor to me. Former bosses have been incredible mentors to me, along with colleagues and peers, people my own age, especially other women of color who I’ve worked with. Being able to just bounce ideas off of them and ask them what they think and vice versa has really just been absolutely invaluable.

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

Mary Walter-Brown, CEO & Founder, News Revenue Hub: 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 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 and now 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.

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson, Publisher & Editor in Chief, The Jackson Advocate: Being present. I mean, there used to be tons of people who came by the office, people in the community who would have conversations with my dad and my mom, but I don’t think that I was present enough to just immerse myself and what was going on. I was just a kid, so hindsight being 20/20, I would definitely just be present more and really look at what history you’re making. I think we’re never really sure that history is in the making, but it always is. 

Mandy Jenkins, Head of Product, Factal: I say sticking with my instincts, speaking up for myself, my ideas, and playing like one of the big boys even if I was not yet. I wasn’t prepared for that to be acceptable. I certainly had bosses at that time who were definitely not okay with it because they were just used to the way things used to be — respect elders, and that kind of thing.  

I always say this now whenever I’m talking to incoming journalists: If your direct supervisor is not helpful to you when you’re asking for help or you want to learn something, you’re going to have to take things in your own hands. It may be that you just say, “Hey, I want to go get to know other people in the newsroom or other jobs.” It’s about developing yourself and your career, and you can’t trust that someone else is going to do that for you, or even know what’s best for you, because they only really know their path. They’re not necessarily going to think creatively about what you need. 

I got to see so much because I didn’t just show up when my job started, do the things on the to-do list that my job description said, and then go home. I was always thinking, how does this thing work? And where does this go from here? Or how did things work on their way to get here to me? 

Kiran Nazish, Journalist & Founding Director, Coalition for Women In Journalism: I would say I’m just pretty impressed by how I have handled everything. I think that I’ve handled a lot of different situations very nicely. I’ve been impressed by my younger self. If I was to advise my younger self, I would really just say keep doing, keep going. You’re doing fine!

Anna Nirmala, Vice President, Portfolio Success, American Journalism Project: The advice that I would have given myself is not to worry and try to create spaces largely outside of the sector where I can continue to learn, continue to feel support, and not feel like such a lone voice within the spaces that I’m in. So, really establishing and finding that community outside of just where you work.

Jessica Sweeney, Development Director, The Salt Lake Tribune: For fundraising, just being willing to ask is the first big step. I think it can feel uncomfortable, especially when you’re asking for money. If you are passionate about what you’re doing, and you can easily explain why that’s important to you, people can see that when you’re talking to them. Just being honest and authentic, rather than being skittish and not having conviction in what you’re asking, is probably the advice I would give myself.

Gillian White, Senior VP of Programming and Revenue, Capital B: Don’t be afraid. The opportunities will always present themselves as long as you are working really hard, staying true to yourself, and listening to your gut. I had the benefit of starting out my career, my original career, in a job that felt almost viscerally wrong for me. So I know what that feeling is like, and I know when something doesn’t feel right, and I know when I’m not walking in my purpose, and I know what it feels like when I am. At the end of the day, one choice is not all of the choices. If you choose and choose wrong, you can always choose again. Nothing is really the definitive end. So I would tell myself to not put so much pressure on myself to make the perfect choice every single step of the way. You know, careers are generally, and if you’re lucky, very long, and there are lots of choices there. So it’s okay if you don’t make the perfect one.

That’s all for the first installment of Women in Journalism. I hope the wisdom shared here left you feeling inspired. Samiya will be in your inbox next Tuesday with the second installment of the project – The Path.

See you next week!

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