In many college newsrooms, women hold top leadership roles

The story is that men control the media, with surveys of professional newsrooms continuing to paint a bleak picture for women and minorities — especially those who aspire to hold leadership positions.

But in college newsrooms, the story is different, as I found in discussions with representatives from 11 schools — Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Harvard, Iowa State, Tampa, Maryland and Wisconsin-Madison. At those schools and others, women increasingly lead — and the gap may be widening in their favor.

“I’ve had some females in the newsroom I would put in a bar fight with a guy any day,” said Laura Widmer, general manager at the Iowa State Daily, who previously worked as director of student publications at Northwest Missouri State University for 29 years. “But the difference in leadership with the females I’ve had the pleasure of working with is that they tend to take a more interactive, more nurturing approach. Managing from the heart as opposed to from the desk, and they realize that leadership comes from their personality and knowing the personality of the your staff.”

Widmer, who also previously has served as president and New York convention director for the College Media Association, said in a phone interview that yearbook editors have skewed female since she began working in the 1980s, and in the next decade “we started seeing more females moving up the ladder and taking those roles” at newspapers. (While there are more women pursuing and earning college degrees than men, I found no reliable statistics on female leaders in university newsrooms. College Media Association executives also weren’t aware of research in this area.)

Exploring gender breakdowns

I decided to explore the gender breakdowns in college newsrooms after seeing the number of women editors explode in the last year at Ohio State University, where I teach and serve as student media director. We typically have about 16 paid editors on staff at The Lantern. Last spring, 11 were women. In the fall, there will be 14 female editors. At Buckeye TV, women hold three of the five paid positions, including that of station manager. The four men at the paper and the TV station hold the four sports positions.

Our experience isn’t unique. Sports sections are one of the few areas where men still dominate — and when women have taken the reins in sports, some readers have reacted badly, levying online attacks and making personal threats.

Dan Reimold, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa and adviser to The Minaret student newspaper, said in an email that his “best-educated guess as a college-news nerd is that there are more female editors-in-chief of student papers nationwide than men, something I would not have posited even a few years ago.”

The rise in female student enrollment within journalism schools and programs has played a part in the gains for women, Reimold said, as has college media expanding its scope with more candid stories, features, and special editions focused on sex, relationships, and LGBTQ issues.

Reimold said that while researching a book, “I came across countless young women who joined their student newspapers mainly to produce such content — and at times moved up the ranks from there.”

“Overall, we are seeing more women not being afraid to step into leadership positions,” Widmer said, adding that there were two-thirds female editors at the Journalism Leadership and Management Conference at Iowa State in June. (Sources for stories are a bleaker gender-equality picture. This story from Poynter has more on that.)

Jim Rodenbush, who came to The Daily Collegian at Penn State University as news adviser in January 2011 from Webster University in St. Louis, said in a phone interview that he’s had six straight female editors-in-chief, including the last five at PSU.

A glass ceiling shattered

“There’s always talk of a glass ceiling [in journalism], but this is a great example of a place where that doesn’t exist,” Brittany Horn, editor-in-chief of The Daily Collegian at Penn State, said in a phone interview.

This summer, 15 students were accepted into The Daily Collegian’s staff-writer candidacy program. Ten were women. And Horn said she has interned at three different newspapers in Pennsylvania — the Lancaster Sunday News, Harrisburg Patriot-News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. All had women as either editor-in-chief or second in command.

“Journalism gets a negative rap,” Horn said, adding that “I think it’s neat to watch the leadership changes. … Women in power, I’m all for it.”

More women are seeking sports reporting positions, which are ultra-competitive at Penn State, and in the past two years, out of nine crime reporters, two were men.

“Truly, most of our competitive reporting positions are also held by females,” Horn wrote in an email. “This shift could explain why we’re seeing so many female editors. I also think that a lot of women refuse to not be taken seriously anymore, especially in higher level beats, which gives a great jumping off point for leadership positions.”

Rebecca Robbins, managing editor at The Harvard Crimson, said that organization’s “Superboard” of editorial and business leaders has been pretty evenly split between the genders for the last two years.

But The Crimson’s News Board, which includes the editors and reporters, has been “overwhelmingly female, something that’s definitely been noticed at the organization,” she wrote in an email. “I’m not sure how to explain it, but we’re happy that the News Board’s glass ceiling has long since been shattered.”

Abby Becker, editor-in-chief of The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the 31 editor positions were about evenly split last spring, but will include 23 women in fall. That is the most women since Spring 2011 when it was 19 females and 12 males.

“We actually talk about it in the office,” Becker said in a phone interview. She studies the history of journalism, and is aware that women weren’t allowed to write or report for decades — “something I love to do.”

Still, it’s not always easy or fair.

“There are still signs it’s not completely an equal work place,” Katie Burke, summer editor-in-chief at The Michigan Daily, said in a phone interview.

Burke mentioned this story from Politico about New York Times editor Jill Abramson, which included anonymous sources slamming her management style. “What I took from that was women are not expected to have a hard, authoritative style,” Burke said.

But Burke said when it comes to eventually getting a journalism job, it’s not her gender that concerns her — it’s the availability of jobs.

Men as the minority

So what’s it like for the men who run the new female-dominated newsrooms? At the University of Oregon’s Emerald Media Group, there is a slight female edge among editors and reporters. But editor-in-chief Sam Stites said in a phone interview the gender breakdown makes no difference in his leadership style.

“No one here I really need to coddle — everyone is a team player, everyone is willing to improve,” he said, adding that when he has needed to be harder on someone, “for the most part, most of the females take that criticism better.”

Tony Wagner, editor-in-chief of The Minnesota Daily, said there are more women at the reporting level, but the editor ranks are pretty evenly split, with the last six editor-in-chief slots going to three men and three women.

“At the end of the day, I’m just looking at the stories and the papers we put out,” he said in a phone interview, and not the gender of the bylines on those stories.

At the University of Maryland, Mike King will start his fourth year at The Diamondback in the fall, his first serving as editor-in-chief. Of the 18 editor positions, the majority have been women during his time there — including the three top editors before him. There are also noticeably more women in his journalism classes, he said in a phone interview.

“On a college campus and at a student newspaper, people are more willing and able to break the mold,” King said, adding that gender disparity is “not really a topic of discussion…and in my opinion, that’s for the best. It’s 2013, the people who do the best should get the best positions.”

Sports ‘fraternity’ can be ugly for women

Despite women’s gains as editors and reporters, sports shows signs of remaining a male bastion.

“In my 30 years advising, I have not had one female sports editor,” Widmer said.

At The Daily Collegian, staffers for the campus, news, and arts sections tend to be women, but Penn State sports coverage is still mostly produced by men.

“We joke that it’s the fraternity at the paper,” Horn said.

But it’s not always a laughing matter. Whether at Penn State or elsewhere, numerous editors I spoke to said when women have covered major sports, they’ve heard about it from readers through online comments, email and social media — sometimes in threatening ways.

Kristen East, editor-in-chief at The Daily Iowan, said in a phone interview that the paper had a female sports editor last year who was “not treated nicely.” While she said many anonymous comments and calls focused on a single column, some of the people who emailed and commented on stories “just didn’t like the fact that a woman was running the section.”

“That was kind of hard to see,” East said. “I don’t think it should matter either way.”

But this too may be changing. At Harvard, Robbins said sports has had male leadership for several years, but added that a strong group of female freshmen sportswriters are “very likely to change that.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Jenni Carlson

    I was the sports editor of the University Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas nearly 20 years ago, and I don’t remember there being it being a deal at all. Maybe I was just immune to it, but women need to know that the sports world is open to them. I’ve been in the sports media business ever since, now as a sports columnist in Oklahoma City, and while sexist and ugliness exists, it is not an overwhelming part of my job.

  • Melissa Brown

    At the University of Alabama’s The Crimson White, the managing editor and news/online editor were women. This year, 4/5 top editorial positions are women (EIC, Managing, Production, Visuals)

  • rlwalker1

    At the University of North Alabama’s student newspaper, The Flor-Ala (which I currently advise), all of our leadership for the upcoming year is female. I can also proudly say last year’s sports editor was a woman, and I never heard of any negative backlash for her position.

  • scmurley

    Why don’t you talk to people in smaller college newspapers around the country? Thousands of journalists are trained in schools that are not D-1 20,000+ institutions, and many of those newsrooms are led by women as well.

  • SteveAuerweck

    Most of this was true when I was with Penn State’s Daily Collegian newsroom about 40 years ago. So why did those roles translate so imperfectly to the professional world?