Lessons on Mentoring for White Male News Editors

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Conditions for women journalists have improved greatly since the mid 1970s when the women of The New York Times sued their employer for paying their male peers thousands of dollars more annually for the same work.

But women I talk to still see ourselves overlooked for key assignments, special projects and investigative teams. Sometimes we are included in those teams after they’ve been assembled, and you realize there’s no women working on your major story. While that’s better than nothing, it’s going to take more groundwork to get us all to the place where, when you think of your pool of reporters, women and people of color are there along side everyone else.

I’m involved with an organization called the Association For Women Journalists and one of the things we stress among our membership, which includes men, is that we always need to be advocating for ourselves. It’s not enough to conceive, report and write a compelling story; we need to sell it to you, and convince you to sell it to your peers, and try to get our work closer to the front of the paper.

While I stress that this is the responsibility of us reporters down in the trenches, I’d like to challenge you here to keep your eyes and ears open to the possibility that a great story might come from someone other than your usual reliable newsroom stars.

Many of our industry’s top editors are white and male. Let me assure you I think there’s nothing wrong with being white and male. However, that will probably predispose you to being more comfortable with your reporters who share those qualities, men who perhaps share your basic educational background and upbringing, and trajectory in journalism.

Those reporters may, in turn, be more comfortable with you than the rest of us are with you. You may find these guys likely to pop into your office or approach you in the hallway to chat about some story they’re jazzed about. They get you excited about the idea, you take this excitement into your budget meeting, and soon you’re clearing space on next Sunday’s A-1 for what is no doubt a very worthy story.

Meanwhile, I suggest there are other staffers around you working on equally promising stories. And again, while it’s their responsibility to try to sell you on their work, many of those other staffers, perhaps women, perhaps Latinos, perhaps African-Americans, may not be as comfortable walking into your office or approaching you casually with their story idea. In fact, it may not even occur to them to do such a thing.

You may have in your newsroom right now staffers who are quietly doing their job, certain that eventually their competence and hard work will be noticed. They are waiting for the day that you will realize that they are just as promising as anyone else, and start shining a bit of your attention on them.

They may have been waiting on that for years.

I give credit to the reporters in your newsrooms and mine who never for a second doubt that what they’re working on is the most important story in the paper. Some great journalism was built by reporters who routinely take that for granted.

But it’s not the only route to great journalism. If you look back on who worked your really big stories over the past year, and realize it was a pretty non-diverse group, please take some time to stop and look around your newsroom.

The bright shining minority stars you’ve been hoping will one day come knocking on your door to ask for a job could already be working for you – just minus the sense of entitlement or self-promotion that your usual reliable high-achievers use to get your attention.

They could be the young women and men, Latinos, Asians and African-Americans, who are working for you right now. Please do all you can to nurture that talent. That means teaching, correcting and training.

Please resist the temptation to say Aha! A woman! A minority! and promote us to some job that makes your newsroom look progressive, without taking the time to help us get ready for that job.

Rather, look for talent in those staffers that don’t go around singing their own praises. Teach them, correct them, tear their work apart when it needs it. Challenge those writers to do better, and keep your eye on their development, so that they won’t be an afterthought the next time a big, complex story explodes or a plum political or investigative slot needs filled.

Women in positions of power need to mentor the women coming up. That’s very important, and it doesn’t happen enough.

But we also need men to mentor us – because you are so often the ones in position to do so. Many men seem to be reluctant to mentor women, and some formal mentorship programs tend to pair men with men and women with women. Perhaps there’s a fear on your part that somehow you might unwittingly engage in sexual harassment.

If so, I’m glad you and your papers care about what is a serious issue, one that is for you perhaps complicated by a modern workplace in which professional women are finally somewhat freer to be themselves, which sometimes means behaving in ways characterized as feminine, or refusing to downplay their attractiveness.

But I think that if you’re a man who cares about journalism and can think of women as more than creatures for you to be romantically or sexually interested in, you are probably pretty unlikely to “accidentally” commit sexual harassment.

Mentoring a young female journalist does not mean selecting the cutie in this summer’s crop of interns and persuading her to join you for lunch or drinks and talking generalities about the industry and her position in it.

Mentoring is noticing, not so much the personality, but the work of a younger reporter and saying, in person or in e-mail, “Liked your story on Saturday, what made you think of calling so-and-so source? It might have been helped if you had included X statistic or Y organization’s viewpoint.”

Mentoring is asking, “What are you working on next? What projects or stories do you really want to do in your current position? How are you going about that? I have some ideas for some sources to contact.”

Mentoring is offering to read and seriously critique a younger journalist’s work. If you’re her immediate editor, mentoring is not being reluctant to say, “Look, this story just isn’t good enough, and I’m going to take the time to tell you why, show you where the structure is flabby, what sources you still haven’t got, what questions you haven’t yet answered.”

Many women have gone before me to clear the path and lay a foundation for equality that I hope to see in my career. I’m going to be working on it, and I hope you will too, because it will be very hard without you.

Two years ago at the annual Journalism And Women Symposium, University of California graduate management professor Judith Rosener spoke about women’s workplace issues, and she made a comment that I can’t forget. She said, The thing about trying to shatter the glass ceiling from below is you’re going to get blood in your face. Rosener said, We need help from the men above us to pull up those glass floorboards.

That’s you, my friends.

Pfister is the Border Bureau Chief of the San Antonio Express-News and president of the Association For Women Journalists-South Texas Chapter. These remarks are excerpted from a talk given at the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting, April 29, 2000, Irving, Texas.

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