Sandra Mims Rowe: Prized Editor, Mentor

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Sandra Mims Rowe

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–This month Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of The Oregonian, will receive the prestigious George Beveridge Editor of the Year Award, a tribute that many female journalists say describes their own regard for her exactly.

“She’s been a mentor for everybody, particularly for women all over the country,” said Amanda Bennett, editor and executive vice president at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You’d be hard pressed to find a woman editor who hasn’t had some kind of inspiration or advice or help or something from her.”

Last September, Rowe hosted Bennett during the year’s annual board meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, held in Rowe’s adopted hometown of Portland, Ore. Bennett was then the editor of the Herald-Leader of Lexington, Ky. Another top editor, Janet Weaver, then the executive editor of the Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, Fla., was also under Rowe’s roof.

Rowe’s hospitality wasn’t obligatory. She considered the two women friends and they both saw her as a mentor who had helped them at career junctures.

The three settled in and got down to the business at hand: shop talk. Huddled around the island in Rowe’s kitchen, Rowe, Bennett and Weaver chatted into the night about the changing nature of the news business and the challenges and opportunities they faced as women in command of large newsrooms.

At one point in the conversation, Rowe paused, turned to her friends and marveled at how they had managed to break into the old boys’ club that had ruled journalism for so long. “I just thought, ‘Wow, three of the country’s top editors are standing in my kitchen in big slippers and fuzzy bathrobes,'” Rowe recalled in an interview with Women’s eNews.

Journalistic Slumber Party

The sort of journalistic slumber party would have been inconceivable a generation ago, when Rowe got her start in journalism as an editorial assistant at the Ledger-Star in Norfolk, Va. At the time, only a handful of women had ever worked their way through upper management of major publications and fewer still had landed at the top. Female journalists of the era tended to be shunned from newsrooms and relegated to writing features and soft, human-interest stories.

Women still remain a minority at the upper reaches of the nation’s newsrooms, according to an annual survey released last April conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2003, women held 34 percent of supervisory positions in newsrooms and represented 40 percent of reporters. An even smaller percentage of women have reached the top, according to a December study of top communication companies conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Fifteen percent of executive leaders are women and 12 percent of board members, the study showed.

Rowe can take at least some credit for helping women such as Bennett and Weaver take their exceptional places at the media helm. For one thing, she spotted their talent early and hired both to work for her. In 1998 she hired Bennett as managing editor of special projects at The Oregonian and in 1989 she hired Weaver to be a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Rowe also served as role model and mentor, showing them the ropes and encouraging them to pursue higher offices.

The practice of mentoring is in fact one of the surest ways to help female journalists climb the career ladder, studies indicate. And Rowe’s efforts certainly paid off. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bennett is now in top management of one of the country’s largest metropolitan dailies. Weaver is now dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists and teachers of journalists in Florida.

“She was one of the best bosses that I ever had,” Weaver told Women’s eNews. “She created a newsroom atmosphere that was very much like family. It wasn’t like the Waltons . . . but it was one where people argued and debated but always with a feeling that there was a safety net.”

Staying Balanced With Aplomb

Rowe didn’t limit herself to helping women, Bennett and Weaver said. But they said that Rowe, a wife and mother of two daughters, was an inspiration to young female reporters and editors simply because she managed to balance her work and family lives with such aplomb.

Julia Wallace, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and another of Rowe’s famed proteges, recalled a long-ago episode that illustrates Rowe’s ability to “do it all” with humor and grace. Wallace, once a reporter at the Ledger-Star, remembered attending a farewell luncheon in 1979 for a longtime employee. A very pregnant Rowe walked in and sat throughout the reception, periodically glancing at her watch to time her contractions. In the middle of lunch, she left the meeting, got in her car, drove herself to the hospital with newspaper in hand and delivered her second daughter.

“She was totally in control, even then,” Wallace said. “Sandy showed me how to do it all. She was a great editor, and she made it seem possible in a way that I never thought it would be–just by doing it and doing it well.”

Newsman’s Daughter Takes to Business

The daughter of a small-town newspaperman and a graduate of East Carolina University, Rowe rose quickly through the ranks of the Ledger-Star, working her way up to reporter and then managing editor by the age of 31. In this capacity, she steered the paper through a merger with The Virginian-Pilot, and then, in 1984, was tapped to become the paper’s executive editor and vice president. One year later, the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting.

In 1993, Rowe was hired to head The Oregonian, the largest paper in the Pacific Northwest. She took it upon herself to reorganize the newsroom, bulk up the reporting staff and emphasize local and regional reporting. Just six years after she took over editorial control, the paper won its first Pulitzer Prize in more than four decades. Two years later the paper won another pair of Pulitzers, including the panel’s top award for public service. Later this month, she will become the fourth woman–and the first in the last decade–to receive the George Beveridge Editor of the Year Award.

In the meantime, Rowe completed a program for Management Development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business and served on a handful of prestigious journalism boards. She also became head of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1997, one of just a few women in history to head the national organization of newspaper editors. And last but not least, she and her husband raised two daughters.

“It has been interesting, as these women get to the top of newsrooms, to realize how strong our relationships are,” she reflected, in a delighted tone of voice. “So many of us are close friends. We grew up journalistically together
. . . It is one of the great joys to see very talented women achieve at the very highest levels of journalism.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

National Press Foundation Awards:
http://www.nationalpress.org/

The Oregonian:
http://www.oregonian.com


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