By Elizabeth Randolph
Monday, August 20, 2001
She started a grade school paper; she loved Brenda Starr and Nellie Bly. Starting as copy "girl," Zacchino eventually was nominated for a Pulitzer. She battled for gender equity; now she's taking her passions for journalism and justice to San Francisco.
(WOMENSENEWS)--After three decades making waves and determining front page news at the Los Angeles Times, Narda Zacchino has moved north to San Francisco to provide her leadership to the expanded San Francisco Chronicle.
At her new post as senior editor of the Chronicle, Zacchino is number three on the editorial masthead, which is 40 percent women. On the business side, it is all men. With Zacchino around, that may not last long. She has a habit of not only developing much-needed new readership for newspapers, but also pushing for strong representation of women and minority men in both the editorial and business sides of her employers' enterprises.
It was Zacchino's talent in growing circulation with excellent journalism that prompted Phil Bronstein, now the new editor in chief of the Chronicle, to call her three years ago. At that time, Bronstein edited The San Francisco Examiner and he wanted her to jump. She declined.
However, when the ink was drying on the November 2000 merger between the Chronicle and The Examiner, Bronstein called again, and once again asked her to move to the Bay Area. He wanted her help to make the new Chronicle a world-class newspaper and challenge The New York Times' popularity in Northern California, he said, and asked her to create a book festival like the successful one she organized in Los Angeles, now a cultural institution. He also asked her to start up a readers representative department, not unlike the one she started at the Times.
While Zacchino is widely respected throughout the journalism community for the success of those undertakings, among women journalists she is also widely regarded as a hero for her other major initiatives at the Times.
At the management committee meeting in January of 1990, after each and every member of the all-white male executive team stood up and spoke about how great it was to go through the 1980s and how wonderful it was going to be in the 1990s, then deputy managing editor, Narda Zacchino, stood up in the second row and asked a question.
"Are we committed to diversity?" asked Zacchino. "If so, I think it should be at the highest ranks. Because I don't think we really can be great unless we do that."
Zacchino, a Times staffer for 20 years at that point, insists that she didn't mean to make a speech. "It was just a question," said Zacchino in a phone interview from her office at the San Francisco Chronicle.
But it wasn't just a question. It was a challenge.
The publisher at the time, David Laventhol, gave a quick answer, said Zacchino. "He said, 'Yes, we are and yes, we will. Next question,'" said Zacchino.
But there were no more questions, just applause. And when Zacchino stood up to leave, there was a line of people waiting to shake her hand.
Laventhol, now the publisher and editorial director of the Columbia Journalism Review, has only kind words for Zacchino.
"She kept the issue where it should be, which is among the highest priority issues, by speaking out on that occasion," said Laventhol. "I think Narda is someone who loves the newspaper business and is committed to high standards and quality in journalism and works very hard to make it happen."
Before she left the room that day, she and others formed the Women in Management organization. The aim was to present the all-white, all-male team at the highest level of management with a diverse group of people, qualified and available for top positions.
"It was powerful because these male executives worked with these women executives in their jobs every day," said Zacchino. "These women were already highly respected by the men they worked with, so all of a sudden they're scratching their heads saying, 'Well, I thought you were happy.'"
The organization was one of two that Zacchino founded to support women in journalism while she was at the Times. The other was the Women's Editorial Caucus, which succeeded in establishing a policy that the editorial department would post available jobs and in ridding the newspaper of sexist headlines, references to women and photos.
But it was the Women in Management organization that endured and had a powerful impact on the organization, said Zacchino. By the 1990s, the masthead of the Times was 50 percent female on both the business and editorial sides. That was the largest percentage of women on a masthead at a large metropolitan newspaper in the nation.
"I would like to see a day when all mastheads in the country are 50 percent women with minorities in there too," said Zacchino. "Look around America, folks."
Zacchino's success story is, in fact, all-American. The daughter of an Italian immigrant father and a first-generation Polish-American mother, Zacchino was born in 1947, and grew up in San Diego, Calif.
She started her own newspaper in the sixth grade with her friend Marjorie Bradley. It was called "School Daze." Zacchino's mom typed it up while she and Marjorie wrote all the stories. "It is all I ever wanted to do," said Zacchino. "I was so in love with Brenda Starr and Nellie Bly and all of the fictional and nonfictional female characters in journalism."
After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, where she had been an editor at the Daily Bruin and majored in English literature, Zacchino started out at the Times as a copy messenger. She quickly advanced, moving up to desk assistant, intern and within a year, general assignment reporter.
Zacchino, as one of only two women in the newsroom, wrote all of the "first women" stories--first woman detective, first woman firefighter, first woman whatever.
She was a reporter for seven years and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series she co-wrote in the late 1970s about what happened to the leaders of the radical movements of the 1960s.
She married Robert Scheer, a Times national correspondent. After she became pregnant with her first child, she considered a move to the editing side of the desk. She soon became the weekend editor.
Zacchino went on to become the editor of the Orange County edition, which she built up into a newsroom of 200 and a major competitor to the Orange County Register. She was named deputy managing editor, while still at Orange County. She eventually was brought back to the main office and named associate editor.
But Zacchino hit a glass ceiling in her rise through the ranks. In 1996, Zacchino became a candidate for managing editor along with another woman, Carol Stogsdill, a senior editor. Both women were passed over for Michael Parks, a foreign correspondent for 25 years with no editorial or management experience. He was named editor of the newspaper eight months later.
Zacchino said that women must be present in the daily Page One meetings of newspapers so that their perspective is included in the critical decisions of what is significant news. For example, in the early 1970s, Zacchino had relied on a Dalkon Shield Intrauterine Device for contraception and it had been causing her to hemorrhage. When the federal Food and Drug Administration banned the device in 1974, she found the story about the agency's ban on page 17 of her newspaper.
"It was really a revelation to me because I thought they put the story inside because they thought it would only be of interest to women," said Zacchino. "But my husband was very concerned with my health. What about the fathers and brothers and the sons and husbands of all these women? If there had been women in that room, it would have been on the front page."
At the Chronicle for just two months, Zacchino is once again shaping the news and the newspaper. Zacchino attends Page One meetings and is also charged with overseeing the numerous special editorial sections, such as expanded sections on business, travel sections and features.
"News is really in my blood," said Zacchino. "If I could be locked in a room all day editing, I'd probably be happy." But of course, the text would have to be nonsexist and her coworkers diverse.
Elizabeth Randolph is a journalist living in New York City, and the former content manager for Women's Enews.
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