A 2018 survey by the American Society of News Editors, the most recent data available, found only 7.19% of full-time newsroom employees were Black. Only about 20% of those Black employees were in leadership positions, and there is no data on how many of those leaders are Black women.
A conversation with three Black women in top editorial positions in the South revealed that getting into those roles is often just the beginning of the challenges.
Jewell Walston, the executive editor of The Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina, said leading through times of financial uncertainty, media distrust, and competition from social media has been challenging.
“We recently had a reduction in force in the USA Today Network. Leading up to it, of course, were plenty of questions. Everyone wants to know how is this going to affect me and am I going to be in the reduction. For me, I let them know, listen I am just where you are; I have the same concerns, but what’s important for day-to-day is to focus on why you came into the business, what we still want to accomplish, and today’s assignment. You have to play through that and control what you can control,” Walston said.
Mary Irby-Jones, the executive editor and midwest regional editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, said Black women in news leadership often have to get there by breaking barriers.
“I was the first woman editor of The Courier-Journal, which is 152 years old. I was also the first black woman to lead The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, and I have had a 30+ year career of a lot of firsts,” Jones said.
Executive Editor of The Dallas Morning News Katrice Hardy is also the first Black woman in her role and she said it saddens her when she thinks of the women of color who came before her.
“While that’s notable and wonderful and a step further, how many people didn’t get that opportunity?” Hardy said.
All three women described the expectations for Black women in the newsroom.
“When you get into this role you feel this daunting responsibility to save the world,” Hardy said.
The women discussed the ways in which a concern for equity influences their decision-making on what news to cover and report. They also called for accountability in journalism and for journalists to be more present in the communities that they cover.
“I spend a lot of time going to these festivals, speaking to these communities, you know, going inside these schools because I feel like it’s my responsibility, and no one else has done it. I’m trying to make up for what hasn’t happened in a 150-year-plus history of a news organization,” said Hardy.
For these newsroom leaders, having a support network is essential. Jones expressed the importance of “having someone who can hear you or understand you.” And Watson also wants supporters who can keep her on the right track.
“I would definitely say have a couple folk to lean on and a couple of folk to say ‘No, that was wrong don’t do it like that,’” Walston said.
With all its challenges, Hardy said there are rewards for the hard work they do.
“Maybe I’m crazy but I never want to do anything else,” said Hardy.
This discussion was part of a session at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics. Dr. Marquita Smith, assistant dean at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media, moderated the discussion.