By Jaylin R. Smith
On a warm Wednesday evening at the University of Mississippi, four media powerhouses sat under the glaring lights of the Overby Auditorium and glowed as they discussed the experiences of being Black women in top editorial positions of southern news outlets.
Overby fellow Marquita Smith, a former bureau chief at The Virginian-Pilot who also serves as assistant dean of graduate studies at the UM School of Journalism and New Media, moderated the panel by guiding the conversation through questions of glass ceilings, current challenges in leadership, intersectionality of Black womanhood, and the importance of holistic sisterhood.
Mary Irby-Jones, executive editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and Midwest regional editor for Gannett, Inc., began the conversation with an appreciation to the efforts of James Meredith’s integration efforts in Oxford, noting they’d paved the way for her own.
“I appreciate and honor everything that he’s done for Black students and really for Mississippi and all students at the University of Mississippi,” Irby-Jones said. “You asked about breaking barriers and ceiling. I have done a lot of that in my career. 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.”
Katrice Hardy is also the first Black woman to lead in her role as executive director of The Dallas Morning News. She discusses how gracious she is to be a first in her position, but also how it saddens her that so many women of color before her were not afforded that opportunity.
“I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate,” Hardy said. “But it also saddens me because it is 2022, and I am the first female and the first Black at The Dallas Morning News. While that’s notable and wonderful and a step further, how many people didn’t get that opportunity?”
Jewell Walston, executive editor of The Asheville Citizen Times, added that leading through times of financial uncertainty, media distrust and the competition of social media journalism has been challenging.
“We recently had a reduction in force in USA Today Network,” Walston said. “Leading up to that of course was plenty of questions. Everyone wants to know how is this going to affect me 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 plow through that and control what you can control.”
The three panelists also described the expectations of Black women in the newsroom. How equity is a major influence in decision-making on what news to cover and report.
“When you get into this role you feel this daunting responsibility to save the world,” Hardy said.
They also called for accountability in journalism and being present in the communities they cover in order to create a truer narrative of the issues impacting these areas. They discussed intentionality in reporting stories that might make a difference in the lives of their audience.
The panelists also talked about the necessity of sisterhood and mentorship in positions of leadership and the importance of “having someone who can hear you or understand you,” as Irby-Jones said. Being Black women in their roles comes with such a heavy load that only the presence of sisterhood can lighten.
Still, even with all of its challenges, the panelists agreed there are blessings and rewards for the hard work they do.
“Maybe I’m crazy but I never want to do anything else,” Hardy said.
The Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, founded in 2007, makes an intentional effort to seek diversity and inclusivity in its programming as it pursues its mission of bridging the gap between politics and the media. That mission will continue on Wednesday, Nov. 16 as chairman Charles Overby and fellow Terry Mattingly discuss the impact of religion on voting trends in this fall’s midterm elections, with an eye toward 2024.
All events begin at 5:30 p.m. in the Overby Auditorium and are free and open to the public.