By Katherine Ferrara Johnson
For as long as I can remember, journalism was the only career I’ve ever known – or ever wanted. Some of my earliest memories as a child were gathering around the table for family dinners, watching the nightly news on television. My dad would quiz me on current events and encouraged me to ask questions of everyone I would meet. I was mesmerized watching the authoritative men and women beaming in our home through the small black-and-white television screen, delivering stories from around the world. From natural disasters to international news involving foreign heads of state to stories about cute animals, current events became my way of life. I soaked up all types of media —newspapers, magazines, flipping channels between local stations with lightning speed to see how the reporters told their version of events.
I wanted to be the voice for the voiceless, to advocate for the greater good and tell amazing stories. But my wide-eyed debut into my professional career following college graduation was met with challenges and obstacles not taught in J-school. While I had a former editor who swore that the Internet was a fad and wouldn’t last 10 years, I was much more realistic in my view of the future of journalism.
The reality of what I experienced in my career – similar to the stories you will read on the following pages – is boiled down to the top 5 life lessons I learned along the way:
1. Integrity. It is earned – not given – and can be taken away instantly with one social media post, one conversation, or one email. Do not sell it for anything or give to anyone. It is your most precious and valuable commodity.
2. Commitment. Journalism – whether print or broadcast or online – is a constant companion and one that is hard to ignore after the deadlines are over. Reporting, especially covering breaking news, is an adrenaline rush for me that far beats any Red Bull or highly caffeinated espresso. However, the industry is – and will continue to be – a family killer and a sacrifice not for unwilling. Families will give up planned vacations, family events, shift schedules, endure demotions, layoffs and more – even at the height of someone’s career.
3. Reputation. It is your most valuable asset and there is no settling for anything less than a stellar reputation, personally and professionally.
4. Pay it forward: Find a mentor and be a mentor. Most, if not all of my mentors in my career, have been men. They were my first “Lean In” counselors, educators and motivators for me to achieve bigger roles in my career. They also challenged me to think about the bigger context of a single news story and the impact that my role as a journalist plays in bringing that story to the spotlight.
5. Today’s journalists: must not only find and tell captivating stories, but must also have a global view, possess forward thinking, and carry a greater burden of responsibility as a social media sojourn and brand maker. Media companies are demanding more from employees with fewer resources and staff, and face increased competition from social media, bloggers, and other outlets. It’s not going away anytime soon. I wear five different hats in this job alone and report on several mediums. Earning a higher position in the newsroom – local or national – is cut throat competitive and not for the faint of heart. You will deal with narcissistic people, inflated egos, childish behavior, and working with people you would never invite to your funeral. If the walls of my previous newsrooms could talk…
My ability to excel quickly across multiple media platforms was rewarded with a position in management by my mid-20s. Management to me meant job security. While I celebrated my achievement expecting others to do so as well, I faced scrutiny from my peers, especially women. I often lied about my age and second-guessed my abilities to be in the positions that I had earned. I learned very quickly in my career that women in media – whether peers or managers – did not laud other women climbing the ranks. In some cases, there was a concerted effort to sabotage and diminish my role and value as a woman, both in my job description and pay. Determined to break the Queen Bee cycle, when I was promoted to my first management position, I showed more empathy and more compassion than had ever been shown to me. I mentored anyone who sought my advice — both men and women. Today, I still look for opportunities to share my life lessons and help others. It’s my small way of building a new generation of mentors in an industry that has an ability to tear down and break the best in the business.
My story is just one of thousands across the media industry. There are many more women that faced harsher lessons, especially in the generation or two before me, or in front of the camera, from their colleagues, bosses and especially, the viewers.
On the following pages, you’ll read stories of some of the most successful women in media today, in newspapers, radio, and television from Tampa and Sarasota. In each interview, I asked them to share their personal stories as they climbed the ladder of success, the challenges they faced as women in the media industry, and the lessons they learned along the way.
I hope you will appreciate their candor and frankness as much as I did.