Like most journalists, Jennifer Orsi knew at an early age what she wanted to dowith the rest of her life. With a natural curiosity for asking inquisitive questions and never satisfied with the first answer, Orsi honed her reporting skills to build a 25-year-plus career at the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).
A passionate editor and newsroom manager, Orsi, 48, leads the day-to-day operations of her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Last year, she was named the first woman in the newspaper’s 130-year history to lead both the print and online daily content.
I think anybody who works in journalism sacrifices something. My life is very focused on two things – my family and my work.
In an industry that has struggled against dwindling print circulation figures and advertising dollars, and competed with the 24/7 cycle that television, cable news and social media channels demand, Orsi remains fiercely protective and optimistic about the newspaper industry. She is dedicated to the award-winning staff at the Times, making sure the longstanding traditions of excellence, credibility and engaging storytelling continue with the next generation of journalists.
The mother of two teenaged children, Orsi and her husband, Times Deputy Sports Editor Mike Stephenson, juggle the demands of two high-profile journalism careers at the same company and parenting duties. Here, in her own words, Orsi talks about her early days reporting, her perspective on the changing landscape of journalism, the sacrifices women make, and the legacy she would like to leave.
How did your love of journalism begin?
I grew up in the Clearwater/Dunedin area. I went to Dunedin High School. I think my love of journalism began in 7th grade. I took a newspaper elective class because I like to write. That introduced me to journalism and writing. Early on in high school, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I was editor of my high school newspaper and I majored in journalism at Indiana University, where I was editor-in-chief of my college paper too. The Times has long standing ties to Indiana University. One of the former leading editors at the Times, Nelson Poynter, attended Indiana University so there’s a long time connection between the newspaper and the school. I was lucky enough to be hired by the Times when I graduated and completed a couple of internships as well.
What was your first job when you were hired at the Times?
Back then, the Times was moving into Hillsborough County in a head-to-head competition with The Tampa Tribune, so I was part of the early efforts in Tampa. I covered the Brandon and East Hillsborough area community news. I did that for a year and then I covered Hillsborough County government for several years, then headed a bureau in Carrollwood reporting and editing. After that I moved into editing full-time.
What type of reporter were you when you first started?
I was pretty wide eyed! I think I loved journalism for two main reasons. I loved to write and I loved to find things out. I think as a reporter I was curious. I asked a lot of questions. I tried to look beyond the surface. I also found that I cared a lot about the local community. Most of my career has been spent covering local news and I found I really enjoyed the response I got from readers when I wrote about something they cared very deeply about. I tried to tell people what they needed to know to make better decisions about their lives and to make their community stronger, especially in government coverage. Sometimes people don’t have enough time in their lives to pay attention to what government is doing, they find it boring, or they are not able to associate it with their regular lives. But government is taking your money and doing things with it without your authority, so it’s really important to let people know what is happening. Sometimes government is doing things it shouldn’t be. It was important for me to try and make sure people understood what their leaders were doing.
Did you have a mentor?
I feel like I’ve been able to learn a lot from many important editors I’ve had over my career. I had one editor early on in my career as a manager who told me that if you remember to praise people liberally when you have to criticize them, it makes it a little bit easier for them to understand.
You’ve been in journalism for more than 25 years. What is the state of the industry when you first started to today, and what has changed from your viewpoint?
Obviously, it has changed tremendously. When I started in newspapers, there were lots of different kinds of media but newspapers were a big part of people’s lives. Over time, especially with the rise of the Internet, people are getting their news in many different ways. That’s affected how we do our jobs.
One key thing to remember is that while anyone can publish something now on the Internet, not everybody has credibility.
How do you stay competitive as a news organization?
One key thing to remember is that while anyone can publish something now on the Internet, not everybody has credibility. One thing we value very highly is our credibility and our ability to do real reporting, offer real facts and tell great stories to people that they know they can trust. That was true when we started and needs to remain true. When I started in newspapers, you would go out and report your story all day and then come back to office, write, turn it in at 6 p.m. and it would appear in the paper the next day. That would be the first time anyone knew of your story. Now you go out, report and immediately post online, then post frequent updates, and hone the story for the print audience. It’s a very different rhythm. We still have the best journalists, I believe, in any medium. Even though we are smaller than we used to be, we have the best reporters and the best editors, and the largest staff to cover news. The difference is we are doing it with much more urgency and around the clock.
Was the managing editor position something you always wanted?
I have never really been a person who had the “I want to be in 5 years or the 10 years” title. I did know from an early age I wanted to be an editor. I liked helping to set the agenda. I like working with people and coaching them. There were opportunities for younger people to advance in Tampa when I first started. After I did, my goal was to continue to find jobs where I was challenged and would do good work. I was very fortunate all along the way to have terrific bosses that gave me more responsibility and allowed me to grow. Unexpectedly at the end of 2013, the managing editor left to take another job. I thought I was ready for it and interested in helping lead this organization. Last June, I got the job.
What was it like to be named the head managing editor?
Several years ago there were three managing editors at the same time who shared oversight of the newsroom and one of those was a woman. I am the first woman to hold the sole title of managing editor at the Times. I was thrilled. It was a great feeling and a more important leadership role in this newspaper which I love and have loved all my life. I think I was a little surprised that some other members of the staff and former colleagues made a point of me being a woman in this role. There were other women who spoke to me that it was great for them to see a woman in this position, which made me feel very honored. It wasn’t something I thought a lot about. I’ve been fortunate for a long time to be trusted with positions of great responsibility.
Did your position elevate the profile of women in newsrooms?
I think that most of the people who spoke to me about that had not worked for a woman managing editor before so I think it was something that people were meant to see. There aren’t as many woman in top positions in newspapers as I would like to see, but at the Times, there are a number of women in top leadership positions. I have always felt supported and was promoted often, so I didn’t feel I had to climb a big hill or fight a battle to get this job.
You sound optimistic about the future of newspapers and journalism. Is that true?
I am optimistic but I’m also not wearing rose colored glasses. Our industry has had a lot of difficulties. I don’t think anyone has found a magic bullet that will resolve them tomorrow. What makes me optimistic is that if you look at how people are consuming information because of their phones and computers, it seems to me that people are consuming far more news now than they ever were in the past. To me that means you need talented journalists to provide it and I think there will always be a demand for what we do. What newspapers can offer is that we are the best – and often the only source – of local news in your community.
What do you look for in the next generation of journalists?
There are two key things – one is very old school and the other is modern. You have to have passion for what you do. You have to believe in finding out the truth, getting people the news they need and telling it to them in a way that is engaging. We have some tremendous young journalists here now. I am so excited they are part of the company because they have that passion. They get me excited! When you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time you sort of forget what it’s like to be excited at the beginning of your career.
How is the dynamic with your husband (Deputy Sports Editor Mike Stephenson), who also works at the Times?
We met in college in journalism school. After several years of a long distance relationship at different papers after graduation, he was hired at the Times as well. We got married in 1994. For most of my career at the Times – or our career together at the Times —we have worked at different departments or different offices. We haven’t overlapped much even though we’re at the same workplace. We have many two-career journalism couples here – having a spouse in the same industry does make them more aware and understanding of the pressures you are under. Many days I’ll have the deadlines and he’ll take the kids to the doctor appointments. Then the other days there’s a giant sports story and we’ll trade off.
Obviously we want to be concerned about any kind of conflict, so the sports department reports to my boss – Editor Neil Brown – he does not report to me in any way. That was one of the things we discussed when I applied for the managing editor position. We openly discussed that I should not supervise sports, if my husband had a role in it.
What are the challenges as a full-time newsroom manager and a working mom?
My daughter, Sarah, is 16 years old and we have a 13-year-old son, Zachary. I think like every other working mother in America, it is hard to do two things as well as you would like to do them. I am very fortunate to have a really supportive husband and a really supportive employer. We’re very fortunate to have a nanny who has been with us virtually all of our kids’ lives and has been a great resource for us without family in town.
Was there a sacrifice you made for this career?
I think anybody who works in journalism sacrifices something. My life is very focused on two things – my family and my work. I am not a world traveler. I am not a gourmet cook. I am not a coin collector. I don’t have cool hobbies because, I want to spend quality, important time with my family. When I am not with them, I am at my job.
Do you have a personal motto that you impart to the newsroom staff?
I try hard to be collaborative and get input from people before making a decision. I have been told over the years that they appreciate that I am direct. People know where they stand with me. They don’t have to guess or wonder if I am happy with what they are doing. I’ve gotten more compliments and expressions of thanks than anything else.