Robyn Tomlin remembers, all too well, the high school teacher who tried to persuade her to drop out of school.
“She basically told me I didn’t belong there anymore,” Tomlin said.
Instead, Tomlin persevered and eventually crossed the stage, in 1989, to pick up her diploma. She was eight months pregnant.
Since then, Tomlin has followed a sometimes rocky path to the career triumph she’ll embrace early next month when she becomes the top editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., as well as seven other affiliated papers in the Carolinas owned by the McClatchy publishing company.
Given the precipitous decline of the newspaper business in recent years, she knows this new role will be far from easy. But then neither was managing life in the 1990s as she worked full time, went to college full time and, as a single mother, took care of her son. Tomlin, 46, has been married for many years to the father of her second son, who is 19.
“It’s a tough time to do journalism,” Tomlin said, adding that since her new job was announced she’s heard from many acquaintances that “they want more and better from the paper they love.”
She wants to meet those expectations but will try to do so with a staff that is far smaller than it was when, as a student journalist at the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel newspaper, she cheered as the News & Observer won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. (That was for a series of articles on the environmental and health effects of hog farming in North Carolina.)
“It’s a heavy load, more so because I care so much about these communities,” she said. She grew up in Chapel Hill, not far from Raleigh and its sister city, Durham.
That local journalism is suffering brutal blows is no secret, and certainly not confined to the Carolinas.
“The grim reality of daily newspapering in 2018 grows grimmer each week,” Ken Doctor, who studies media economics, wrote last week. “While Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post serves as a wonderful contrarian model of business, product, and staff growth, 2018 looks like a year of great reckoning for much of the America’s 1,350 daily newspapers.”
The latest distressing numbers were revealed last week as new job cuts were forecast at papers owned by Digital First Media. The once-mighty San Jose Mercury News is down to 39 Guild-represented journalists, according to the Los Angeles Times – a shocking fall from the 1990s, when its newsroom boasted well over 400 members.
Consider what that means in terms of what the paper can cover and how well it can serve its community.
Tomlin says one of her weapons will be a more efficient use of staff, using a regional approach and economies of scale.
The three papers in North Carolina and the five in South Carolina under her control, all owned by California-based McClatchy, can share some tasks, leaving more resources to get reporters on the streets and doing investigative journalism. (Although many of the company’s papers, which include the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee, are known for their strong journalism, McClatchy has suffered big losses and deep layoffs in recent years. It has struggled under heavy debt from its $4.5 billion acquisition of the Knight Ridder media company in 2006, as well as the industrywide plummet of print-advertising revenue, once the financial lifeblood of newspapers.)
“The area itself is growing like crazy, and it’s an area that really needs and deserves strong local coverage,” she said.
After high school, Tomlin enrolled in community college and - despite the strains of raising a toddler and working full time - managed to transfer to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A friend recently sent her a photograph that says it all: It shows her son, then 6, climbing the furniture in the Daily Tar Heel newsroom while Tomlin took notes during a phone interview.
Many years later, after considerable achievement in the news business – including several stints as executive editor – Tomlin found herself living in New York City, serving as top editor of Digital First’s Thunderdome newsroom. That was an effort to centralize digital operations for the company’s nationwide news organizations. But in 2014, the Digital First’s business side decided to pull the plug: Thunderdome would close.
It hit Tomlin hard.
“When you lay off your entire team, you wonder, ‘Do I want to do this anymore?’ “ Tomlin told me. She worked briefly at Pew Research Center before being recruited as managing editor – the No. 2 editorial position – at the Dallas Morning News.
Her Dallas boss, Executive Editor Mike Wilson, sang Tomlin’s praises, both personally and professionally, in a recent note to her new staff, describing her as not only an empathetic leader but also a first-rate newswoman who ran the paper’s award-winning coverage of the killings of five Dallas police officers in 2016.
And, Wilson said, she is a “brilliant digital media strategist.”
She’ll need all of her admirable qualities working at full capacity.
The odds of success in local newspapers aren’t great. But I get the sense that if anybody can make a go of it, Tomlin can.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Reach her at Margaret.Sullivan@washpost.com.