Donna Ladd is the editor-in-chief and founder of the Jackson Free Press. Early on she thought she was to be a civil rights attorney, because she has an activist’s spirit. But–as it turns out–what she meant, was to be a journalist.
Donna spoke with our class in February and afterwards I asked professor Amy Haimerl if she could put us in touch.
Donna agreed to meet me for a Skype on what was a lovely afternoon in Mississippi (and what was a much less nice afternoon here in Michigan). We spoke for over an hour while birds chirped politely in the background from Mississippi (and maybe the sun came out for like a second or two here in Michigan).
Nicole Bush: What was the first thing you wanted to be when you grew up?
Donna Ladd: I’m trying to think if there was a very first thing. I think I–probably the most honest answer is that I wanted to be an activist. But I never would have called it that. Because for some reason, you know, [I was] into social justice issues, race issues. And so, what I had kind of decided on–at least as early as I can remember–was that I wanted to be an attorney. It’s so interesting, because I’m not sure I’ve ever asked myself that.
Eventually I decided I wanted to be a civil rights attorney because that seemed to make sense for what I was interested in. But, I didn’t really know that much about it. It wasn’t like I came up in a household where people knew anything about careers. And so I got on that track.
But the thing that is true is that I I always wanted to be a writer and I always wrote. I started writing in this tiny little diary when I was [in] third, fourth grade. Which I actually found recently. It was in something. I put some of the pages on Instagram because it blew me away. I was in like third, fourth grade and I could barely write. I had a tiny little passage in there about the first day that a black kid came to my school, when they integrated. And it’s in my tiny little diary! And I was like okay, this is crazy.
So I think I was always meant to be a journalist and a writer. But, my mother was illiterate. It wasn’t like I thought about what that [career] could look like. Because to me, we just had terrible media around us. And so, it never would have occurred to me that I wanted to actually write the kind of stuff that I do now. Because it wasn’t really available to me.
NB: What’s your best piece of advice for women in the industry?
DL: Grow a tough skin. And that’s just an umbrella over everything else.
I like to call myself Teflon, you know. And I pretty much am. But I had to get there. And people don’t play fair with women. When I say that, I mean everybody from the trolls on the internet and social media who talk about the size of your ass if they don’t agree with you, or whatever. They’ll just [make] it up–if your butt’s not big. I mean it just doesn’t matter. They’ll say whatever. They’re trying to intimidate you if they don’t like what you say. So that’s really important to understand.
But you also get it from your male editors. I’ve had male editors who did unethical things with my work. Or wouldn’t look me in the eye when I’m sitting right in front of them and I have the exclusive interview with the police commissioner of New York City. You know what I mean? And at my age. This happened in the last few years.
And then what happens–it’s almost like I feel like I have to warn younger women about this. Because this is one that surprised me a little bit [laughs]. As you kind of get older and more established and get into management, you get sexism from below. And it’s almost worse right now, in the last few years, than it was managing 10, 20 years ago.
There are probably all kinds of reasons for that. You get that sexism. And some of that actually comes from younger women.
Start early being as Teflon as possible. I think one way to do that is, honestly, to put yourself out there. Be willing within whatever parameters you’re in–I get to really express myself as an editor–you know, try it out. Start dealing people who are being critical of what you’re saying. Stand up for yourself.
I think the second piece of the advice is–which is kind of separate but kind of fits with that–is you’ve gotta work really hard. Now these days in journalism, anybody should be working really hard, because there are a lot fewer jobs and all of that. But, as a woman, you gotta work hard. You just have to put in the reporting. You have to constantly work on honing your craft. You just do. Now everybody should, so I don’t actually think this is onerous.
I train in all kinds of ways, all the time. I have this learning mindset. And those are the people I hire. People with a good attitude and a learning mindset. With those two things you can do almost anything.
The third piece–okay, I’m going to give you a third one: Your women’s network is everything. Build a network of women. I see young women, some who do that and some who fall into that whole trap of…how’m I trying to say it?…not loyal. Do you know where I’m coming from with this?
NB: Competing instead of helping one another?
DL: Oh my god, it’s remarkable to me. Some of the young women who come through my life who I basically try to do what Amy and I did when I met her. You’ve heard the stories. She was 19 when I met her. She had this great talent. We’ve become–I was her mentor and she’s helped me. We’ve gone back and forth through the years. It was a wonderful network. You and I wouldn’t be talking if it weren’t for that. And I’ve had young women come through who just kind of have this attitude of “I don’t need advice. I don’t need this.”
DL: I know! It’s laughable. It really is. It’s so sad. Because some of them do have talent. But they become such brats that it’s like, why would I help someone like that over someone who’s interested in learning from me and my experiences? And [who’s] being respectful and everything else. And it’s not like we’re sitting here as older women saying oh you have to treat us like queens. No! You have to…
NB: … respect? Like normal amounts of considerate respect?
DL: Exactly! Then it becomes everybody helping each other, back and forth. Because once Amy hit her stride and started doing all sorts of things–I mean–I’ve won awards and made money because of Amy. Many times over the years. And I’ve helped her. I probably write the best recommendations for her of anybody I’ve ever known. And I think it probably helps her get in the door of some really cool things.
That’s kind of my trio of pieces of advice. But in a way they all fit together. Because you really need your, I call it the new girls network. But you need–instead of the old boys network, right?–you need women. You do. You do, you do, you do.
NB: I feel like we kind of got to this question already, but if you can put it in concisely, what’s complicated about being a woman in the industry today?
DL: Hmm, complicated. To me, I guess it’s kind of a personal answer, but I think what’s hard is navigating what the right thing to do is.
DL: So what I mean by that is I had this thing that happened with [a well known news outlet] a couple years back.
Essentially, I had a woman introduce me to the editor I was working with, who was this wonderful french woman. I was doing work in New York that nobody else could get access to. I mean, it was just–you know–I’m very proud of the work. And then I had this exclusive interview and with the police commissioner. And the news editor there–who was a man–saw me interview and was so excited about one of my quotes that he had a young female reporter take one of my quotes and write a different story around my quote that took it out of context.
But here’s the thing [laughs]. They put that story out first as click bait. And it went nuts.
At six o’clock in the morning when I discover [it]–because that’s when the story was supposed to go up–I’m on the phone with my editor. All of that is crazy story.
When this happens, it’s terrible. It’s like somebody breaking into your house at night and steal something, right? I am literally at my age and my experience levels and everything else, asking myself if I should make a big deal about it.
My partner, Todd, gets out of bed and I tell him and he comes in. Furious. And he’s like well tell them this and tell them that and tell them this.
My first thought on it was not to make them too mad.
NB: Yeah that sucks.
DL: Doesn’t that suck? And I’m being honest about it. You know it’s fine with me. You can write this. And over the course of that day, which turned into a huge drama because [of] the police department–as it should have really. Because this other story was wrong and I had to show them that I didn’t write that story and all these other things. I was so condescended to by a male editor there. Who’s trying to pat me on the head and tell me well everybody does this now. What I just told you, everybody does, right? And that I was blowing it out of proportion.
DL: So my point is, that navigation of when it becomes too much or too little, because I’m a woman, is the hardest thing I deal with because I’m a woman.
And so my point is because woman, I think we–however we get this way–we do tend to have more of a nurturing side. And we use those things to our advantage. But we will let people, if we’re not careful, run over us and disrespect us and be disloyal to us. And all these other things. And still keep trying to give them another chance.
NB: Yeah [more nodding]. I feel similarly. Especially in the running world. Because a lot of it–there’s a big social aspect of it when we go race overseas and we’re over there for weeks. And like, I usually fall in the category of like I’m the cool girl who can like be in the boys club cuz I swear, and like, make dirty jokes. But then as soon as like someone says something that’s shitty about women and I have to be like should I bring it up? Should I not?
DL: I know! Right!
NB: And as soon as I do, they’re like oh I didn’t know you were feminist!
DL: [makes a spot-on mock impression] Oh you’re angry! You’re this. You’re that.
DL: I know! Or telling you to calm down. That’s one of my favorite things.
NB: [Laughs so much.]
DL: But anyway, that’s my long answer to that. But it’s hard. That — navigating the eggshells, is what I would call it — is very tough.
NB: That’s something that I think about everyday, but I hadn’t conceptualized it to a pinpoint like that. I see exactly what you mean in that, yeah. I already see for myself in what I’m doing right now–is that being an issue.
NB: What are five characteristics or attributes that got you where you are today?
DL: Oh my god [laughs].
That’s a good question though.
Passion. No doubt. [Pondering pause.]
I guess I would say work ethic. You know, that I believe in work. Willingness to work.
Stick-to-it-tive-ness [laughs]. You could probably call that tenacity, to say it easier. But, I’m kind of a bulldog about whatever I decide to do, you know?
My desire to learn to be great. It’s kind of a double thing. But it’s not just my desire to be great. And I’m not saying I’m great. But I want to learn to be great.
So, that. I think I have to say the thick skin. You know, it’s gotten thicker over the years–but still–it was always relatively thick. Now I see a lot of women–a lot of women just don’t make it or don’t get to management because they don’t want to deal with all the bullshit.
I think that’s one of the problems. You know it’s kind of a self perpetuating thing. Because part of the reason we don’t see more women in newsroom management is because they don’t want to have to deal with the bullshit to get there. So–seriously–so, it’s this cycle we have to break.
And I think because of that, I’m driven. Now, I’m also–part of that maybe you could stick in there because I’m at five–but curious as hell. About everything. So, I ask a lot of questions and I want to know why things are the way they are. But that’s somewhat the bulldog thing too. But I’m super curious. And I think that’s part of it.
NB: That’s good to know. Because that’s usually … I get in trouble with people–with my friends–who are like you ask too many questions. And I’m like but I wanna know.
DL: Right. Yeah. I’m super curious.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.