Ann Caulkins, president and publisher of the Charlotte Observer, encouraged students at Queens University of Charlotte to pick careers based on passion – not the potential size of the paycheck.
“My advice is to really go to your core – not what people think you should be, not what people think you should do, but what’s going to make you happy every day,” Caulkins told 200 students, faculty and community members attending a “fireside chat” on Wednesday at the university.
Her talk was part of Queens’ BB&T Distinguished Leaders in Action series, hosted at the McColl School of Business. Previous speakers include Charlotte Bobcats President Fred Whitfield, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Peter Gorman, Piedmont Natural Gas CEO and president Tom Skains, and Cathy Bessant, Bank of America global technology and operations executive.
Caulkins joined the Observer in 2006 from Columbia, S.C., where she had served as The State newspaper’s first female publisher. In the years that followed, a turbulent economy and changing business model sapped advertising revenue and fueled several years of layoffs, furloughs and other budget cuts.
Last year, Queens honored Caulkins as Charlotte BusinessWoman of the Year, citing her leadership in tough times.
During her chat, moderated by associate professor of behavioral science Will Sparks, Caulkins talked about maintaining that resilience throughout her nearly three-decade career in newspapers, and as the journalism world continues to reinvent itself.
Here are excerpts from Sparks’ interview with Caulkins:
On her path to newspapers: I grew up in Shreveport, La, and couldn’t wait to get out of there because I felt like it was a closed-minded place, not progressive around women and minorities. So I went to Baylor University. I was a poor college student, so I started working for the Waco Tribune-Herald, selling subscriptions door to door. I did so well that by the time I was a senior, I was working 30 hours a week in the advertising department.
On her most difficult professional decision: When I was at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, there really weren’t women in management. I applied for many management jobs, but didn’t get them. I asked why and they said, “Oh you’re doing everything perfectly. Don’t worry. It’s just not your time yet.”
I was young, 26 or 27. We had a subsidiary company, a cable guide magazine, and the publisher there said, “I’d love to have you. I’ll give you your first management opportunity.”
But when I went and talked to my bosses at the Star-Telegram, they said: “If you do that, you will take yourself off your career track. This is the wrong decision. You shouldn’t do it.”
I really had to think long and hard. I finally decided, “I’ve got to just jump out and do this.”
I did it for two years. I did a bang-up job, but I hated (it). It’s not glamorous. It’s 25 calls a day, and being out in the field with my reps. It was a brutal job, but it was a really great decision.
Because it was a cable guide, I had taken so much advertising from the Star-Telegram’s TV guide that they said, ‘We’ve got to get her back over here. She’s taking our market share.”
I got a bigger management job than I’d ever imagined and it put me on a fast track.
On developing a resilient mindset: I have three brothers, and (they) made me very resilient, very tough. I had one brother, just one year older than me, who’s 6-foot-7 and always beat up on me. I would fight right back. I was amazingly competitive, and my parents always said, “You can do just as much as those three.” I was convinced that I could always run faster, jump higher, and if they weren’t going to do it, I could do it.
On Charlotte’s master narrative: We are a corporate town but we’re also very aspirational. Of course we can host the Democratic National Convention and be successful. Of course we can lure corporations to relocate their headquarters here. In Charlotte, we always are can-do.
As a news market, there are a couple of things about Charlotte that make it pretty special. One is, people like to live in Charlotte. We have a newsroom of people who could be anywhere in the nation, if they wanted, and I know they’ve been poached.
And again, as an aspirational city, we get a lot of engagement from our readers.
On her greatest challenge as the Observer’s president and publisher: When I was asked to be publisher of the Observer, I was meeting with my predecessor, Peter Ridder, and he was talking about Charlotte almost like the streets were paved with gold. He said, “Housing is just going up, we’re the second-fastest growing city in the country.”
It wasn’t long after I got here that that things started going south pretty quickly. None of us knew we would be in the epicenter of a financial meltdown. The hardest part of my career was having to lay people off.
But if newspapers ever go away, it would be a blow to democracy and our communities. So, as a leader, I knew I needed to help us get through it. That meant I had to shrink my expenses, so we could be viable for another 127 years.
On her leadership style: When I talk to my folks at the Observer, I’m constantly reminding them of what great leaders do. Great leaders take the people who work for them and develop them and stretch them to their full potential, potential they don’t even know they have.
Every person, no matter how long they’ve been in their job, deserves to be learning, stimulated and stretched.
So to the people who report to me, I say: “Do you know the aspirations of your team? Do you know their dreams? Do you know what rewards are going to satisfy them? Do you know how to stretch them just past their comfort zone?”
On what success means: Success means we do the great stories, the investigative work, but we also bring you the good local stories that are of interest to you in our community papers. It is incumbent on me to make sure we get the revenue rolling in nicely, so our news people can continue to do the work that they do.
So success for me is doing all those things exceptionally well, that we are the best local newspaper on all fronts, and that I can make sure that enough money always comes in to never jeopardize that.
Advice for students and graduate students: I’m at this place in my life where I believe we all deserve to be happy, and have something you’re passionate about in your profession. I hate to see people who aren’t following their passions because they think they want to earn a certain amount of money. My advice is to really go to your core – not what people think you should be, not what people think you should do, but what’s going to make you happy every day. Because if you love your job and it’s your passion, then in a terrible time like we’ve had in the recession, you can keep fighting the good fight and be inspirational.