Mary Richards may have inspired viewers as a go-to news producer, but she never made it to the top of the WJM ladder. Now her real-life descendants are taking care of business.
Women will run the top four TV newsrooms in the Twin Cities, the only U.S. major market that can make that claim.
The deal was sealed Tuesday when WCCO announced that Kari Patey would replace Mike Caputa as the CBS affiliate’s news director next month.
“Today, something BIG happened in Minneapolis TV,” tweeted Florida-based news veteran Al Tompkins, who wrote the textbook on TV journalism, “Aim for the Heart.”
WCCO general manager Ann Ouellette said she wasn’t trying to make history when she selected Patey, who produced newscasts at WCCO and KSTP before spending the past decade in New York City.
“Honestly, it was never part of my consciousness. I was just looking for the best person for the job,” she said. “But I’ve got to admit it’s pretty cool.”
The next largest market that can say the same is Portland, Maine, which boasts the nation’s 79th largest audience; The Twin Cities ranks 15th.
Jill Geisler, who became a news director in Milwaukee a year after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air in 1977, said the achievement shows how much the industry has matured.
“In the ’70s, when I was a reporter, the news director ordered our photographers to remember that when shooting weather video, they should capture what people are interested in: kids, dogs and pretty girls,” said Geisler, who teaches leadership skills at Chicago’s Loyola University.
“When I challenged him on that, his reply was: ‘When women start standing on street corners and whistling at men, we’ll put men in weather videos.’ I am happy to tell you he didn’t last long in his job.”
Around that time, KARE news director Jane Helmke was just starting out and had her own encounter with sexism at another Twin Cities station.
“I applied for a sports internship and was told they don’t have time for girls in sports,” Helmke said. “We’ve come a long way from there.”
Helmke interned at KARE 35 years ago and never left, rising to news director in 2011.
In fact, all four news directors have Midwest roots. “People come to this market thinking that they’ll go on to the network, but they discover this is a great place to live, with great arts and great communities,” Helmke said. “But that’s true regardless of sex.”
Anne Wittenborg, who became news director at KSTP, Channel 5, in 2015, also dismissed the notion that the Midwest — with its relatively low crime rate and solid school systems — might be a more likely spot for women to build their careers. Men care about those things, too, she said.
Other markets have made strides in gender parity. News Blues, a digital newsletter about the TV news business, reports that women are in the majority in news-director posts in Detroit, San Francisco and Houston.
But nationwide, women fill only 29.8 percent of those posts, according to the latest study by the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) and Hofstra University. That’s a slight drop from the record-breaking 33.1 percent the previous year.
The numbers are even more discouraging for people of color. According to the same study, 14.9 percent of news director positions are filled by minority journalists, a retreat from an all-time high of 17.1 percent a year earlier.
All of the Twin Cities news directors are white.
“I will say it’s tougher to attract minorities to this market from other markets that are perceived as more diverse,” said RTDNA chairman Scott Libin, who once ran the KSTP and WCCO newsrooms and now teaches at the University of Minnesota. “I personally find the area wonderfully diverse, but in many parts of the country, we’re still seen as a bunch of shivering white people. That doesn’t mean you stop and wring your hands, but it’s a challenge.”
Still, you might expect some kind of celebration to mark local stations’ historic accomplishment. But KMSP’s Marian Davey, who was elevated to news director four years ago, is too busy to pop the champagne.
“All four of us are experienced, aggressive journalists who just happen to be women,” she said. “I don’t look at it as anything other than that.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @nealjustin