Looking for role models in all the wrong places

I spent a good part of yesterday trying to figure out why I wasn’t feeling generationally appropriate euphoria about the fact that The New York Times has its first woman editor.

It isn’t that I’m not glad to see Jill Abramson rise to the top chair at The Times. The move shatters the newspaper glass ceiling, and as someone who spent years chiseling at it in my own small way, I know that is no small accomplishment.

And by all accounts, Abramson is a smart, focused leader who has an understanding of digital media and the Times’ place in the news universe that eluded her predecessor. She apparently does not believe Twitter makes you stupid, and for that, we can all be grateful.

Still, the rejoicing among some of my female colleagues about how her appointment will make a difference for women in journalism rings hollow to me. I can’t bring myself to believe, or even to wish, as my friend and former Poynter colleague Jill Geisler did in her piece about Abramson, that this will give women a reason to hang in there and keep climbing that newsroom ladder.

It’s too late for that now, I think. That ladder is gone, burned out from under us, and there is no bringing it back. As someone who climbed it, with all the ambition in me, I have to say that the view from near the top ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway.

My slightly bitter thought about all that is, “it’s a little too late.”  I wish this could have happened when it mattered more — mattered more to young women looking for examples of female leadership in news organizations, mattered more in terms of The Times own ability to help shape the role of legacy newsrooms in a digital age.

I wish it had happened at a time when newspapers mattered more.

As for the argument that this is an inspirational moment for young women entering a beleaguered field, I’d say this:

My sisters, seek your inspiration outside the traditional newsroom.

Even as legacy newsrooms thrash around and try to save the unsalvageable old model all the while cloaking themselves in a false “digital first” strategy, there is all kinds of innovative thinking going on out there. And some of the most innovative — dare I say inspirational — thinkers are women.

If you want to be inspired, look at Debbie Galant and Liz George of Baristanet, who have created a community news site that is both important to its community and profitable. Or spend some time listening to Tracy Record talk about the role West Seattle Blog plays in its community — and just as importantly, listen to other journalism entrepreneurs talk about the inspiration they draw from Tracy’s example.

If it is accountability journalism that lights you up, then go get inspired by Rita Hibbard at Investigate West, whose passion for investigative reporting led her out of a legacy newsroom and into a role as journalism entrepreneur.

If you want to get very smart very fast about technology and community-building, just spend an evening at a dinner table with Lisa Williams of Placeblogger and Susan Mernit of Oakland Local and listen to them talk about how they see community news and technology tools evolving in a million different ways.

And if you want an inspiring vision of mission, partnership and collaboration, go hang at out at the St. Louis Beacon and watch editor and founder Margie Freivogel and general manager Nicole Hollway at work.

As a woman in legacy newsrooms, I was blessed with a whole army of women as examples and mentors. But if I were coming into the field now as the woman I was in my early 20s, filled with idealism and passion and a desire to make a difference, I would not be looking to traditional newsrooms for inspiration.

I’d be looking at the pioneers who are building their own news operations. They understand that news is a conversation. They recognize the value of social media, not as a branding tool but as a means of inquiry and discovery. They aren’t afraid to collaborate, to share, to admit what they don’t know.

It’s their creative spirit, their risk-taking, that would make me want to be a journalist now. That means more, in terms of building journalism’s future, than a name on the masthead.