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Courier Journal named then dropped 1st woman managing editor

November 25, 2018
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This undated photo shows Carol Sutton appeared in at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky. When Carol Sutton applied for a job at the Courier Journal in 1955, the only one offered to her was secretary, despite her stellar grades and recommendations from the University of Missouri. Nineteen years later, after toiling as a reporter and remaking the Courier's women's pages, she was named managing editor, the first woman to hold that post on a major American daily. (Courier Journal via AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When Carol Sutton applied for a job at the Courier Journal in 1955, the only one offered to her was secretary, despite her stellar grades and recommendations from the University of Missouri.

“You look damn good,” Executive Editor James Pope Sr. told her, she remembered decades later.

She disregarded the sexist crack and took the job anyway.

Nineteen years later, after toiling as a reporter and remaking the Courier’s women’s pages, she was named managing editor, the first woman to hold that post on a major American daily.

Overnight, she became one of the nation’s most celebrated editors. Her promotion made front page news in the Wall Street Journal. She was feted on the cover of Time magazine as one of its “Women of the Year” — along with the likes of first lady Betty Ford and tennis star Billie Jean King.” She traveled the country, making appearances and giving speeches.

But less than two years later, she was unceremoniously removed.

“She was a marvelous people person but not prepared to lead the troops,” general manager George Gill, who Sutton succeeded as managing editor, later told Alex Jones and Susan Tifft for their book, “The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty.”

He and others said she was indecisive, disorganized and lacked management experience at a time when the Courier Journal faced arguably its biggest story ever — the court-ordered desegregation of Jefferson County’s public schools.

But she got little support from management, Tifft and Jones write. Neither Barry Bingham Jr., the editor and publisher, nor Gill, who had recommended her for the job, stepped in to advise her, “as they would have surely done if the editor had been a man,” their book says.

News executives encouraged her to accept request after request to speak around the country as a traveling advertisement of how progressive the Bingham newspapers were, and the incessant globetrotting took its toll.

“They expected her to play the part of celebrity” but “criticized her for not being around to mind the store,” Keith Runyon, who worked for Sutton in the women’s section and was later editorial page editor, told Kimberly Wilmot Voss for a 2010 story in American Journalism Review titled “The Burden of Being First.”

In an email this week, Runyon said she was a “victim of jealous male managers.”

Despite the paper’s “vaunted liberalism, many male reporters and editors openly disparaged her,” wrote Voss, a professor at the University of Central Florida, who said she had to deal with lingering sexism on the staff from the likes of former city editor John Herschenroeder, then ombudsman, who once said he’d trade “two women reporters for a good wastebasket.”

Her career at the Courier-Journal began auspiciously. It took her only a year to leave her secretarial duties behind for reporting, and she established herself as a graceful writer who tackled tough subjects, including floods and mine disasters.

In 1963 she became editor of “Women’s World” and transformed it from fluffy coverage of society parties and debutante balls to gritty stories on abortion, birth control, migrant workers and poverty.

She integrated the display of wedding photos, which had been all white, then democratized it altogether, listing pictures alphabetically and in the same size, rather than by the status of the bride and groom or their families.

In 1971, Sutton’s section won the J. C. Penney award for excellence among daily newspapers. The next year it was renamed “Today’s Living,” in part, Sutton said, because the word ‘women’s’ was an “arbitrary barrier to men.”

On Thanksgiving Day 1972 readers opened the paper to see the first installment of a series on hunger illustrated with a full-page picture of an elderly woman’s refrigerator with nothing in it but a can of lard, the only food she had. The next year she won awards for an expose of the giveaways lavished on reporters by the New York fashion industry in exchange for favorable coverage.

She was beloved by the staff, rarely forgot a birthday or anniversary, and when she came back from touring ruins in Central America, one of her loves, she always was laden with gifts, Tifft and Jones wrote in The Patriarch.

In 1974, when she was named managing editor, the staff cheered and made a mock front page saluting her appointment as “managing editress.”

Asked why he’d picked her, Barry Bingham Jr., told a local magazine, “Because she’s got the moxie.”

But after the appointment, Bingham confided to Newsweek that he had asked Sutton if the job — along with caring for her two daughters — would be too much strain. “I don’t think I would have asked that if she had been a man,” he admitted.

Sutton’s management fell under a high-powered microscope. Responding to a study that found the newspaper’s stories were too long and too boring, she put feature stories on Page One, such as a profile of a police officer who lost an eye during an anti-busing demonstration.

Her focus on soft news — and resentment by male reporters — made her a target, Voss found. And in May 1976 — 23 months after he promotion — she was demoted, reassigned to a face-saving position as assistant to the editor and publisher.

She was livid that Bingham had leaked the reason for her demotion to the Louisville Times’ news critic Bob Schulman, who, quoting unnamed sources,reported that she was dumped for incompetence.

“You should know that I consider the column the ultimate betrayal,” she said to Bingham in a memo. “To treat a 21-year career and reputation — built, in my view, with a helluva lot of blood and brains and devotion and personal sacrifice — as grist for a public gossip mill is reprehensible.

“I guess the newspaper game is still played by boys’ rules,” she said.

Despite the poor treatment, Sutton never considered leaving the newspaper, Voss said.

She dutifully carried out her assignments, including updating the newspapers’ conflict of interest policy and recruiting minority reporters; she was so successful in the latter capacity that she was named the first white member of the National Association of Black Journalists.

She was still working at the newspaper when she died in 1985 of lung cancer. She was 51.

Despite her brief stint as managing editor, she had a huge impact on journalism, Voss said.

“Carol Sutton was a role model and an inspiration for a generation of young journalists, especially women,” Irene Nolan, who in 1987 became the Courier’s second female managing editor, told Voss.

“She led the way into the ranks of management,” said Nolan, who died in 2017, “and gave her unflagging support and encouragement to those of us who would follow her.”

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Information from: Courier Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com

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