Merrill Perlman is the president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, which offers training in grammar, usage, and communication skills, as well as consulting and freelance editing. Her clients include: Columbia Journalism Review, The Poynter Institute, The New York Times, and ProPublica.
Perlman is an adjunct professor for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. She spent 25 years at the Times, beginning as a copy editor and retiring in 2008 as the Director of Copy Desks. She managed more than 150 copy editors in the newsroom’s largest department. Perlman also held positions as the night Metro editor, chief of the Metropolitan copy desk, manager of copy desk recruiting, and managing editor of The New York Times News Service. Perlman was a contributor to the completion of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.
Prior to the Times, she was an Assistant Business Editor for the Des Moines Register and a Copy Editor and reporter for the Southern Illinoisan out of Carbondale, IL. She is currently the president of American Copy Editors Society Education Fund, as well as a founding board member. She is also a board member of the ACES and a former member of the Journalism and Women Symposium board.
In 2008, she received the ACES Glamann Award, which recognizes people and organizations that have contributed to the society and the craft. She is a founding member of the Drake University SJMC National Advisory Board. Perlman received her bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri in 1974, and a Master of Arts in 1982 in Mass Communications from Drake University in Des Moines, IA. More information on Merrill Perlman Consulting can be found at http://meperl.com. Her email is: meperl(at)gmail.com.
Perlman was interviewed by Shannon Chrusciel, 21, who is majoring in Communication Studies, as well as obtaining a minor in Mass Communications at the University of Iowa.
Shannon Chrusciel: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Merrill Perlman: I always knew I wanted to do something involving words, but didn’t know it was journalism until, my freshman year in college when I walked into the student newspaper’s newsroom at the University of Missouri. It felt so comfortable I knew it was where I belonged.
SC: How do you define journalism today?
MP: Journalism is delivering information that people need, as well as information that people want, but also providing context and perspective to allow people to make their own decisions. How it’s delivered is irrelevant; the journalist’s role as witness and interpreter is unchanged.
SC: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
MP: Possibly because I started working on computers shortly after they were introduced into newsrooms, I became kind of an amateur geek, and was frequently tapped to train other people. I need to know a lot more technology than I used to have to know, but it doesn’t affect the purpose or basic content of what I do — editing.
SC: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
MP: The danger is that the technology — the medium — will overcome the information — the message. People will always need the information that journalism provides, but if the fact that a message was delivered (page views, eyeballs) or the way it as delivered (tablet! smartphone! beamed into your brain!) is more important than what was delivered, it will be more difficult to get the message through.
SC: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
SC: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
MP: The impact of women should continue to grow, if for no other reason that more women than men are getting into journalism these days. Just by sheer numbers, women will continue to rise in the ranks. And as women outnumber men in society as well, that perspective will become more valuable. We’re already seeing that with Tina Brown, Arianna Huffington and the like; though they are both controversial figures, there’s no question that having such visible women raises the profile of women overall.
SC: What are your opinions on the pressures women face to leave the workforce in order to stay home with the family? Do you believe this is the reason that there are much fewer women at the top of the corporate ladder?
MP: That’s certainly one major factor. But more and more, I see men bearing more of the burden: several friends are “househusbands,” working from home while their wives carve careers they might not have been able to sustain five or 10 years ago. The maternal instinct, though, I think, will always lead many women to choose a more successful family over a more successful career. (Full disclosure: I have no children and married late, so I have not personally faced those pressures.) For many journalism careers, women — and men — can work remotely, from home, easing the pressures on that work-life balance.
SC: What advice would you give to a female journalist entering the workforce today?
MP: Be flexible, be humble when necessary — but not subservient — and always keep a sense of humor. If you take yourself too seriously, others may not. It’s still an uphill climb. And remember the women who came before you, and the ones who will come after you.
SC: How do you view equality in journalism today?
MP: You have to define “equality.” Is it 50-50 representation of women and men in the workplace? Is it representation proportional to the overall population? The population of people in journalism? In my view, “equality” means working in a true meritocracy, where sex, race, political views, politics, looks and all those other individual traits have no bearing on how one gets a job or an assignment. The only thing that matters is how well the person can do the job. We’re not there now, but fewer people get jobs based on things other than their talent.
SC: What were the most difficult challenges you faced managing copy editors at the New York Times? What did you enjoy the most about the experience?
MP: One of the biggest problems was sheer numbers — I managed 162 people at some point, and had to figure out their roles (and mine) in a newsroom of 1,200 people. I knew everyone, and had a good sense of each one’s skills, but sometimes trying to please as many people as possible and keep things as even as possible was like playing 12-dimensional chess. And I can’t play ANY chess. My favorite time was telling people they got something they wanted — a promotion, a change, a raise. And especially telling people they got something they hadn’t asked for — a bonus, a raise, praise from an unexpected source. The looks on their faces made up for so much.
SC: Who is the person who has influenced you the most in your career?
MP: I’d have to split it up between two people: Jo Ann Dickerson, the college professor who turned me on to copy editing; and Allan M. Siegal, a news editor and later an assistant managing editor at the New York Times, who supported me throughout my career and surprised me with faith and responsibility beyond any I could have imagined for myself.
SC: What is the largest obstacle you have faced in your career to date?
MP: See the answer to number 10. But in reality, all of the obstacles I faced actually became opportunities — to do something else, to learn more about myself, to think hard about my profession and my life.
SC: What would you say was the most exciting time in your career?
MP: Right now. And if you’d asked me that question 10 years ago, or 25 years ago, the answer would have been the same.
SC: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like us to know about women in journalism?
MP: I’ve been very fortunate that women pioneered the way for me. Women like Betsy Wade, the first woman to be a news copy desk chief at the New York Times (I was the second), meant I didn’t have to machete my way through the brush. The path wasn’t paved yet, and still isn’t for many women, but at least now there is a path.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.