Q&A: Trailblazing publisher Mi-Ai Parrish on her next big step

Mi-Ai Parrish, president and publisher of the Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Courtesy photo.

Mi-Ai Parrish, president and publisher of The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, is leaving her newsroom to teach at Arizona State University. On January 8, Parrish will become the inaugural Sue Clark-Johnson Professor of Media Innovation and Leadership at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

It’s the latest stop in Parrish’s trailblazing journalism career, including her benchmarks as the first woman publisher at The Kansas City Star (where she worked from 2011 to 2015) and the first Korean-American publisher of a major metropolitan daily newspaper in the US (when she joined the Republic in September 2015).

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The latest drama for Parrish came in late 2016, when The Arizona Republic editorial board endorsed Hillary Clinton, the first endorsement for a Democrat in the paper’s history, a move that led to death threats against her and her staff. Parrish’s essay about the experience went viral.

CJR spoke with Parrish about that moment, her transition to academic life, and her advice for ambitious young journalists. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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It’s been a really interesting year since Republic Media published its endorsement, 40 years after the bombing death of reporter Don Bolles. What kinds of challenges did this present at the time and afterwards?

I knew it would be controversial and explosive and people would quit us. But we were absolutely, in hindsight, on the forefront of a storm. We were the first wave of that incredible, almost irrational partisanship over disagreeing over an opinion and a party.

It’s humbling too. You grow up in a business where you feel like you tell the truth and the truth will win. And that’s not what’s gone on. It’s a different situation. We all have to learn from it, deal with that, be mindful of it and smarter.

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Why did you feel like this was the right time to transition to academia?

I was a journalist first. When I moved to the business side, I felt it wasn’t about money. I felt like I could make a bigger difference about something I cared about so deeply. I became a publisher in a very difficult, chaotic time in 2006. What I was looking to help solve was on the business side and figuring out the business model. I’ve spent almost a dozen years doing that. I feel like it’s never exactly the right time, but [ASU] is where the opportunity is.

I feel like I can do work on a bigger scale for the industry and also help businesses that are in disruption. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I think the business and the job that I have done is going to be transforming a lot in the coming weeks and will look very different. It’s bittersweet, too. I love the people here. I’ve known some of them for more than two decades. I worked here before, and coming back here is a privilege and a joy.

 

What do you think you’ll be able to talk about or advise on that you wouldn’t be able to do in your current role?

Partly, I run a newspaper company. And that’s just a tiny fraction of the media industry. [I want] to be able to be talking about media on a much larger scale. How do you fund journalism? How do you help protect and lift up and provide a hopeful future for a democracy for the state that isn’t just within the confines of a newspaper company?

One of the things I’m good at is collaborating and seeing lots of disparate parts, putting those together, and helping communicate them. How can I help connect and translate technologies and partnerships out to the community, state, and internationally? And also learn from the people here about how to make journalism, businesses, and universities better and innovate on a larger, global scale.

 

In past interviews, you’ve talked about work-life balance. I was going to ask if this transition to academia was going to help, but it sounds you’re planning to be just as busy.

[She laughs.] I was planning to take a couple weeks off, but Gannett was like, “Let’s talk about staying.” I was really tempted. I love what I do, but I felt like I really needed to do this. It’s funny, a couple of people have said, “You’re doing this so you get summers off.” And I wasn’t planning on that. I’ve got things I want to do! I can affect more change in a positive way for more people. And that’s not disparaging in any way to running the largest local media operation in America’s largest media company. I want to learn from [the people at ASU]. I’ve got thoughts about a socially-conscious social network. What could that look like? I couldn’t do that inside the office I sit in now.

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What other advice would you give to young journalists wanting to follow a similar path from editorial to business?

It’s a challenge. Especially in a newspaper newsroom. [Deep sigh.] I’m pretty sure I’m the last president and publisher in Gannett, in 109 markets, who came from the newsroom. So they’re sad too. There’s no one left who knows journalism and business. And I don’t think that’s really going to change.

I think I can help the next generation of journalists be innovative entrepreneurs from the ground up. Hopefully I can help them going in. But there won’t be anyone left to lead the way at the top. They’re going to have to do it from the bottom. And the business is going to need to be increasingly smart in both directions. The journalists are going to have be more sophisticated on the entrepreneurial side to help them and the industry succeed.

I’m going to be teaching seniors, “The Business and the Future of Journalism.” I imagine it will come up. They’re going to need to be more entrepreneurial and integrated leaders. There’s going to have be a shift in thinking in how we approach the content, figuring out how to make money with it and still have journalistic integrity.

 

You were an assistant business editor at The Virginian Pilot at 22. But only a small number of newsroom leaders are minorities (13.4 percent) and most aren’t women (38.9 percent). Having gone through multiple newsrooms in competitive markets, what are the current challenges for women and minorities aspiring to follow in your footsteps?

A few weeks ago I wrote about an Arizona legislator who said some racially and sexually inappropriate things to me. It’ll be a lot easier to do in the place that I’m going to. I think things are very different from when I started, but they haven’t changed enough. You have to seek out mentors and partners, but they don’t all have to be women of color. There just aren’t enough of us to be for everyone.

There are lots of men who are fellow travelers. They need to help us more because we can’t do it by ourselves.

You have to keep your nose clean, do the work, and do the time. Raise your hand. Be brave. Be kind. Be strong. And it’s going to be harder. I don’t know if it will ever get easier. It’s going to take some thoughtful, sophisticated, creative, innovative people partnering with people we hadn’t partnered with before. That’s the other reason I’m excited about the university. It’s not just our little isolated universe within a newspaper company. It makes it fun. The sky’s the limit.

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Karen K. Ho is freelance business, media and culture reporter, as well as a former Delacorte fellow, based in Toronto and New York. She is a former Delacorte Fellow at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho.