The Remarkable Story of a Female Media CEO

By Kirthana Sasitharan, IGNITE Editor

In today’s media world, there is a lack of women thriving in leadership roles. While many news organizations have women as broadcast journalists, anchors, and writers, there are very little women overseeing the functionality of the organization. However, this lack in society has not stopped some women from reaching for the top- and often, it happens on their own terms.

Linda Solomon Wood is the CEO of Observer Media Group and the Editor-in-Chief of The National Observer. Wood started the Vancouver Observer out of her home and has since expanded the reigns of her company to move towards a national platform that provides daily news coverage.

“At one point, I went to Africa and India, specifically to interview women who, against great odds, were changing their society. I came back with stories that I believed were remarkable and inspiring. But because they were about women in the developing world, it was very hard to find placement for them. I started to see that the things that I cared about, often as a woman, didn’t have a place in the popular culture.”

Wood’s creation of her own company began with her noticing the gaps in media that didn’t value the stories she wanted to tell.

“That was the driving force- the feeling that I was at a point in my life where I didn’t want to ask other people ‘is this a good story’. I felt like ‘no, I know what a good story is’”

When it came down to finding an outlet to host the stories she felt were relevant, she realized that she could use the Internet to support her writing by creating her own publication. She jumped at the opportunity, which was drove her cause towards building the Vancouver Observer and eventually the National Observer.

“The premise of Observer Media Group was that we were always going to go where other media really aren’t. There’s no way in Canada that all the stories that need to get covered, get covered. Why should we all be covering the same things? That’s the opportunity. We distinguish ourselves by really focusing in on climate and environment and energy. It’s not all we do, but it is what makes us unique. The opportunity is really enormous in doing a couple of things really well.”

Challenges to reach success

But success was never easy for Wood, and she knows that many of her challenges had to do with being a woman. When she first started in journalism, she felt the pressures of sexism and encountered uncomfortable situations.

“When I started out in journalism, it was totally okay to be sexist. That was just part of the culture. I was 20 when I first had my first journalism internship and I would go into the publisher’s office and the first thing would be getting a huge once over, you know, the big up and down. And then you have the conversation. And that was just the way it was.”

As she moved past those times, challenges arose in a different manner. She had struggled to obtain funding for her initiative when she first started out. Despite winning awards from the Canadian Journalism Foundation for Overall Excellence in Journalism and receiving recognition for her work, the publication was struggling financially and it was hard to get investors. She suspects it was because she was a woman trying to thrive in a mostly male dominated field.

“During this time, there was never any major funding that came to us. I have a feeling that it was because I was a woman. I can’t prove that, I can only say that I looked around and I saw significant funding being invested in similar kinds of ventures that were run by men. I think it really was that men like to invest in men.”

Not having a significant financial backing in the beginning forced Wood to develop real solutions regarding how she was going to pay for her journalism.

“It was rough, and I think it was much harder for me as a woman. But, ultimately, it has meant that it had forced me to make transitions from just a journalist that was passionate about journalism to being a real entrepreneur and fighting for the business side of things.”

Now the National Observer has moved towards becoming a subscription based daily news organization, after acknowledging that they had a strong readership capacity that stood by the content and topics of the news source. Wood believed that she could count on her readers to jump in and support the media group, even though she worried it was a big risk for a small publication. However, she feels strongly about the change.

“We are a subscription based, daily news organization. It became obvious that we had that kind of capacity to go to readers, because of the content and the topic; they would jump in and support us. So that’s why we moved to paywall.”

Wood’s National Observer is also supported by a few strong investors- some of them who have a strong understanding of her vision, for personal reasons.

“Our largest investor is a woman. She wants to support women in business. That’s what it took for me: to find a woman who just saw it that way and believed in taking a gamble on women and knows that it's harder.”

Strong people, big accomplishment

When asked what her biggest accomplishment was, Wood was thankful to have had the opportunity to experience many accomplishments throughout her time with Observer Media Group. But her biggest accomplishment has involved the people that have come along for the ride.

“My biggest accomplishment has been attracting incredible talent. Being able to build relationships with people who were as passionate as me and were willing to thread themselves into it, like me. In terms of building a business, really it’s all about the quality of the people in the business.”

She credits herself for developing an advisory board and encourages anyone who is ready to start a business to have one. The advisory board has been with Wood when things got tough and were always emotionally and financially supportive of her vision.

When it comes down to identifying a woman in business or journalism that has inspired Wood, she acknowledges the plight of Arianna Huffington. She was inspired by the way Huffington ‘pulled people together around a great idea’ and turned it into a successful company. The progressive voice of the Huffington Post encouraged Wood to start The Vancouver Observer.

Often times, female business owners struggle to manage their families while also taking care of their business. Wood has also experienced some limitations and challenges being a CEO and a mother to four children, but it hasn’t stopped her from being successful and raising a family.

“When I started, in the early years of what I did, my children were enormous motivators. I really wanted my children to see me work on something that was hard, and take on a big challenge. And I wanted them to see me succeed. I wanted this, not so they would think ‘oh mom’s so great,’ but because I wanted this because I wanted them to have an example of that. That they had observed close on, that they wouldn’t be afraid then to work really hard at something.”

“In the ideal world, I would be on the road, half the month, every month. Because that’s really what it takes to raise investment funding. But I’m just not willing to do that right now. My kids need me, they need me to be home, they need stability.”

Women in Journalism face limitations

To the outside world, the business side of journalism and its creation is often not discussed, or the discussion is left among a small group of individuals. Wood says the business side of journalism is very important and there needs to be more women involved in it.

“You’re never going to have control unless you grapple with the financial side of it [journalism]. If you are an employee in somebody else’s organization, you should use it as a opportunity to understand how the business side of it works. Everybody should know the basics of business. I think it makes you stronger, more of a player. You don’t know where you would want to end up. You don’t want to be shut out because you don’t have the skills.”

She says that women need to be involved in the male dominated fields like coding and technology as well to build themselves and their skill sets. But she recognizes that women face a great deal of silencing in media and journalism. Wood advises woman to stand above the ‘mansplaining’ in order to stand out.

“Talk over that person and interrupt, don’t mansplain back, stop being so nice, stop wanting everyone to like you, don’t be girlish in those meetings, stop giggling, don’t flirt - don’t play that game. Be serious and be loud if you need to be and be assertive, and not let yourself be rolled over. I think this is a big issue for young journalists. Don’t go in there and just listen. Interrupt, you are there to ask questions. Don’t let them guide the interview. Make your own time valuable and take risks.”

Wood believes in that women who get involved in journalism will face issues for quite sometime, but the battle can be combatted, not endured, through a change in attitudes.

“It’s always going to follow the general trends of society. Up until recently, I would have said that North American women are the luckiest in the world. That we have the best, most enlightened societies for women. However, now we see it just rolling back in the United States. I think that the future of women in media depends upon women being really engaged politically, not becoming complacent. This is the wrong time to be complacent. Being smart about which political leaders are going to support women’s issues and build opportunities for women. If that’s happening, women’s presence in media is just going to grow.”

Tomorrow’s future in the hands of consumers

As for the future of journalism as a whole? Wood credits the digital age for her success, but also sees the detrimental effects of the digital age to media.

“Everything good that has happened to me over the last 10 years happened through the internet. For journalism, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. The volume of incredible writing that we can easily access is at an all time high, and yet, the rush towards major media being motivated by clicks and traffic and ads, has really made things quite dangerous and political.”

She says that support from the public for media organizations is what will continue to make media companies stay true to their vision and providing the best quality of news that they can.

“I believe that it is really important for readers to start having relationships with media companies that they trust and supporting them financially. For the public, it's really important for them to know that there’s going to be reliable, trustworthy credible news sources for them.”

“We are in an incredible place right now. I hope we can keep moving forward and I hope to be apart of that.”

Photo by Tracy Geisz