Robyn Tomlin oversees eight newspapers across two states. In January, she was appointed the first regional McClatchy editor for the Carolinas. But her relationship with newspapers started far from a bustling newsroom. As a 19-year-old mom running a daycare inside her apartment, Tomlin became an avid reader of The News & Observer. The paper was her lifeline to a world outside of dirty diapers and wailing children.
She put herself through school at Durham Technical Community College and eventually decided to try her hand at writing. Tomlin started a student newspaper at Durham Tech, had a short stint with North Carolina Central University’s The Campus Echo, studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later became an editor with The Daily Tar Heel. She spent many late nights working on the paper while her young son goofed around with reporters or slept on the sofa in the staff room. Tomlin’s reporting skills and work ethic earned her a position as a police reporter in Pittsburgh, and she has been working in newsrooms ever since.
She worked as an editor for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Wilmington Star News before serving as the founding editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, a national digital news hub. Before returning to North Carolina, she served as managing editor of The Dallas Morning News and led their award-winning coverage of the 2016 killings of five Dallas police officers. Robyn Tomlin joins host Frank Stasio to share stories from her days as a young single mom, to experiences in newsrooms around the country. In addition to her role as regional editor, Tomlin is also executive editor of The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.
On how experiences as a young kid shaped her journalistic outlook:
My father was a Jesse Helms Republican. My grandmother was an Ann Richards Democrat. And I would get seated at the dinner table between the two of them ostensibly to keep them from arguing. They loved each other, but if the subject of politics came up, they would inevitably both get very wound up. And it was actually kind of a formative thing for me, because I was stuck between two people I adored who had very interesting points of view. And I empathized with both sides. So, as a journalist I really kind of root much of my ability to try to look at things from different angles to those dinner tables where I was listening to the two of them start to get into those arguments.
On navigating her last year of high school while pregnant:
I discovered early in my senior year that I was pregnant and had to make a big decision ... Initially I had an English teacher who really tried to convince me that I didn't belong there. They had a night school program in Durham, and she really encouraged me to go there. She said she thought I would be uncomfortable. That it would be very difficult for me. But it became really clear in our conversations … that she was very much feeling that I was a bad example to other people ... So I actually did go to the night school classes, tried them out a couple times and said: You know what, this isn't me. I'm gonna go, and I'm gonna hold my head high ... I just went back and walked across the stage at the Dean Dome with everyone else.
On one of her first reporting jobs out of college as a police reporter in Pittsburgh:
I really learned how to chase news quickly – how to tell stories about tragedies and triumphs and every element of the human condition. And how to work sources. Police officers are really an amazing group of people who are so dedicated and devoted and talented, but they have a way of being that sometimes makes it difficult for journalists to be able to tell the story ... We covered about 18 different municipalities ... I'd go from police department to police department, and I'd bring cookies with me. And I finally got to be known as that reporter with the cookies. They would let me back behind the barrier because I brought the cookies, and with it a lot of questions. The cookies were my access to ask the questions that I needed to ask.
On what losing her sister to a house fire taught her about journalism:
[My sister] and her fiance were in a house that burned down. It was in Lexington, North Carolina. And Lexington is in the middle of a lot of media markets and a number of TV stations and newspapers covered the fire. And I remember several of them got things wrong … But even more so, there were several people, one in particular, who reported really unnecessary details. My sister had died trying to get out of the house. She was found on the stairs face down. That was not a detail that my mother needed to learn in a newspaper. And it really gave me an important window into what the people who we report about – the families who are affected by some of the tragedies of the stories we tell – … have to deal with, and the things that they have to learn.
On the future of print journalism:
The analytics do tell us that people want impactful journalism. They do want investigative work. They want stories that are revelatory that tell them something about who we are as a people and how we individually all connect together as a community. They don't necessarily want the meat and potatoes process stories that we have traditionally told when we go to a city council meeting ... We're not in the business of cat videos, but we are certainly trying to use all of the different tools at our disposal to try to make sure that we're balancing both the important investigative work that we do and explanatory work that we do with the work that tells us who we are right now as a culture.