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Blugold breaks the glass ceiling in the newsroom

| Judy Berthiaume

While the late Mary Tyler Moore’s fictional Mary Richards was celebrated in recent weeks for showing the world that women belong in the newsroom, another — this time, real-life — female journalist in Nebraska is taking things one step further.

The Blugold is showing the world that women not only belong in the newsroom, but can lead the newsroom.

In January, the Omaha World-Herald named Melissa Matczak its new executive editor, marking the first time in the newspaper’s 127-year history that a woman holds the paper’s top editor position.

“Many talented women have served in leadership roles before and during my two decades here,” Matczak says of the paper, where she most recently served as managing editor for the past four years. “So, in some ways, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special.

“On the other hand, co-workers and females outside of the newsroom have told me how important it is to see a woman, especially one with three young children, in the top role.”

Breaking the glass ceiling at a respected newspaper is a welcome, if a bit overwhelming, experience, says Matczak, who earned her degrees in journalism and political science from UW-Eau Claire in 1996.

“It’s a bit exhilarating, a bit scary,” Matczak says. “This newspaper is such an important and trusted institution in Omaha and around the region. I wake up in the morning thinking ‘OK, don’t screw this up!’”

Given her track record, there is little worry among those who know her that the paper will do anything other than thrive under her leadership.

“Melissa is one of those students who work their way deep into your memory,” says Jan Larson, interim chair of the communication and journalism department at UW-Eau Claire. “While on campus she was an exceptional student and garnered both the respect and admiration of her peers and her instructors.

“As editor of The Spectator she was a thoughtful and deliberate leader. She worked hard and encouraged her peers to do the same. She was also kind and gracious and took time to enjoy friendships with her fellow staffers.”

While women make up a third of those working in the journalism industry, few women are leading U.S. news outlets, Larson says, noting that the 2016 annual report of the American Society of News Editors states that just three women are at the helm of the 25 largest daily newspapers in the U.S.

“I'm proud and pleased that Melissa has built a career that allows her to join those ranks,” Larson says. “Journalism is in good hands when journalists like Melissa are leading the way. I trust she'll be a wise steward and work to give other committed journalists opportunities to do good work and serve the public.”

Matczak credits UW-Eau Claire with helping her develop the skills, knowledge and connections she needed to be successful in the fast-changing media world.

The lessons learned in her journalism classrooms were important, but so, too, were the internships, student newspaper positions, and on-campus jobs that let her put to work in the real world the knowledge and skills she was learning in her classes, she says.

By having both inside- and outside-the-classroom experiences as a student, Matczak says she was able to learn to write well, but also learn to solve problems, work as part of a team and develop her leadership skills.

“I was fortunate that at UW-Eau Claire I worked with smart professors and smart students,” Matczak says of her alma mater. “Fellow editors at The Spectator, the student newspaper, came to UWEC because of its strong journalism program. We all pushed each other.”

It was her UW-Eau Claire professors, she says, who helped her make important connections with influential people in the media when she was a young professional trying to get her start in a the competitive field of journalism.

“Jan Larson was a tough yet caring professor,” Matczak says. “She helped me to get my first job at the Associated Press. Another UWEC professor made a connection for me at The World-Herald, helping me to land my second job.”

In her new leadership role, she is drawing on her UW-Eau Claire education and her two-plus decades of experience as a working journalist to determine how to best lead what she describes as a talented team of writers and editors who share a commitment to extraordinary journalism.

With a team that includes journalists who’ve been at the newspaper for decades and others who arrived just a few months ago, Matczak says her goal is to help support and guide all of them as they grow in their profession, a profession she continues to be passionate about.

For Matczak, being a journalist always has been the perfect way to combine her love for both political science and for writing.

“I’ve always enjoyed studying how our communities and government work,” Matczak says. “I like to write and edit. And I love leading and collaborating with others. Journalism brings all of that together.

“Journalism is addictive, and I love the fast pace.”

The field of journalism looks much different today than it did when she began her career thanks to new technologies and social media, but she loves it just as much now as she did then.

All this change brings new challenges, but it also brings new opportunities for the media to tell even better stories, she says.

“Newspapers can now tell stories 24/7, and share content through video and social media,” Matczak says. “Those tools were not available when I started my career. There is so much content on the web that it’s crucial that our journalists are digging for the most unique, engaging and timely stories.”

While Matczak has called Nebraska home since 1997, she remains connected to UW-Eau Claire.

She hopes that someday one of her kids might even follow in her footsteps and become a Blugold.

“UWEC was a great value 20 years ago and continues to be today,” Matczak says. “I was telling my family over Christmas that I’ve been really impressed with UWEC based on the stories on social media.

“The school comes across as a caring, fun and academically strong place for young adults. I definitely will consider it when my girls are at that age. And it’s more affordable than sending them to many other quality out-of-state schools.”

What advice would she give to current Blugolds considering a career in journalism?

“Get real-world experience through internships, even if you have to start at a small publication and work your way up,” Matczak says. “Read, read, read — and not just articles on your Facebook feed. Seek out a variety of publications and viewpoints.”

Photo caption: Melissa Matczak, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1996 with degrees in journalism and political science, was named executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald in January 2017.