August 24, 2019
Florida Icon: Diane McFarlin

Photo: Bernard Brzezinski | UF

The Dean of University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and former Gainesville Sun Editor shares her journalism and publishing experiences.

Icon Interview

Florida Icon: Diane McFarlin

Art Levy | 12/27/2018

Having empathy is critical to be successful, particularly in the workplace, and particularly if you aspire to be a leader. You have to be sensitive to what other people are experiencing and feeling — and the way to do that is to observe.

Journalism is under attack. The economic model has faltered. The investment in journalism has diminished. The media is being demonized on the national stage. So you would think, gosh, this is a terrible time to be educating journalists, but what’s happening is our moment is going up. More students are being drawn to journalism. And I think it’s because there’s a recognition that journalism is so important to our democracy. It’s critical to a well-functioning society. The watchdog role of journalists has never been more important.

The summer I turned 16, I was tired of babysitting and I told my father I wanted to get another job. And my dad said: ‘Why don’t you go down and talk to Mr. Marsh?’ John Marsh was the owner and publisher of the Lake Wales Daily Highlander. So, I went in to talk with John Marsh. He talked to me at length. He took me into the newsroom, handed me a press release and said: ‘Rewrite this.’ Well, I knew how to type so I sat down at the typewriter and I rewrote the press release, and he pulled it out of the carriage — this was a Royal typewriter — and he read it. He said: ‘This is good. There’s a youth council meeting at city hall Monday night. Would you like to cover it?’ By the end of the summer, I was a vacation replacement for the county commission reporter. I covered the school board. I went to the police station and pulled the cop reports. I got to pull the AP wire. I learned how to process and print photos and — oh, my gosh — I was just completely addicted. I worked there every summer, every Christmas vacation, every spring break, all through high school and college.

My mother was always concerned about me getting overextended and the amount of responsibilities I was taking on. After I was elected student council president of Spook Hill Elementary School — I was in the sixth-grade — I remember running out to the car, expecting my mother to be elated, and instead there was sort of a sobering reaction of a heavy sigh. She was worried that I was doing too much, but that’s kind of been my approach to life.

Certainly, the death of my parents was more difficult personally, but laying people off, that was the darkest chapter of my life professionally. I’m sure it took 10 years off my life. I couldn’t sleep. I had trouble eating because that was a period when I had to terminate about 200 people. Most of them, I delivered the message myself because I felt I owed them that.

This might have been one of the most formative events in my life. I was I think 17 or 18 and John Marsh, the publisher, and John Caldwell, who was the most wonderful managing editor, were both out of town. The county commission reporter’s husband had had a heart attack, so she was out, so the staff was myself, the photographer and the sports editor. During this time, the sports editor, a warrant for his arrest was issued, for essentially molesting Little Leaguers. It was horrible. And it fell upon me to write the story and lay out page one. Of course, I’m on the phone with Mr. Marsh and we talked through how to approach this. I did as instructed and followed my instincts and wrote the story and played it on page one. What this told me was I could handle anything. It told me that I was up to the task. And no matter how unpleasant or unfortunate, this is what newspaper work is all about.

I learned early on — always take on the things that you don’t think you can do. Always volunteer for those stretch assignments.

One of the things that worries me the most is that over the last decade, 1,800 community-based news organizations shut down in this country. That’s 1,800 communities that don’t have reporters asking the questions that need to be asked of our decision-makers.

You have to be agile. You can’t leave college now with a set of tools and say: ‘OK. Now I’m all set for my career.’ You have to leave college with the orientation towards continual learning and having the understanding that things are going to continue to evolve. You have to be adaptive.

I never had children. It wasn’t because I didn’t want them. It was because, all of a sudden, I realized that had passed me by. I was so engrossed in my career, and it was so eminently rewarding that I didn’t tap the brakes enough to bring other things into my life that were important. I don’t feel resentful about that. It’s just, again, timing is everything, and my timing was such that I had career opportunities the women before me had not had and I felt such a responsibility to take the fullest advantage.

Once, I was in the front seat of a car with an editor and we were on our way to a community meeting. He put his hand on my knee. I took his hand — very gently with no anger — I took his hand and I moved it back to his side of the car and said: ‘Please, don’t ever do that again because I’ll have to leave the paper.’ It was very matter of fact. I was not angry. I was not frightened. It was just so certain for me that if he did that again I’d have to leave — and I didn’t want to leave.

Traveling is my favorite pastime, followed by fishing.

I will admit to having a lot of ambition for myself as I was coming up through the ranks. But there was a point when it stopped being about me and it started being about the collective success and ambition for the organization. And that was so much more fun and so much more rewarding and exciting.

 

Read more in our January issue.

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