By Larry Timbs
The president and publisher of the largest daily newspaper in the Carolinas made her mark at an early age as a super star at selling Girl Scout cookies.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Ann Caulkins, given the reins of The Charlotte Observer in May 2006, says her Girl Scout experience proved to her that she could sell.
She parlayed that success into selling ads for her high school newspaper in Texas and eventually into selling ads or working on the promotions side for newspapers in Baylor, Texas, and Fort Worth, Texas.
Stints in various top advertising and newspaper management roles followed for Caulkins in Lexington, Ky., and in Columbia, S.C.
As publisher of the 291,000-circulation daily Charlotte Observer, based in what Caulkins, 44, calls “the second fastest growing city in the United States,” she’s determined to see that The Observer maintains a small-town community journalism feel for its readers. A big part of that sense of newspaper connectedness to readers and neighborhoods derives from The Observer’s targeted sections of the paper, according to Caulkins.
Examples of such sections are “Southern Mecklenburg County,” “Lake Norman” and “University City.”
Plus, there are the Observer’s niche magazines: “South Park” targeted for shoppers at upscale, impressive South Park shopping center in southeast Charlotte; “Carolina Bride” for recent or soon-to-be married women and for those searching for homes or places to live.
Such targeted sections of the newspaper and Observer-owned niche magazines are all about “attempts to be a small town paper for that area of town, and people love it,” Caulkins said recently to journalism students, faculty and others at Winthrop University. “People want to see people they recognize. They want to read about dining and shopping in their local areas,” said Caulkins, a featured speaker during “Mass Communication Week—2007”) at Winthrop.
She said readers hunger for such niche sections and publications; these don’t have to be fancy but they do have to be authentic. “People are craving information and connections that a newspaper can provide,” she said.
Caulkins said she does all that she can to see that The Charlotte Observer is financially successful and that it delivers the best journalism possible.
Does being a woman—and, at that, the first female publisher in The Observer’s 120-year history—make that challenge more difficult?
Some folks in her audience got the sense that maybe things, in 2007, aren’t as daunting as they once were for female pioneer newspaper executives like Caulkins.
For example, Caulkins can recall the era when America’s newsrooms almost exclusively were the provinces of 50-year-old plus cigar-smoking white men.
Today, the culture of the newspaper industry has changed dramatically—with more women, more young people and more (but still not enough) people of color populating newsrooms.
Still, sometimes it can be a struggle for a female CEO, Caulkins noted. Before coming to The Charlotte Observer, for example, Caulkins was president and publisher of The (Columbia, S.C.) State, another large daily. In Columbia, she didn’t have much of a female support network, she said.
In Charlotte, however, it’s a different story.
“There’s a lot of women doing interesting, interesting work here (in Charlotte),” said Caulkins, married and the mother of two small children, “so it’s been very good to be here.”