Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

Fellowship puts Carlson on track to media leadership

By Parth Upadhyaya
SJI Class of 2019

When Berry Tramel saw Jenni Carlson lead a high school sports reporting seminar in 1999 at a regional Associated Press Sports Editors conference in Kansas City, Mo., he knew he’d need to remember her.

Months later, Tramel, then-sports editor of The Oklahoman, proved to be right. In a staff meeting, then-executive editor Stan Tiner suggested the paper’s sports desk hire a female sports columnist.

Carlson was the first person Tramel thought of. Carlson, 24, was soon hired away from The Kansas City Star, becoming the first woman to write a general-interest sports column in The Oklahoman’s history. For nearly 20 years, Carlson has been a pioneer and leader for those in her newsroom and beyond.

Now, she hopes to take steps to one day lead in a more official capacity, starting with participating in the 2018-19 APSE Diversity Fellowship.

“I really felt like I wanted to try to expand just my knowledge base, as much as anything,” Carlson said. “And I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn about some things that I really have never had experience in: website stuff, budgeting — as far as the financial side of being in leadership.”

Carlson is one of five Diversity Fellows in this year’s class. The other four members are: Norma Gonzalez of the Arizona Daily Star, Eric Jackson of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, Nicole Saavedra of the USA Today Network-Tennessee and James Williams of the Orange County Register.

The nine-month program is designed for mid-career professionals interested in pursuing career paths as managers in sports journalism. A few components of the program include the APSE Diversity Weekend in Nashville, Tenn. in December, judging in APSE’s annual sports section and sports writing contests in Orlando, Fla. in February and graduation at the summer convention in Atlanta in June.

In recent years, Carlson and Tramel — who now also serves as a columnist for the paper — have become two of the veterans of The Oklahoman’s sports desk. Carlson often encourages her younger colleagues to talk through stories with her or send her their rough drafts and leads.

While Carlson, whose love for journalism began as a senior in high school, has a strong writing background, she admits she struggled with the digital aspects of modern journalism prior to starting the fellowship. She says one of her weaknesses was building story headlines optimized for Google searches that maximize online audience.

But the fellowship, particularly the Diversity Weekend, which featured a series of digital journalism mini-workshops, has helped Carlson gain a foundation in a once-unfamiliar area.

“I think now, I’ve at least developed a little bit more of an understanding of some of the basics and some of the things that I would have to continue to grow on,” Carlson said. “… Whereas before, I didn’t really have much of a base in some of those areas.”

When Carlson joined the paper almost 20 years ago, she’d occasionally get sexist emails from readers who felt that a woman wasn’t fit to write about sports. Nowadays, she’ll sometimes get emails from readers who say that she “proved them wrong.”

“She’s tougher than they are, so she outlasted the critics,” Tramel said.

“And now, I mean, if you say the name Jenni Carlson around town — I mean, everybody holds her in the highest esteem. Because they know her work, and they know her ethics.”

Tramel has told Carlson before that she’s “got all the tools now to run the whole dang paper,” and definitely the skills to be an editor.

Carlson likely won’t make a move to management in the immediate future, with her priority being to have time to spend with her 6-year-old daughter. But she could choose to climb the newsroom ladder sometime in the next few years.

For Tramel, the day Carlson moves on from her role as a columnist would be bittersweet.

“I’d hate to lose her as a writer and a voice,” Tramel said, ‘because her voice has become so important in Oklahoma City.”