“Don’t settle for what you see.”
Joanne Gerstner — Author, freelancer, owner of Gerstner Media, Sports Journalist in Residence at Michigan State University
By Kalyn Kahler
When Joanne Gerstner (MSJ95) was a young girl in elementary school, she penned a letter to her favorite sports writer, the Red Wings beat writer for the Detroit News, Cynthia Lambert. Much to her astonishment, Lambert wrote back. “It was a really nice handwritten letter,” Gerstner remembered. “I thought that it was really cool that she acknowledged me.”
Gerstner grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, and though she didn’t know it at the time, during her childhood in the ‘80s, the city had more female sports writers working for the major papers than many other cities. Michelle Kaufman and Johnette Howard of the Detroit Free Press, Bev Eckman and Lambert of the Detroit News. It was the perfect environment to nurture Gerstner into following her sports writing ambitions.
“I never knew that being a female sports writer was that unique because I saw women covering the Red Wings and writing columns and doing stuff that the guys were doing,” Gerstner said. “It seemed normal.”
Gerstner is now the Sports Journalist in Residence at Michigan State, a freelance writer, and an author finishing up a book on concussions in youth sports, but her career began when she was just 14 years old. As a student at an all girls Catholic high school, she started writing for her local paper. “They never had any stories about us, they had all the stories about the boys basketball and football at the public high school,” Gerstner said. “I happened to walk into the community newspaper office and say, ‘Hey would you like to write about us?’”
The editor agreed with her proposal, and Gerstner set off covering the sports at her school, where she played tennis. “Admittedly, I did quote myself in some of the stories,” Gerstner laughed. “It is hilarious now thinking about it. I was on the team, so I was a witness. I look back and say, wow this is really bad, but it was a start.”
Gerstner continued to play tennis and study journalism in college at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
While in college, she joined the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM). “Just knowing I was connected to other women who were out there, even just getting a newsletter was huge,” she said. “I never had the true perception that I was by myself, which was good because I was the lone ranger at Oakland University wanting to be a female sportswriter.”
After graduating from Oakland, Gerstner was one of the first women hired in sports at the Flint Journal in Flint, Mich. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but my editor took a big risk by hiring me. He got crap for it, he had an opening and he hired a woman?” Gerstner said. “Only years later did I realize that he had daughters that were my age. I think he saw me as one of his daughters, and hoped for a better world for his daughters.”
From there she went to Medill for graduate school, then on to an internship at the Cincinnati Enquirer, where she covered Miami of Ohio, tennis and Ohio State football. “The irony is the year that I was covering Ohio State football is the year NU did really well and went to the Rose Bowl over Ohio State, so NU cost me a trip to the Rose Bowl,” she said.
Gerstner then returned to Michigan to cover Michigan State football and basketball for the Lansing State Journal, followed by a stint at USA Today and 10 years at the Detroit News.
While at the Detroit News, Gerstner became president of AWSM, where she initiated major changes. She earned non-profit 501c3 status for the organization, spearheaded a massive fundraising initiative that raised $100,000 over the course of four years — two as president and two as chair of the board. She also established named scholarships for students. “It taught me a lot as a business person,” Gerstner said. “Even though AWSM is a volunteer organization and I wasn’t paid a dime, I still had to get it right and deliver results.”
The business skills she earned from leading AWSM gave her confidence to start her own media company, Gerstner Media. Gerstner provides consulting for social media and media planning as well as writing and editing services. The New York Times — where she is a contributor — is one of her biggest clients.
While president of AWSM, Gerstner interacted with the entire frame of women in the sports media industry, from budding young students to old-school professionals. Gerstner’s generation of women in sports media falls somewhere in the middle. “I think I am in a perfect position where I can be a bridge,” she said. “I am old enough to know the business, but I am also young enough to know the change to multimedia.”
Because of her position as a “bridge,” Gerstner has a passion for teaching, which is why she is excited about her current role at Michigan State, where she is helping build a sports journalism program.
Her main message for her female students? Keep dreaming big.
“I tell them don’t settle for what you see,” Gerstner said. “Being a sideline reporter is fantastic, but would you like to run SportsCenter, be the head of programming for NBC Sports, the CEO of ESPN or sports editor of the Chicago Tribune?”
Gerstner works closely with the AWSM student chapter at Michigan State and pushes the students to think past the small, immediate goals. “What’s the big goal?” she asks them. “How far do you want to go? Do you want to leave an impact?”
Although she spends much of her time teaching, Gerstner is also a student herself. In 2012, she won a Knight-Wallace fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. Gerstner devoted her year to researching concussions in sports from a logical standpoint. “As a sports writer, we write a lot about that and we don’t really get taught that stuff,” Gerstner said. “We understand a broken leg and a twisted ankle, but what is going on in the brain? It is so complex.”
She spent a year embedded in the neurology department under the director of the Michigan NeuroSport Program Dr. Jeff Kutcher. She attended football practices, neurology conferences, and was a fly-on-the-wall during Kutcher’s appointments with patients.
Gerstner noticed that many parents didn’t seem to have a good understanding of what concussions were, so she and Dr. Kutcher have teamed up to write a user-friendly book to break down the various myths surrounding concussions in sports.
“I feel like I have gone to a mini-medical school,” Gerstner laughed. “I’ve had to do a lot of reading, a lot of catch up and I certainly cannot diagnose people but I think I know enough to be dangerous.”
With her book due out this year, Gerstner will have accomplished nearly everything on her career bucket list. She’s crossed off the Olympics, NBA Finals, and French Open from her list, among other major sports events. “Everything from here on out, is the bonus round,” she said.
Were you treated any differently as a female beat writer during your time covering the Detroit Pistons for the Detroit News?
When people email you or Tweet at you or leave voicemail messages to insult you, they use very female-specific slurs. A lot of the discourse I have received from people had nothing to do with what I actually wrote, it was more that they were ticked off that a woman wrote it. I’ve heard several times that the NBA was too holy and good to have a woman writing about it. I got this more than a few times, ‘Well you never played the sport at that level, so how can you write about it?’ Well, then I ask back, ‘When did you play in the NBA? When did that happen?’
For the most part, the athletes and the coaches and the front offices I dealt with treated me with respect, but I also demanded respect. I gave them respect and got it in return. I handled myself professionally. I’m tough and fair, but I’m not out to screw people to get myself ahead.
The hatred that comes through the hate mail, you aren’t prepared for that. When someone calls you a slut or fat or this or that, its like, I’m just trying to do my job and do it to the best of my ability. Email and Twitter allow people in a real fit of anger to write things that are incredibly hateful that they would never say in your face. It’s almost like we are a characters in a soap opera or on TV and we aren’t real.
Your picture is in the paper next to what you write. My name is Joanne, it’s not Sydney or Jordan or names that can go either way. Joanne is female. There is nowhere to hide. I am very lucky that I had female mentors like Christine Brennan that taught me how to have a thicker skin and not internalize it.
You’ve been working in sports for 20 years. What still needs to change for women to continue advancing?
It’s great that women are all over the place in the business, but we still need each other. Our problem that we need to work together to solve is work life balance. There is no childcare for a baseball writer if you have to be at the stadium from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. How do you be a good mom if that’s what you want and be a beat writer?
In terms of advancement, we need more women as sports editors. We need more women sitting at the table in the discussions of what is going on at every media company. We are still not there yet. No one has reached the top-top.
I did a presentation a couple of years ago at Michigan and at that time, more women had been astronauts on a Space Shuttle than had been an editor of a sports section at major newspapers in this country.
What do you think should be harder, being on a Space Shuttle or becoming the editor of a sports section? Well, I guess I have my answer.
We need to look bigger and I know for a lot of women, it is really easy to have your first 10 years in the business. But then things change in your life circumstance or the job you had isn’t fulfilling anymore and you want to move up and there is no place to move.
I look at the class of my senior students, and half of the classroom is women and they are just as talented and driven as the guys are. That right there shows me the difference between me never having a sports class and being by myself, and me teaching an amazing group of 15 students and seeing this diversity.
What are your favorite memories from your career?
- I will admit that I am a complete sap, and sitting at the opening ceremonies in Beijing and Sydney I cried a little bit. Seeing Usain Bolt run in Beijing and just completely obliterate everybody, that was electric.
- I’ve got to say, being a kid from Detroit, being there when the Pistons won in 2004 and getting to see Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups cutting down the nets by themselves.
- I hopped the fence and ran around the bases after covering the final game at Tigers Stadium. As a girl I always wanted to play baseball and now I ran around the bases before they were gone and before they shut the stadium down.
- Being at French Open and getting to watch Federer and Djokovic and Nadal, as a tennis geek, that made me happy.
The bottom line is, I am just a kid from Detroit who wanted to be a sports writer and it has come true.
What is your ultimate career goal?
I am still a print girl at heart and I always dreamed of being a major newspaper columnist. Sometimes dreams have to change because I don’t know if that job exists anymore in that way I want it to.
If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be a professor at Michigan State, I would have been surprised.
I have learned that the goals I set are to be successful in what I do, love what I do and work hard at what I do.
I am adaptable and am so lucky to have my education at Medill. I did business, science, magazine, all the things I learned had nothing to do with sports but I use it all the time.
The thing that carried me through this far is that I listen to people, I work my butt off and I try to be as fair and true and real as possible.
It’s not about me, it’s not about advancing myself to make myself famous. I want the truth to be famous.
How did attending Medill encourage you as a woman in sports media?
Medill has such an amazing legacy of women. There are so many strong, capable, ground-breaking female sports journalists that came out of Medill that I never felt out of place. I wasn’t new. Christine Brennan and others broke that door open in the ‘80s. That ship had sailed. At one time on the AWSM board, four out of 10 board members were from Medill. That makes a huge difference having that legacy and that tradition.
Kalyn Kahler is a senior journalism major at Medill, and is originally from Madison, Wisc. Her reporting has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated. She works in Northwestern athletic communications and is a varsity cheerleader, so yeah, she might just be the biggest Wildcat sports fan ever. Find Kalyn on Twitter @kalynkahler.