In nearly four years as Indianapolis Star publisher, Karen Ferguson, formerly Crotchfelt, has helped steer the state’s largest daily newspaper through one of its most tumultuous periods. Among her biggest challenges is reshaping the staff and refining the product to be nimble enough to endure an uncertain future, but the Illinois native also worries about the future for her young children.
IBJ: You have been described to me by some of your co-workers as totally fearless. So what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
FERGUSON: [Laughs] I don’t feel totally fearless. Probably the scariest thing is taking this publisher’s job. But in general, I fear failing, not necessarily for myself, but I just believe in what we do. I believe in journalism.
IBJ: How do you deal with the emotional part of laying people off?
FERGUSON: If you don’t feel absolutely sick to your stomach when you have to go through the process, you shouldn’t be a leader.
IBJ: During the tumult your company is going through, how do you keep morale up?
FERGUSON: You have to let people go through their emotions. A rah-rah speech at the wrong time is worse sometimes than no rah-rah speech. Honesty is really important, too. I’ve told my staff since the time I’ve got here, I don’t have all the answers. I have a vision and I believe consumers will always want great content. But the hows—we’re all in it together.
IBJ: Where did you get your optimistic personality and how do you maintain it in an industry like yours?
FERGUSON: Life is short. You have to seize the moment. I’m very centered on our purpose. And I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing. Something goes wrong, and I can move through it pretty quickly. I don’t hold grudges.
IBJ: Have you found yourself in positions of not being the leader you want to be?
FERGUSON: I grew up in an industry that managed from a very top-down perspective. I have mastered those skills. I am trying to un-master them.
IBJ: What’s your management style?
FERGUSON: Once there’s trust established, I am strategic and relatively hands-off. I have an ability to get into details, but it is not my happy place. But sometimes I need enough detail to understand we’re on point. I don’t take myself particularly seriously. I do at the right moments, but I think we should have fun. I like to laugh.
IBJ: Would your management style be more Bob Knight or John Wooden?
FERGUSON: I’m not a yeller, at least not at this point in my career. But I’m direct, so I think directness even without tone can be scary for folks.
IBJ: Are you more patient with your employees or your children?
FERGUSON: I’d say it’s changed based on my kids’ age. I’d say my 6- and 7-year-olds are very intense and working on listening right now. So I might say I’m more patient at work than I am at home.
It’s funny you asked me earlier what scares me and I thought about that in a professional context. You know what scares me in a personal context is, my son is black, my daughter is half Indian, half black, though she looks as white as I do. Everything that has been going on in the world the last couple of years, I take a pretty deep breath and get a little bit emotional, maybe a lot emotional, that my son would ever be judged just because of the color of his skin. It’s disheartening to think in 2014 we haven’t progressed further than that as a country. I worry about that a lot.
IBJ: Is age 6 too young to start talking to him about those things?
FERGUSON: We’re getting close. He finally realizes he’s a different color than other people in his family and so he’s starting to ask more questions about that. I’ve always believed that when the kids start asking questions, you have to start engaging in that dialogue. But part of me on the other hand is optimistic—this is probably delusional, not optimistic—that I can protect him for a certain amount of time, and while I do that the world will finally evolve. I don’t know how to keep him out of harm’s way when people are not what you want them to be.
IBJ: With your kids, have you gotten any glimpses into the news consumption habit of future generations?
FERGUSON: I’m pretty sure if we just build everything in Minecraft we’re going to be fine. [Laughs]
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