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Retired Lincoln Journal Star editor didn’t need journalism degree

By Julia Oestmann
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Kathleen Rutledge, editor-in-chief at the Lincoln Journal Star 2001-2007 (Photo: courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star)

Journalism was a passion Kathleen Rutledge didn’t know was calling until a few years after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a bachelor’s degree in English.

When Rutledge was laid off from her job working with developmentally disabled children, she went back to school to take a few graduate-level courses in journalism. Despite never graduating from the master’s program she was technically enrolled in, her illustrious career at the Lincoln Journal and Lincoln Journal Star consisted of positions at almost every level of the newspaper hierarchy, including editor-in-chief.

Rutledge was 24 when one of her professors at UNL helped her get a job in the Lincoln Journal newsroom. With virtually no real-world experience in the journalism, she began as the newspaper’s death and weather clerk, and floated among other reporting positions.

“It’s all consuming if you’re passionate about what you’re doing,” she said, “because there’s always another story you can get. There’s always another angle you can nail down.”

It was an opening for statehouse reporter that truly ignited Rutledge’s passion for journalism. During a time when it was still unusual for women to be given “hard news beat” assignments, she said the Lincoln Journal managing editor originally planned to ask Rutledge’s husband for permission before offering her the job. It was one of the other editors, she said, who convinced him that this was unnecessary.

Rutledge spent 12 years covering the Nebraska Legislature and government. Though she refers to these years as her favorite among the years she spent at the paper, she eventually knew it was time for a change.

“You get to the point where you’ve heard every issue, and you know all of the personalities, and it just sort of becomes routine,” Rutledge said.

And so her career as an editor began.

Rutledge spent two years as an opinion editor, but when the Lincoln Journal merged with the Lincoln Star in 1995, her position was eliminated and she was named city editor of the Lincoln Journal Star. The abnormal circumstances brought by the merger meant Rutledge had been appointed to a position for which she had essentially no experience. She was used to learning on the job, however, and was promoted to managing editor two years later.

“Management,” she said, “is almost more consuming because you’re trying to accomplish your goals through the talents of other people.” It’s a job that takes more psyche and involves many more factors, but nevertheless Rutledge enjoyed the challenge.

In 2001, Rutledge took over as the top editor at the Lincoln Journal Star. As a former statehouse reporter, Rutledge said the controversy she was least prepared for was the public backlash easily triggered by the sports page — particularly by coverage of the Cornhusker football program. In 2003, the Lincoln Journal Star reported that Cornhusker football coach Frank Solich was being ousted by the university’s new athletic director Steve Pederson.

“There was just a firestorm of public reaction to that story,” Rutledge said. Evoking outrage from Husker fans across the state, the paper even drew harsh remarks from Harvey Perlman, who was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor at the time. Rutledge defended her staff and the paper for reporting the truth about the athletic department’s decision before a statement had been issued to the public.

This would be neither the first nor the last time her paper’s sports section would be scrutinized. That same year Rutledge announced that, out of respect for Native people, the paper would no longer be using the term “redskin” to refer to Washington’s professional football team. This policy came about when the issue was raised by several Native American employees who believed using the name was wrong.

In response to her statement, the Lincoln Journal Star was berated on sports talk shows across the nation, Rutledge said.

The decision didn’t just elicit negative responses, however. The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (NCIA) recognized the paper’s coverage of all Native issues by presenting the Lincoln Journal Star with a star quilt. Rutledge said this was among her proudest moments as editor.

Rutledge retired from the Lincoln Journal Star in 2007, but said that elements of both journalism and editing remain critical in her life as she works with different organizations and nonprofits. One of her most recent projects includes helping the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute with marketing and messaging.

Critical thinking skills are important no matter which industry one joins, Rutledge said, “and the ability to stand outside of a story, so you’re looking at it as objectively as you can, and thinking about ways to verify and document.”

Rutledge said she’s fascinated by looking for new directions to take a piece of writing. “If you have time to do that,” she said. “I mean sometimes you’re in the Legislature, and you’ve just got 15 minutes to write a story.”

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