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Outgoing Tribune editor stood out as female role model

Published October 1, 2013 10:17 am

Media • Ex-teacher, Peace Corps worker says SLC needs an independent newspaper.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By the time this story appears in The Salt Lake Tribune, Editor Nancy Conway will be in Portugal for a long-planned vacation. Only now, she'll be scouting for places to retire and write.

Conway — the 71-year-old lifelong Red Sox fan who grew from working-class roots to become a Peace Corps worker turned schoolteacher turned journalist — announced Sept. 12 she would give up The Tribune's top newsroom job amid a round of layoffs that cut 20 percent of the staff at Utah's largest newspaper.

Her last day was Monday.

Managing Editor Terry Orme, a 35-year Tribune veteran who started as a copyboy, took over as editor and publisher Tuesday.

Conway, the first woman to head The Tribune in its 142-year history, said she has no immediate plans to leave Utah or her Holladay home and has offered to help remaining editors navigate the effects of the layoffs "in any way I can."

"There's probably not a community in the country where the newspaper has been as important as this one, because we are independent," she said. "And our independence gives us a great deal of distinction.''

Righting the ship • Conway arrived in 2003, chosen for the job by William Dean Singleton, whose Colorado-based newspaper chain MediaNews Group acquired The Tribune in 2000. She replaced James E. "Jay" Shelledy after he resigned in the face of an ethical scandal and staff revolt over two Tribune reporters who secretly sold inaccurate information about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping to a supermarket tabloid.

"Nancy was the most trusted person I had to come in and stabilize the ship and do good journalism while making sure that our credibility was unquestioned," said Singleton, who has stepped down as the paper's publisher. "She has one of the finest newspaper minds I've ever known."

Conway was surprised by the media splash surrounding her arrival. "I was interviewed by every television station, all the radio stations. I was in the paper. I mean, it was a big deal."

After a decade leading The Tribune, Conway earned a reputation as an advocate for open government, for adhering to high ethical standards and for blanket coverage of major news events such as the Trolley Square shootings, the Crandall Canyon mining disaster and the Susan Cox Powell disappearance.

She was an organizing force in the Utah Media Coalition, formed in 2006 by the state's major news outlets to lobby for Utah's open-record laws and government transparency. The group played a decisive role five years later in fighting HB477, a short-lived plan that would have severely restricted public access to government records.

Conway guided crucial shifts of newsroom staff, resources and attention toward online publishing and away from the days when newspapers plopped on doorsteps were the primary way of reaching readers. Web and smartphone readership has skyrocketed, far outpacing the paper's ability to make money from that surging digital audience.

Conway oversaw The Tribune's 2005 move from its Main Street home to new digs at Salt Lake City's Gateway. She also reopened a two-reporter Washington, D.C., bureau.

'You go, girl' • On a personal level, co-workers described Conway — who speaks with a light Massachusetts accent — as gracious, poised, charming, compassionate, tough and tenacious, while having a deep-seated passion for watchdog journalism and for trumping competitors on breaking news. She typically lunched on salads at her desk and worked late. She was a stickler for budget numbers, allowed managers to run their departments, and sought input from an array of colleagues on many decisions.

Some say she was too removed in recent years from day-to-day newsroom operations, partly because, with Singleton based in Denver, she fulfilled many community duties traditionally performed by a publisher.

Foremost, Conway, who sees herself as a "little shy," was viewed as a trailblazer and a female role model in a conservative state whose major institutions are still overwhelmingly dominated by men.

"For a lot of us, including women outside the newsroom, it was rewarding that Nancy was successful in a state that doesn't have a lot of high-profile female editors," said Anne Wilson, a longtime Tribune reporter and editor who now works in its online division.

One day, as Conway emerged from the office to hail a cab to the airport, a woman came running up to her and said, "It is you! You go, girl! You do this for all of us!"

"By then I realized and I didn't have to ask her what she meant," Conway said. "The glass ceiling still exists."

Brent Low has watched Conway in a variety of male-run, hardball meetings involving The Tribune's chief competitor, the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, and executives from MediaOne of Utah, the company run by both dailies under a joint operating agreement.

"She is graceful, firm and deeply committed to doing the right thing," said Low, MediaOne's CEO and president.

A Utah friend described Conway as warm, smart and generous, with a wonderful New England sense of humor.

"Nancy is a fierce advocate for The Tribune's writers, reporters and the rest of the staff, and has been personally devastated by recent personnel cuts,'' said Cynthia Buckingham, executive director of the Utah Humanities Council.

Conway developed a profound love for Salt Lake City's orderliness, its family focus and civility, its arts community and, in particular, its stunning scenery.

"You can almost reach out and touch the mountains,'' she said, throwing a glance out the window of her seventh-floor office toward the Wasatch Range. "To an Eastern gal, that is really breathtaking.''

Bay State beginnings • Born in 1942, Conway grew up in Foxborough, Mass., about 22 miles southwest of Boston. The second of five children, she remembers being surrounded and nurtured by her large, clannish, blue-collar, predominantly Irish family.

Her parents had grade-school educations. Hampered by poor health, Conway's father worked as a janitor, parking lot attendant and night watchman. Her mother was a kitchen worker at a school and the state hospital.

Conway began working at age 9, helping her mother clean houses. "I cleaned the toilets,'' Conway said, laughing. "Talk about humble beginnings."

While cherishing what she calls her "hardscrabble" upbringing, Conway said it also has driven her throughout her life. "I saw that other people lived differently from that, and I aspired to live differently," she said. "I've always been self-motivated.''

Conway's life was transformed at 21, she said, when she volunteered for the Peace Corps, only two years after President John F. Kennedy created it. Deployed as a medical worker in Rio de Janeiro with 20 other women, her eyes opened to the world's possibilities.

"It made me crave education,'' she said. "It made me know how much I didn't know and how much I wanted to know."

She extended her Peace Corps service, returning stateside in 1968 to pursue an English degree at the University of Massachusetts, with a certificate to teach English, Portuguese and social studies.

She would reprise her international travels 40 years later, when she was chosen by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University to visit Uganda to study the African country's health and environmental issues, as well as the effects of a decades-long civil war.

Conway started her newspaper career in 1976 as office manager and calendar editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., after ending her marriage to a minister in the Congregational United Church of Christ. She has two grown daughters.

Singleton and Conway met in 1978, when they worked at The Amherst Record in Amherst, Mass. — she in the newsroom, he as a 27-year-old newspaper executive.

"He looked like a kid," Conway said.

Through the decades, she has kept a fierce allegiance to Singleton. "That is her first loyalty,'' said Editor Orme. "She is completely and totally loyal to him."

After newspaper stints in Holyoke, Mass., and Florida, Conway became the first female editor and publisher of the York Dispatch in York, Pa. She worked briefly as metro editor at The Denver Post before accepting a job in California as executive editor of the Alameda Newspaper Group, made up of five Bay Area papers including the flagship Oakland Tribune. ANG newspapers laid off 49 workers from a staff of about 230 just before Conway's departure for Utah.

She said at the time she joined The Salt Lake Tribune that she "hoped" those types of staff cuts wouldn't happen in Utah.

Eventually, they did.

The newspaper laid off a handful of people in July, but, in reaction to further losses, corporate executives from Digital First Media, The Tribune's current parent company, ordered more sweeping cuts shortly after Labor Day.

Through the turmoil, Conway said, "We've managed to stay focused on good journalism, and that's what we do best. I am very proud of that."

Still, the hazy future of newspapers, Conway said, "is a real conundrum. But we've got to figure it out.''

After Portugal.

tsemerad@sltrib.com