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Debra Simmons

Journalist and newspaper executive Debra Adams Simmons was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Simmons attended Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and the College of Arts and Sciences, from which she received her B.A. degree. She is also a graduate of the Northwestern University Media Management Center’s Advanced Executive Program in its Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Simmons had then planned to attend law school, but in 1986 was offered an internship at the local newspaper in Syracuse.

Simmons worked as a reporter and editor at the Hartford Courant, the Detroit Free Press, and the Virginian-Pilot. In 2003, she became managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, a Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper distributed throughout Northeast Ohio. Six months later she was appointed vice president of the newspaper. In 2007, Simmons was hired as managing editor of The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. Three years later, she was promoted to editor of The Plain Dealer, making her the only minority female running any of the nation’s top twenty-five newspapers.

In 2014, Simmons became president of the Associated Press Media Editors. She has also served as the board chairman of the Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop, vice chair of the board of directors for Business Volunteers Unlimited: Center for Non-Profit Excellence, member of the board of directors of the American Society of News Editors, member of the National Association of Minority Media Executives, and member of the National Association of Black Journalists

For her journalistic and community achievements, Simmons has been given the Robert McGruder Award for Diversity by Kent State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, named as one of Cleveland’s 40 Under 40 leading executives in Northeast Ohio by Crain’s, won the ATHENA award, and has been inducted into the Women of Color Hall of Fame.

Simmons lives in Copley, Ohio, with her husband, Jonathan. They have two sons; Jacob and Jonathan.

Simmons was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on February 11, 2014.

Accession Number

A2014.042

Sex

Female

Interview Date

2/11/2014

Last Name

Simmons

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

Lynne

Schools

Annie-Fisher Multiple Intelligence M

South Catholic High School

Syracuse University

Hartford College for Women

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Debra

Birth City, State, Country

Hartford

HM ID

SIM12

Favorite Season

The Holidays

State

Connecticut

Favorite Vacation Destination

Africa

Favorite Quote

Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Ohio

Birth Date

11/4/1964

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Cleveland

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Macaroni And Cheese

Short Description

Journalist and newspaper executive Debra Simmons (1964 - ) served as the editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.

Employment

The Plain Dealer

Akron Beacon Journal

Virginian Pilot

Detroit Free Press

Hartford Courant

Syracuse Herald-Journal

Favorite Color

Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Debra Simmons' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Debra Simmons lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Debra Simmons describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Debra Simmons describes her mother's education

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Debra Simmons talks about her mother's second marriage

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Debra Simmons describes how her parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Debra Simmons describes her father's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Debra Simmons describes her father's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Debra Simmons describes her parents' personalities and who she takes after

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Debra Simmons lists her siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Debra Simmons describes her elementary school experiences

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Debra Simmons remembers the cultural institutions in Hartford, Connecticut

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Debra Simmons describes the demographics of Hartford, Connecticut

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Debra Simmons talks about her decision to become a broadcast journalist

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Debra Simmons describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Debra Simmons remembers becoming a double dutch champion

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Debra Simmons describes her decision to attend South Catholic High School in Hartford, Connecticut

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Debra Simmons describes her experiences at South Catholic High School in Hartford, Connecticut

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Debra Simmons recalls how she came to work at the Syracuse Herald-Journal

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Debra Simmons talks about the history of the Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Debra Simmons remembers her senior year at South Catholic High School in Hartford, Connecticut

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Debra Simmons remembers her advisor at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Debra Simmons describes her experiences at Syracuse University, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Debra Simmons describes her experiences at Syracuse University, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Debra Simmons describes her position at the Syracuse Herald-Journal

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Debra Simmons remembers the Janet Cooke scandal

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Debra Simmons talks about her position at the Hartford Courant

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Debra Simmons describes her time as an education writer at the Detroit Free Press

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Debra Simmons remembers meeting her husband

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Debra Simmons recalls her transitions between The Virginian-Pilot and the Detroit Free Press

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Debra Simmons describes her position at The Virginian-Pilot

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Debra Simmons remembers turning down a position at The Washington Post

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Debra Simmons describes her role as deputy managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Debra Simmons describes how she came to work at the Akron Beacon Journal

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Debra Simmons talks about her tenure at the Akron Beacon Journal

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Debra Simmons remembers the acquisition of Knight Ridder by The McClatchy Company, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Debra Simmons remembers the acquisition of Knight Ridder by The McClatchy Company, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Debra Simmons talks about the City of Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Debra Simmons talks about the digital distribution of The Plain Dealer

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Debra Simmons talks about the perception of Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Debra Simmons talks about the revitalization of Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Debra Simmons reflects upon her accomplishments at The Plain Dealer

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Debra Simmons talks about the recent crimes in Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Debra Simmons talks about her relationships with community leaders in Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Debra Simmons talks about the staff and content of The Plain Dealer

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Debra Simmons talks about her awards and honors

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Debra Simmons talks about the lack of diversity in the journalism industry

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Debra Simmons reflects upon her life

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Debra Simmons talks about her plans for the future

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Debra Simmons reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Debra Simmons talks about her children

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Debra Simmons shares her hopes and concerns for Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Debra Simmons describes how she would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$3

DAStory

8$5

DATitle
Debra Simmons reflects upon her accomplishments at The Plain Dealer
Debra Simmons describes her position at the Syracuse Herald-Journal
Transcript
When you look at your, your years here in Cleveland [Ohio], what is the highlight, I guess, in terms of The Plain Dealer?$$Hm, the highlight. Okay, I gotta think about this for a minute. So I've been in Ohio for ten years; came in 2003 as I mentioned, left the Beacon [Akron Beacon Journal] December 31st, 2006 and started at The Plain Dealer in 2007. I guess there have been a number of highlights; probably most significant is that a couple of years ago, the structure of county government in Cuyahoga County [Ohio] was changed, driven largely by the investigative reporting of The Plain Dealer, which unveiled widespread corruption. So being able to shed light on how the government has run, and to provide citizens with the kinds of information that would help them make a meaningful choice about doing things differently is probably the defining professional moment of my Cleveland experience. You know, there are a number of people--readers who would argue that The Plain Dealer should have been writing these stories twenty years ago, so as--one who wasn't here twenty years ago, can't really take the hit for what didn't happen. I don't necessarily disagree with, with some of those points but, you know, I think if you look at the work that we did in 2008 and 2009, that--not, not just one or two people of questionable character, but that really sort of unveiled a whole infrastructure of corruption and cronyism, and to get that broken down and to come up with a new structure that has, you know, leadership, you know, for the people by the people, where everyone has a seat at the table, really is significant.$$Okay. So 2010, I guess, was a landmark year for those investigations?$$Yes. That's when the sort of chickens came home to roost so to speak (laughter).$$Yeah, I heard--well, this morning, [HistoryMaker] Harry Boomer again; he was saying another, you know, corruption scandal (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Right, right.$$--and he was talking about some other layer has been peeled back.$$I mean that's the thing. What we really helped to do is unveil this whole culture of corruption and, you know, what has sprung from that is a whole series of investigations and a whole series of, you know, identifying pockets of mismanagement and misbehavior, and so, you know, when you think about journalism as a public trust, I mean I think that we most effectively fulfilled that role in the kinds of content that we're talking about here; but we're also doing it now around rape. As you know, 2013 was the year that three women [Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight] were found, you know, to have been locked in a house for a decade. Well, for the last three years, we have been pushing the state to do a better job of examining rape kits and, you know, I think our content, as well as, you know, other developments, have sort of moved the state to a place where it's more effectively and efficiently testing rape kits, and thousands of rapes are being resolved as a result of much of the work that we're doing. And so, you know, we are continuing to push to--particularly, you know, for poor women whose credibility is questionable, they've never--you know, they rarely have been able to get anybody to listen to their cries. And now the state attorney general [Mike DeWine] has made a commitment to testing every untested rape kit that's out there, and there are about four thousand, and they're about a third of the way through. And in some cases, the offenders are in custody; you know, they're right there but no one's ever tested and no one's ever asked, and so for many families, including families who've had people not just rape but murder, some of those murders have been resolved in the past year. In one case, a woman's daughter was killed thirty years ago and just gotten to a place where she knows what happened. But as it relates to the rape kits specifically, there's a twenty year statute of limitations, and so there's this race to get those tested before that statute runs out.$Syracuse Herald-Journal. What was your internship like? What did, what did you do, and did you learn--what did you learn, I guess in that year?$$So I mentioned that my internship, which was supposed to be nine months, two weeks in, the managing editor offered me a full time permanent job because he was concerned that I--you know, I, I, I sort of jumped in with both feet, I was doing a good job, and he was concerned that I was going to get picked off by another newspaper, and so one of the, one of the projects I did during my first year as a reporter was on children in foster care, and I worked with this senior editor who was just happy to have somebody who was young and who would do whatever he told 'em to do 'cause the veterans would sort of grouse and ignore him. He was like, "Okay, you gotta get these records, you gotta do this, you gotta do that." So when I talk about the--when I mention that when I got out of school, some of my first mentors were white men? Barry Katz [Barry E. Katz] was this great mentor, this sort of hard nose, hard core investigative journalist who sort of guided this project on children in foster care, the result of which were changes in the way that the foster care structure was organized and held accountable in the county where Syracuse is, and that's called Onondaga County [New York]. You know--so I--in the course of doing this, in addition to sort of the--gathering the data and the whole bit, I talked to these foster kids who had been in fourteen homes in eight years; some had been abused; but we really sort of shed light on all the--really, all the failures of the system. That won a huge statewide award; I, I was like named the newcomer of the year, which was an annual award they gave at that time, and so Tim Bunn, the person who had offered me this internship and then this full time permanent job, said after this project ran, "I wouldn't be surprised if Debbie Adams [HistoryMaker Debra Simmons] took her five part series and went home with it." And sure enough, sometime shortly thereafter, the Hartford Courant called and said, "Hey, you could do that work here; what do you wanna stay in Syracuse [New York] for?" And so I shifted from the Syracuse Herald-Journal to Hartford [Connecticut]. The interesting thing about the Syracuse paper is that--you know, I went to the Newhouse School, which was, you know, funded by the, you know, revenues of Newhouse family and Advance Publications [Advance Publications, Inc.], and the Syracuse Herald-Journal was a Newhouse newspaper, you know, Advance Publications, Newhouse family newspaper, and The Plain Dealer is an Advance Publication Newhouse newspaper, so when I came here, everybody said, "Oh, my goodness, your Newhouse career has gone full circle; you got your degree from the Newhouse School, and now you're running a Newhouse newspaper." And I think I might be one of the few Newhouse grads to run a Newhouse paper.