Women in Business Q&A: Beth Frerking, Editor in Chief, National Law Journal

05/20/2015 04:20 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Beth Frerking is editor in chief of The National Law Journal in Washington, D.C., which she joined in September, 2013 after nearly seven years as a top editor at Politico. She worked previously as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service, as Washington Bureau Chief for the Denver Post, and as the executive director of a journalism training center at the University of Maryland. She serves on the boards of the Washington Press Club Foundation, and of the Friends of The Daily Texan. She also serves on advisory committees at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, her alma mater. A Texas native, she's married and has two sons and three stepchildren.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in South Texas, where gnarled mesquite trees thrive on flat, parched scrub country. Above it, a limitless sky. Rooted in that unforgiving landscape, the most interesting and successful characters--wildcatters, ranchers and entrepreneurs--knew from extremes. Risk-takers all, they trusted themselves but listened to others. Win or lose, they moved on. They didn't fret. They led by dreaming big, working hard, believing in themselves.

Against that backdrop, my parents made me feel there was nothing I couldn't achieve. They loved me and fully supported my ambitions. But they didn't micromanage. If I wanted something, it was up to me. That freedom made me self-reliant and confident. And it gave me the time and space to dream.

My alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, deepened my intellectual curiosity and enlarged my world. But my pivotal leadership experiences at UT happened at The Daily Texan student newspaper, where I worked as a reporter and editor for four years, including the last as editor in chief. That year, I ran a five-day-a-week newspaper with a circulation of 45,000, managing a staff of 50. At age 22, I learned leadership on the job. It was exhilarating.

Finally, being a mother has made me a better leader. Managing a family while working full time takes organization, planning, and the willingness and ability to change course on a dime. My two sons, a 24-year-old in graduate school and a 21-year-old college undergraduate, have been my most loving and consistent supporters--and my most astute critics. Having kids is like having a never-ending 360 review, but from someone who (hopefully) won't fire you.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at The National Law Journal?
Every job I've ever had has contributed. I already mentioned my experience at The Daily Texan. Later, at a small East Texas daily newspaper, I reported on taciturn elected officials--excellent training in the art of negotiation. At the Dallas Times Herald, I learned early and from the best, including the late columnist Molly Ivins, how exceptional journalism and evocative writing flows from precise, detailed, thorough and fair reporting.

As Washington bureau chief of The Denver Post and, later, as a national correspondent at Newhouse News Service, I covered Congress and national politics--excellent preparation for directing and editing coverage of the law and judiciary. And at the Denver Post, I learned how to work with bosses half a continent away. NLJ's corporate headquarters in New York City are closer by than the Post's, but the political reality is the same: You have to find ways to be in the room.

I also gained enormously from working at Politico for seven years before joining the NLJ. Competitively, Politico was a speedboat. Was it sometimes battering? You bet. Did it always work? No. But Politico changed the nature of political news reporting in Washington. I left with its DNA implanted in my brain: be first, be nimble, offer the counterintuitive story, be transparent (especially when you make a mistake), and drive the conversation. And count on the fact that you have about 15 seconds to hook a reader online.

Reporters and editors at The National Law Journal are also competitive, so it's been a pleasure to lead them to constantly 'think digitally' so our work gets even wider recognition. We're more online-focused than ever before, and we're seeing results in traffic, mentions and links. Our stories reach audiences beyond our core readership, thanks to social media and the power of cross-linking. I'm the biggest cheerleader of NLJ's work, and it delights me when our reporters appear on TV or radio to offer expertise and tout their work. It's more proof that NLJ reporters aren't just in the conversation--they often drive it.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at The National Law Journal?
Our exemplary journalism. Among other stories, we had groundbreaking reporting on the effects of the federal government shutdown on the judiciary; an insightful news feature about the late Tommy Boggs; and a revealing in-depth look at the outside income of federal appellate judges nationwide.

But the top news highlight was reporter Marcia Coyle's interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in August 2014. A veteran Supreme Court reporter, Coyle talked with Ginsburg a few weeks after protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Ginsburg offered a candid assessment of race relations in the U.S., as well as her thoughts on several major court rulings. The story told us things we didn't know, and it immediately went viral.

Beyond stories, I most value working with the talented reporters and editors at NLJ, and our corporate colleagues and bosses at ALM who support our mission and history of strong journalism, starting with David Brown, ALM's vice president and editor in chief. Our reputation depends on it. Our readers are among the smartest, pickiest around: lawyers and judges. They keep us on our toes.

Meanwhile, our main challenge is that of every news media organization today: to produce groundbreaking, incisive coverage on a lean budget--and to make money doing it.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in politics and law?
See yourself as chairwoman of a law firm or a Supreme Court justice or a U.S. senator or president. Then go for it. The rest are details--and they're not insignificant or easy. But you won't get there without envisioning yourself in that role.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Imperfectly, like most people. Nothing sparks my professional energy or interest more than a scoop or a pitch-perfect news feature. I love the news business. But I don't mistake work for family and friends. I stay in touch. I routinely travel to see family in Texas, and I meet often with my close friends in Washington. I also never miss an opportunity to grab breakfast or drink with out-of-town friends while on business trips. Life's too short not to.

Not long after I graduated from college and left Austin, I dreamed that I peered into The Daily Texan through a tiny window at a whole new staff of reporters and editors. No one so much as glanced my way, and I felt unbearably sad. But the meaning was clear: jobs come and go, institutions move on without you. The people you treasure and love most remain. It pays to keep that in perspective.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Being underestimated, by ourselves and by others. Women in the workplace sometimes demur, presuming they don't deserve something--a promotion, better pay, the resources to do their jobs. When we've earned it, we deserve it. And we should act accordingly.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentors have inspired and guided me, been friendly colleagues, and saved my sanity a time or two. The best have told me hard truths--pull up your socks! On the flip side, I've mentored many young journalists, along with mid-career colleagues. It can be a tricky balance to be encouraging and candid at the same time, but that's what an effective mentor does. I've been as enriched by their energy, smarts and optimism as they possibly could have been from my long experience and perspective.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I'm reluctant to name women in public life on whom we still report. That said, I admire Sandra Day O'Connor for her groundbreaking role as the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, and especially for her decision to retire from the court to spend more time with her husband, who had (and later died from) Alzheimer's. Many thought she left prematurely, but O'Connor has said she didn't regret her choice regarding her husband. I respect her for it. It couldn't have been easy.

I admire a handful of women standouts in media: Maureen Bunyan, the lead co-anchor at WJLA-TV in Washington, who is a founder of the International Women's Media Foundation and has mentored countless young broadcast journalists; Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, co-anchors of PBS NewsHour, who lead by example with their smart, thorough coverage of national and international news; Politico's Chief Operating Officer Kim Kingsley, whose drive, big ideas and steely resolve have been major factors in Politico's success; and Rachel Smolkin, the executive editor of CNN Politics Digital, who's building one of the most impressive digital news teams in Washington.

Outside media, two women leaders are rock stars in my book: Dr. Angela Diaz, director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City, for her incomparable work with teens; and the irrepressible Joy Zinoman--actor, director and founder of Washington's Studio Theatre and one of the most influential figures in the capital's theater scene.

While they are very different personalities, each one of these women thinks big; has a strong work ethic; isn't afraid to make tough decisions; is fiercely committed to her profession; and has an obvious passion for the work. That's contagious.

What do you want The National Law Journal to accomplish in the next year?
Provide our readers with the most insightful, thoughtful, exclusive coverage of our world as possible--and beat the competition every day. And win a Pulitzer. Like I said, you don't achieve big by thinking small.