Nancy Comiskey · 2019

Nancy ComiskeyIn responding to challenges as varied as leading in tough times, plunging into new roles or writing about personal tragedy, Nancy Comiskey has relied on her skills, her family and the journalists – professionals and students – around her.

In 2017, Comiskey retired as a senior lecturer at The Media School at Indiana University, coming full circle. She is a 1974 graduate of IU’s journalism program and an alumna of the Indiana Daily Student staff.

During the years in between, she edited an Indianapolis magazine, was the first female managing editor of a major Indiana daily, served as interim publisher of the IDS, and taught and mentored hundreds of journalism students.

English literature was an original interest, but journalism was not on Comiskey’s radar when she arrived at IU from Mishawaka in the early 1970s. Then, photographer friend Ed Reinke persuaded her to check out the IDS.

“I worked there three years, and I loved it,” Comiskey said of her time as a reporter, columnist and editor.

Stints at newspapers and magazines followed graduation. By 1984, she was editor at Indianapolis Magazine.

In 1988, she joined the Indianapolis News as an editorial writer. Not long after, she was appointed features editor, where she launched Extra!, the state’s first stand-alone daily feature section.

Such innovation and leadership were not unnoticed. In 1992, Comiskey became managing editor of the News, making her the first female managing editor of a major Indiana metro newspaper. The paper had a daily circulation of 90,000, and Comiskey was in charge of a $6 million budget and a newsroom staff of 90.

As with many reporters-turned-managers, Comiskey had to figure out how to lead former peers.

“One day you are a co-worker, the next day a boss,” she said. “It was tough ground to find.”

Being a female boss added a layer to that difficulty. In the backshop, printers were not used to working with women, let alone taking orders from them. And the sports team was especially wary. Comiskey recalled that one sports writer predicted “curtains in the sports department.”

“But publisher Gene Pulliam treated me just like anyone else,” Comiskey recalled. When an angry mayor wrote the publisher about perceived poor coverage, Pulliam called a nervous Comiskey into his office.

“He handed me a one-sentence reply to the mayor that said, ‘Dear (mayor’s name), You do your job and we’ll do ours. Sincerely, Gene,’” Comiskey said. “When I left, he said, ‘Just make sure you get everything right.’”

In the mid-1990s, Comiskey and two other editors directed the merger of the competing News and Star newsrooms, and Comiskey became deputy managing editor of the combined staff. She was responsible for 13 stand-alone sections each week and managed more than 50 editors, reporters, photographers and designers.

One of those reporters was Judith Cebula, now director of communications at the Lilly Endowment Inc. Cebula said she appreciated Comiskey’s belief in reporters’ abilities and the way she worked with them to produce the best work.

“But Nancy also saw as an opportunity to deliver real journalism about people’s lives,” said Cebula, who reported on religion for one of Comiskey’s new feature sections. “She saw the value of this type of explanatory journalism.”

Comiskey supported journalism outside the newsroom as well. She directed the National Writers Workshops in Indianapolis in 1999 and 2000 and served as president of the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists and Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors.

In 2000, the Gannett Company purchased the Star. Newspapers nationwide faced shrinking ad revenues and pressures to cut staff. So Comiskey was open to new opportunities when former IU School of Journalism Dean Trevor Brown invited her to serve as interim publisher of the Indiana Daily Student.

As a publisher, she was not supervising professionals but “professionals in the making,” although the skills were the same.

“My job always was to bring out the best, whether reporters were 20 years old or 20 years into a career,” she said.

The classroom, though, was a bigger challenge. At first, she said, she didn’t connect well with students. She sought advice from her husband, Steve, an English teacher, and from her colleagues at the journalism school.

“I learned to talk more with students rather than at them,” she said.

When her publisher duties ended, Comiskey continued as lecturer for the next 13 years. She mentored hundreds of students, created new courses and fine-tuned existing ones.

Comiskey shared her love of magazines with students when she launched 812: The Magazine of Southern Indiana, a student-produced print and web publication that was the product of a semester-long course.

“The enterprise required not only knowing all aspects of magazine work but knowing how to teach those aspects to a diverse group of students,” said Bonnie Brownlee, former associate dean and interim dean at the School of Journalism. “Nancy had both the experience and expertise, and she had empathy that combined to make her a cherished teacher and colleague.”

Chip Cutter, a 2006 journalism grad who now is a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, keeps in touch with his former teacher as well as with alumni from his era.

“The conversation always goes back to Nancy,” he said. “We are big fans and credit her with much of our success. Most of the time, we weren’t working for a grade but wanted to impress her with our work, to get her opinion.”

Comiskey’s teaching earned the IU Trustees Teaching Award in 2011, 2012 and 2017 and the Gretchen A. Kemp Teaching Fellowship award in 2014.

Comiskey continued to be active in the professional world. Retired (Bloomington, Indiana) Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg marvels at Comiskey’s ability as a speaker.

“Her presentations at Hoosier State Press Association seminars were so engaging they led to nearly perfect scores on the audience evaluation forms,” he said. “She is a great writer with a remarkable ability to share her knowledge with college students or in-career journalists who give up weekend hours to learn from her.”

Comiskey also continued to write for publications such as Indianapolis Monthly, Indiana Alumni Magazine, O Magazine, AARP Magazine and Down East.
That writing proved cathartic after her daughter, Kate, was killed by an intoxicated driver in 2004. Comiskey wrote about Kate in the months after her daughter’s death, but it was a 2014 essay marking the 10th anniversary that attracted widespread attention.

“Dear Kate,” published in Indianapolis Monthly, was a personal account of how parents cope with life’s most terrible loss. The article found an audience online and was featured on Longreads.com, where it was selected as essay of the year. In 2015, Reader’s Digest republished the story in 11 languages.

“It is the single most important story I’ve written in my career,” Comiskey said. She hopes to publish an expanded version in book form.

Comiskey continues to write, and makes time for volunteering, enjoying the great outdoors and spending time with friends. She and her husband live in Zionsville, Indiana, near her son and his family.

By Gena Asher

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