Former publisher celebrates award, reflects on changing role of media
Cheryl Dell got her first job in media after Dean Lesher, founder of the Contra Costa Times, approached her.
“He said, ‘Young lady, you belong in newspapers,’” said Dell, who was 24 the time. “A week later I was an advertising manager.”
Dell, a Nevada City resident, has served as a publisher of the Sacramento Bee, an advertising director for the Modesto Bee and the vice president of sales and marketing at the Fresno Bee.
Today the California Press Foundation will present Dell with the Philip N. McCombs Achievement Award.
“Over 30 years, I’ve had the honor and privilege of working at great newspapers with talented people and being in places where I could make a difference,” Dell said. “This award is about that body of work.”
Dell said over the course of her career, the various publications that employed her received over 2,000 awards. Dell worked alongside some of the best journalists in California, she explained, but found meaning in every piece published.
“Working with someone who won a Pulitzer was exciting, but I was just as inspired by the work that was done on the everyday stories,” Dell said.
Because newspapers play an integral role in their community, Dell found a consistent sense of purpose and inspiration at each of the 10-odd newspapers she worked for.
“The work that is done by good media is invaluable,” Dell said. “There are economic studies that show tax rates are higher in places with a news desert.”
Lynn Dickerson, currently the CEO of Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, nominated Dell for the achievement award after working with her under several different titles.
The pair first met 25 years ago as advertising directors in Texas. Dickerson joined the McClatchy media conglomerate that ran the three northern California Bees in 2000.
“Being someone who lives in Modesto now, we’re kind of proud of her,” Dickerson explained. “She was a hometown girl who did big things in her life — she’s a woman who came from modest means, is a self-made person and did a lot of great things with her life in her career.”
Dell said her personal growth experience in the industry is why she ran a robust intern program at the Sacramento Bee.
“I care so passionately about providing opportunities and exposure for people who are beginning their journalism program,” Dell said.
Joyce Terhaar, who served as the executive editor of the Sacramento Bee for almost seven years, said Dell’s exceptional emotional intelligence defines her as a leader.
“She’s one of the best bosses I’ve had,” Terhaar said. “She’s someone I respect a lot who also made the job fun.”
Terhaar said Dell’s curious and committed attitude helped her problem solve as newspapers struggled to digitize.
“She approaches the business very creatively and that was necessary in the last years of her career,” Terhaar said. “It’s tough running newspapers, and it’s been tough for a while, but she always pushed the executive team to find new ways to fund journalism.”
Terhaar said Dell actively pursued creative solutions.
“It was an optimistic environment to work under her leadership, even though the times were pessimistic,” Terhaar said.
Dell’s optimism is rooted in her steadfast belief that newspapers are an important conduit for communities to understand themselves and the inner workings of their governing institutions.
“I was proud of the reporting that was done on so many issues,” Dell explained, “from connecting schools to parents who have children in the district, to connecting nonprofits with donors, voters with elected officials.”
Dell said the media world looks a lot different than when she began, and regards those changes as largely positive despite concerns over the future of print journalism.
Dell said she had a “front row seat” to the conversion to digital products and increase in diversity in the field.
“In my first conference, I was one of five women with 2,600 people total,” Dell said. When she left, Dell was one of eight female CEOs in the nation’s top 100 newspapers.
Dell said although the process of communication has changed, the need for connection remains.
“The people who are communicating with the audience look more like them now than they did,” Dell said. “The desire for information hasn’t changed at all.”
After nine years at the Sacramento Bee, Dell retired in 2017 to Nevada City. Since COVID-19, Dell has continued her work on the Nevada County grand jury and has helped allocate resources made available through the CARES Act.
“I’ve always said we need to hold the power to account,” Dell said.
When Dell is not continuing her civic service, she enjoys cooking and daily walks with her dog.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story has been updated.
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