Elizabeth Butson is a recipient of the BMCC Presidential Medal and has underwritten many scholarships for BMCC students, including one in the name of her mother, Katy Halepli. She has served as President of the BMCC Foundation Board and chaired the BMCC Annual Gala, which will recognize her this year a special honoree.
But it is her experience as a groundbreaking advertising executive, journalist and publisher that brought her to speak recently to the BMCC Communication Studies Club in the Media Center’s TV Studio 2.
A labor of love
Introduced by Patricia Splendore, Director of the BMCC Annual Fund and Alumni Affairs, Butson shared her experience working as a photojournalist and interviewing rebel leaders in the mountains of Guatemala.
She also talked about the exciting challenge of becoming the first woman vice president at Philip Morris, and overseeing the famous Marlboro Man campaign.
Her main focus, though, was her experience buying—and revitalizing—Downtown Express and The Villager, two award-winning community papers in the West Village of Manhattan that had ceased publishing.
She shared that venture with her husband, the late Tom Butson, in the early nineties.
“It was a labor of love,” she said, and after inviting every member of the audience to introduce him- or herself, answered their questions about the challenges of running a newspaper.
“We believed an independent voice in a community is very important,” she said. “This is what a good newspaper does—make sure the truth is told.”
BMCC Professor Vincent Cheng, who leads the Communications Studies Club, co-hosted the event and brought up the subject of having to choose, in one’s career, between financial or other rewards; the conflicts that can arise regarding ethics.
“At the end of the day, you have to feel good about yourself," said Butson, from the publisher’s point of view. "You have to advocate and maintain high standards. We were very strict with our reporters in terms of getting both sides of the story.”
In response to a student’s question on how to create a newspaper, she gave this advice: “Find funds and hire talent. You have to find people who believe in you, who will help you get started,” and she shared insight into the responsibility of success, “the anxiety of meeting payroll” for one’s employees.
Having a vision
“I enjoy being with you and I love BMCC,” Elizabeth Butson told the student audience. “I came to this country by myself, like many of you. I wanted to be a great photojournalist but I was foreign born, I was a woman; getting a job in that field was very hard.”
While the news industry is transforming—“Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report; gone,” she commented—Butson encouraged students to feel optimistic about their future as media professionals, and gave this simple but important advice: “You have to be smart but also be self-confident and social. You have to do the extras; a thank-you note, an introduction, attention to detail. You have to walk the extra mile.”
She recommended seeking opportunities such as internships, "and most of all," she said, “You have to have a vision.”
After the event, the students and guests enjoyed refreshments together in the Media Center.
"It was delightful to work with the Communication Studies Club and their Faculty Advisor, Professor Vincent Cheng," said Pat Splendore, "and both Elizabeth Butson and the students benefited from the conversation they shared."