Women in journalism

Friday, September 28, 2007 | 5:32 p.m. CDT; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 28, 2010

Marj Paxson’s first job as a journalist lasted less than two years. After graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism in 1944, she went to work for United Press in Lincoln, Neb., for $25 a week.

But when World War II ended in August 1945, female journalists such as Paxson were forced out of their jobs to make room for returning veterans. Many stayed long enough to train their replacements before being let go.

Still, Paxson persevered. She joined The Associated Press in Omaha, Neb., then landed in Houston, where she worked for both the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle. She joined Gannett in 1976 and two years later became publisher of the chain’s newspaper in Chambersburg, Pa.

In 1987, when Paxson was enjoying her first year of retirement in Muskogee, Okla., she decided to donate money to her alma mater. She called Jean Gaddy Wilson, then an MU faculty member and the founding executive director of New Directions for News, a research project that examined how women were presented in the media. Wilson drew up a short list of ideas that included a project she had wanted to start for some time: a comprehensive collection documenting the personal and professional lives of women in media.

Wilson jumped on a plane to Oklahoma to pitch the possibilities to Paxson, who immediately picked Wilson’s women in media idea.

Paxson gave $50,000, plus her personal papers, to the project. Gannett kicked in another $13,000. From there, with the help of Nancy Lankford, then-director at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, the National Women and Media Collection was on its feet.

Paxson’s personal correspondence, news clippings, photos, speeches and other papers she donated to the collection tell a vivid story of a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field. But Paxson’s is just one of many stories that fill nearly 1,000 boxes in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at MU’s Ellis Library. The archives stretch from the Civil War to the present day, including the deaf journalist who wrote under a male pen name and the pioneering founders and editors of Ms. magazine.

“A lot of these women were firsts,” says David Moore, director of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection. “That’s something that intrigues us, something we really want to capture.”

Wilson, who now is retired and living in Marshall, has remained involved in the collection, which is continuously growing. New faces and stories continue to emerge from the nation’s newsrooms.

Just last month, says Jenny Lukomski, assistant director for collections at WHMC, “we had two people ask us about donating their papers.” One prospective contributor is one of the only women covering the automobile industry in Detroit.

While the archivists face the challenge of collecting material in the digital age of disposable e-mails, Moore is hopeful, and he sees the next 20 years as bigger and better than the past two decades.

2007 marks the collection’s 20th year. As part of the celebration, the Western Historical Manuscript Collection invited several female journalists to MU to discuss the evolution of women in the media. The women praised the pioneers who came before them, but they are not entirely satisfied with the state of women in the newsroom at the start of the 21st century.

The celebration’s keynote speaker, Tad Bartimus, a former Associated Press reporter, said that while women are accepted as reporters and editors, they are not high enough in the media hierarchy to affect how the media operate and are perceived.

“The institutional mind-set is still male,” Bartimus said during her speech.

Indeed, seven of the eight names on The Kansas City Star’s masthead are male. Gannett’s new CEO is a man. Eleven of the 18 members of The New York Times’ editorial board are male. After a woman held the top job at the St. Louis Post-Disptach, she was replaced upon her departure by a man, Arnie Robbins.

A study of 273 newsroom managers conducted by the American Press Institute and Pew Center for Civic Journalism in 2002 found that women are not as evenly represented as men are in upper-management positions. The men surveyed are distributed almost evenly across the three categories: 32 percent are editors, 34 percent are managing editors and 34 percent are assisting managing editors. However, women aren’t as evenly distributed in upper management. While a third of women are managing editors, nearly 50 percent are assistant managing editors, leaving a select few for the top editorial positions. Bobbi Bowman, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ director of diversity, says more women and minorities in upper management would be good for the business and good for journalism.

“That’s where the decisions about coverage are made,” she says. “It’s an accuracy question. The more accurately your newsroom reflects your community, the more accurate your newspaper will be.”

Geneva Overholser, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting with the Missouri School of Journalism, agrees with the need to put more women at the boardroom table. She says journalism schools around the country are attracting more and more women.

At MU, home to the world’s first school of journalism, two-thirds of students admitted to the program in 1960 were men, Associate Dean Brian Brooks says. That ratio has since been reversed. Between 2004 and 2006, women were, on average, more than 66 percent of the journalism school’s student body.

We now have so many women in journalism school, but we still don’t have very many women at the top of newsrooms,” Overholser says. “I worry that it will turn into a kind of pink-collared ghetto.”

Overholser is an exception to that trend. She has served as the editor of The Des Moines Register and ombudsman of The Washington Post, and she sat on The New York Times’ editorial board. But she has watched other women struggle to rise alongside their male counterparts. She recalls women coming into her Washington Post office and saying, “I look up, and I don’t see where the opportunities are for me.” Overholser would give them some advice, and they’d come back from speaking to upper management saying the same thing, she says.

“I think that people tend to hire and promote people who remind them of themselves,” Overholser says. “We sort of self-propagate.”

Yet many women are also opting out of upper-management positions or out of the newsroom altogether. According to the API/Pew Center study, one in three male journalists “definitely” wants to move up the newsroom ladder; only 20 percent of women have similar aspirations. Moreover, 27 percent of women predict they will leave the newspaper industry altogether, compared with 6 percent of men, according to the study.

Overholser says she has watched many women opt out of the profession. She says reporters were once expected to devote their entire lives to journalism, an expectation that persists, albeit more quietly, today. Many women don’t want to make their jobs their lives, she says. Overholser, who left reporting and went into editorial writing when she had children, says, “I couldn’t follow that schedule.”

This trend has ramifications for the news business, according to the API/Pew Center study. Women and men have different judgments about what news is most important. Women are more likely to favor news that connects with readers and promotes civic behavior, the study found. Nearly half of the women surveyed feel that too many newsroom resources go toward sports coverage, while the majority of men feel sports receives the right amount of resources. On the other hand, 50 percent of men would like to see more resources devoted to business coverage, while most women feel the business beat gets the right amount of resources. Both men and women overwhelmingly agree that too little goes toward the interests of young adults and minorities.

Tara Connell, vice president of corporate communications for Gannett, says the end of the Cold War contributed to an increase in women’s influence on news coverage. Health and wellness issues became news as geopolitics and the threat of nuclear warfare became less pressing.

“Since women began coming into the newsroom and covering different things, we’ve seen a whole different approach to news,” says Connell, a former page one editor for USA Today. “If there’s a tendency among women, they tend to consider a bigger picture of a person, putting a family side to it.”

Overholser says women in her newsrooms were more likely to expand coverage of the courthouse or the school board to how decisions made in those realms affected the broader community.

“Women are willing to believe that the old traditional news judgment is too narrow,” Overholser says. “We need to cover the classroom as well as the school board.”

Theo Wilson

Charlotte Hall, a 35-year veteran of the news business, says having more women in upper-level positions can have a long-range effect on newsroom management and journalism.

“I do think that women in leadership positions create those possibilities for women coming up,” says Hall, who is editor of the Orlando Sentinel.

A former vice president and managing editor of Newsday, Hall currently works in a newsroom run by women. In addition to Hall, the publisher; the director of interactive, who is the general manager of the Web site; and the director of operations at the Sentinel are all women.

In her newsroom, Hall says the female leadership is encouraging and provides opportunities for mentoring.

Connell agrees.

“Women in executive positions help bring along other women in an industry that can be pretty rough-and-tumble on people,” she says.

Overholser also perceives a difference in newsroom management when women are involved. She’s taken part in many of those boardroom conversations and says many women tend to be more collegial in their approach to problem solving, while men are more hierarchical in making decisions.

“I really wanted to know what more people heard and thought and saw,” Overholser says of her own experience.

Overholser adds that diversity of leadership provides a sense of comfort for new ideas and innovation from women, minorities and young people in the newsroom. Many of today’s newsrooms are risk averse and continue to be a macho place to work, Overholser says, which can strangle ideas for news coverage.

As journalism today is continually redefined, Overholser sees the necessity of a fresh perspective.

“If there’s no new blood at the top,” she says, “then that change doesn’t come.”

Most women in journalism believe it is old-fashioned sexism that holds them back, according to the API/Pew Center study. Sixty-four percent of women said they “identify management’s preference for the opposite sex — men — as standing in their way,” according to the survey. Only 6 percent of men identify sexism as an obstacle.

Connell, who worked her way up from the women’s pages to the police, court and political beats, caught Gannett’s attention covering high-profile court cases in the late 1970s. When Gannett launched USA Today in 1982, Connell was recruited to be one of the new paper’s reporters. She had risen to page one editor when, in 1999, she moved to Gannett headquarters as the director of media relations. In 2003, she was promoted to her current position of vice president of corporate communications.

Connell believes Gannett has been much more aggressive than other chains and the major dailies in promoting women to the highest levels of management.

“Gannett was out front of everybody else in promoting and advancing women and bringing women into the newsroom,” Connell says. “We have women running everything.”

Connell says the next step for women is to break the upper ranks of leadership at large metropolitan dailies. She says while no one questions the ability of women to be reporters and assigning and beat editors, not enough of them hold high-powered, more high-profile jobs. She says there are too few female editorial page editors, city editors and managing editors.

“The metropolitan dailies could use a few more women floating around,” Connell says.

Even as it documents nearly 150 years of female journalists, the National Women and Media collection represents even greater expectations for the future.

Jean Gaddy Wilson hopes today’s female journalists will someday add to the collection’s archives, joining the stories of the first female press secretary to the governor of Michigan, the first female editor of the Knight-Ridder chain, war correspondents, the reporter assigned to cover Eleanor Roosevelt for AP and a ’30s stringer, or freelancer, in Paris.

The lives of 70 women and organizations are represented in the collection, which adds up to 850 feet of boxes containing clippings, memos, accolades, love letters, thank-you’s, speeches, diaries, photos and other memoirs. The power of preservation has filled in the blanks of what was once a mostly oral history.

Wilson says it is important to continue to understand what contributions women make to journalism and the news business. We all make our own decisions about the past and its meaning, she says, but the more information that is collected and made available, the better we can all understand the present.

“It’s sort of like depth perception,” she says. “Humans have two different eyes to see. It’s like that—one foot in the present and one foot in the past to see clearly. You get this 360-degree look, and that’s what’s fabulous about this collection.”

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