The Emergence of Females as Professional Journalists
Rick Brown, Editor-in-chief
While there had been female newspaper owners, editors and reporters prior to the 1890's, it took grand-standing stunts in order for them to break the "silent" barrier in great numbers. The faint rustlings of the mid-Victorian era grew to a roar when the stunt age was launched by Nellie Bly. First, Nellie Bly stormed Joseph Pulitzer, then the town, then the country, then the world, which she circumnavigated faster than Phineas Fogg of Jules Verne fame.
She was followed by a wild outcropping of women who freely risked their lives and reputations in order to make it into the world of the press. Nothing stopped them. By this time they were more aggressive and were after careers. They posed with equal nonchalance as beggars, balloonists, street women, servants, steel workers, lunatics, shop girls, and Salvation Army lassies. They bothered the preachers and stampeded the town.
They had ample opportunity to use their ingenuity, for in 1895 William Hearst invaded the New York territory, taking the feeble Journal and building it right up under Joseph Pulitzer's nose. Both publishers went in for sensationalism. The competition was fierce. If the World had a stunt, the Journal went one better. Yellow journalism whetted the appetite of the public. Circulation figures leaped to extravagant heights.
After many years of using daredevil stunts to "make" news, the public grew weary. The day came when even Mr. Hearst turned down a stunt idea.
The competition was good for the press. When Arthur Brisbane joined Mr. Hearst the battle raged more fiercely than ever. In 1896 they started publishing a Sunday supplement with color illustrations called the Women's Home Journal. By then all newspapers were making an effort to attract female readers.
As a result, the reception rooms of newspaper offices were becoming filled with amateur news hounds. Many women went about town, nosed out events not regularly covered, and submitted their copy hopefully. If they hit the mark now and again they were grateful; if they kept it up, sometimes they landed steady jobs.
The amateur news hound was never ignored. Her offerings had potential value. An important qualification was to write in a legible hand. Good spelling was more of an asset then than now, when many reporters boasted of how bad their spelling was and let the copy desk worry about the consequences.
By the turn of the century the most important function of a woman on a conservative newspaper was to cover teas and club meetings. The American woman was becoming more club-conscious. She was getting out of the home. She was beginning to think about suffrage. The time was ripe to start a syndicate aimed at producing reading material that would appeal to female readers.
From isolated columns and stray fashion notes, a page for women began to take positive shape. Edward Bok and his brother William began a syndicate to produce a women's page for newspapers. They employed the best female writers of the day and asked well-known men to write on subjects of interest to women. This was one of the most significant steps for women in journalism, since it gave definite form to the women's page and opened up great possibilities for women writers. Eventually Edward Bok sold his share of the syndicate to his brother and became founding editor of the Ladies Home Journal.
In 1901, Nixola Greely-Smith joined the staff of the Evening World and a new page was turned in the history of women in journalism. She brought a rare and urbane touch to her work. Her interviews were skillful and touching enough to create a vogue. Visiting celebrities were scarcely off the ship before the women reporters pounced on them. Editors recognized that women made better interviewers than men and could more often secure an interview with a dignitary than a man could.
Women now had a definite place in the City Room. They were given assignments. Then the suffragettes carried them along, lifting them unconsciously on the wings of their own ardent efforts to get the vote. Women reporters invaded the front pages of most conservative newspapers with their stories on feminist doings. The general tone, however, was jocular. The war gave them further opportunities. Some went abroad and did foreign correspondence. Others took the place of men at home. They made the front page with increasing frequency. This gave them the experience, assurance, sound technique, and a number of good female reporters were developed.
By now the feature writers were established on all afternoon papers throughout the country. The more sensational morning papers played them up with by-lines. The women's page had become a standard fixture in most papers. It leaned heavily on syndicate material. A lovelorn column was almost indispensable. At the same time, some attempt was made to catch the spirit of the contemporary woman and reflected her interests -- whatever they happened to be at the moment.
By degrees, the newspaper women stormed every department. They rose to executive offices. They became specialists. They put themselves across by competence and push. It was not an easy victory for the ladies of the press. Their sufferings were horrible. But they also had fun. And finally they got what they wanted. From stunts, crusades and coercing the woman's point of view in the news, a fallacious idea which has long since been abandoned, they have progressed to sound achievement on the plane of common sense. They no longer have to climb skyscrapers by rope. They do it on their own merit.