Women in Journalism: Be not afraid, for we are taking over

If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I am anything but a downer about the future of media – in fact, I’m bonafide psyched about it. It is because of this that I ended up giving something of a pep talk/call to arms to the Pennsylvania Women’s Press Association at the Pennsylvania Press Conference this past Saturday.

I haven’t really done any extemporaneous speaking since I was last required to as part of a college honors class, but I had a lot of fun doing it and I wanted to share it here with you. Obviously, these are the prepared remarks and I deviated a little bit in real-time (h/t to Steve Buttry for giving me the idea to post it here).

It’s great to look out at this crowd and see so many women working in this business – and who seem to know what fashion was like in the 1930s.

Admittedly I haven’t been in the business as long as some of you, but journalism in the past 10 years has felt like dog years to many of us – we’re all aging seven years with every one that passes. Everything keeps changing so fast. As soon as you learn one newsroom system or social media tool or pick up the latest lingo, another has come along to take its place.

When I first graduated from college, newsrooms were already cutting back instead of hiring. For me at least, this prompted an immediate career change. Instead of being a reporter as I’d always wanted, I decided to work on the web. There were tons of jobs out there for people who knew basic html, had journalism skills and were willing to adapt.

And thank God I did, I have no idea what I’d have been doing otherwise. (Between you and me, I really wasn’t a very good reporter anyway – mostly because I hate using phones)

I recently attended a reunion for those who worked at Kent State University’s student newspaper. Of those who attended school with me, I’d estimate less than 10% are still working as journalists. Some never even started. Many have been laid off in recent years, myself included.

It was at this reunion that one of my friends, one of those former journalists, took me aside. He’d heard I’ve been teaching journalism students at Georgetown University.

He says to me, “How can you give these kids hope? There’s nothing out here for them. There aren’t enough jobs for all of us that are already journalists.”

There is some truth in there. Enrollment in journalism schools continues to rise even as more traditional journalism jobs are disappearing.

But he is wrong. Journalism isn’t dying, it’s just changing. There’s a lot of reason to hope – not just for the kids still in school, but for the rest of us too. It IS a terrifying time to be a journalist, but it is also a very exciting time to be a journalist.

While the past few years have seen cuts in traditional newsrooms, there have been new ones starting up. We have new local and hyperlocal news sites and new investigative teams at the likes of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

We also have data geniuses and programming geniuses — all of these people we may not have recognized as journalists in years past — but they are out there working to reimagine journalism for the future. They’re making new tools to make our jobs easier – creating new ways to tell stories and, yes, make money.

Aside from all of that, this is an exciting time to be a woman in journalism.

Women are filling journalism schools faster than men. We have more women in our newsrooms than ever before – with hopefully more to rise in the ranks in the nest few years. Hell, we have a woman leading the New York Times, for crying out loud!

We also have many women among those striking out on their own to cover news the way they want.

Take Arianna Huffington. Whatever you may think of her, you have to admit she’s very smart.

In The Huffington Post, she created a booming media business that is changing the way we do journalism on the web. They found a formula that makes good journalism possible. It isn’t always elegant, but it works:

Cute cats + celebrities/ weird news = $ for reporters

And this investment in reporting paid off. The HuffPost won its first Pulitzer this year.

On a much smaller scale, there are other women making a successful go of it on their own.

Women like Tracy Record, who way back in 2005 — which is ancient history in internet years — started a personal blog about her neighborhood in West Seattle. In late 2007, Tracy quit her job as a TV news producer to work full-time for West Seattle Blog while her husband sold ads.

West Seattle Blog grew into a hyperlocal powerhouse that inspired other journalists to strike out on their own.

Tracy isn’t exactly cracking open Watergate, but she provides news that clearly matters to those who live there. With the aid of reader tips and paid freelancers, WSB covers local crime, traffic, business development – and even lost pets.

By mid-2008, the site made enough to support Tracy’s family, making it Seattle’s first self-sustaining online local news site.

All of this certainly wasn’t easy. Tracy and her family worked up to 20 hours a day for years to keep the site updated and filled with ads. She didn’t take a vacation until August 2009, when she could pay people to keep an eye on things back home.

But she did it by training her journalism skills on something she truly cared about – and it showed to her readers. Her engagement in the community – in person and online – drove readers to trust her to know what’s happening. It’s kind of old fashioned, if you think about it.

Back on this side of the country, we have Laura Amico, who runs the site Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C.

When Laura moved to DC with her husband, Chris, there wasn’t exactly a plethora of reporting jobs available. A crime reporter by trade, she was disappointed in the lack of local crime coverage. So she decided to change that.

In the fall of 2010, she launched Homicide Watch, a blog dedicated to covering every homicide in Washington D.C. — from crime to conviction. Laura sought to put a face and a story to many victims whose deaths went largely unrecorded by local media.

Using source documents, social networking and original reporting, Homicide Watch has become one of the nation’s most exhaustive resources on violent crime.

Probably more importantly, Laura’s work the family members and friends of crime victims a place to share their grief.

This spring, the site drew record page views of 20,000 page views a day.

If Laura were working within a larger news organization, she might not have gotten the resources or the time to run a project this big. By doing it on her own, with the aid of donations, grants and other sources, she was able to tackle this project her way.

And all this hard work has paid off, Laura will soon be heading to Harvard, where she was awarded a Neiman Fellowship for journalism.

These women are just two of the many out there doing news their own way – outside the traditional system. Now I’m not here to tell you that you all need to go out and start new websites or invent some new journalism tool (though it’d be cool if some of you did). What I’m saying is that so long as there are people with the will and the know-how, there will be journalism. And so long as we have women willing to step up and, if need be, go it alone – we’ll have female journalists running the newsrooms of the future.

So what can you do to help?

1. Push for more women to take on leadership roles in your newsroom. Support your female coworkers and competitors – because their successes are yours, too.

2. Speak up in news meetings, even if you aren’t an editor. Push to get your ideas heard both inside the newsroom and out in your community.

3. Don’t take no for an answer. On a panel aimed at female freelancers earlier this week in New York, a news website editor said he found male freelancers much more likely to follow up on a rejected story pitch with more pitches. Female freelancers, he said, he rarely heard from again. Don’t stand for that. You guys aren’t quitters.

4. Get out of your comfort zone and stay competitive. Do some freelancing outside of your beat area – maybe in something you wish you knew more about. Learn some basic programming. Start a blog, even if it is just to experiment.

5. Promote your expertise on social media. As women, we hesitate to sing our own praises – when we should be shouting from the rooftops to bring attention to the work we’re doing. We can’t afford to stay too quiet, lest all of those men on Twitter overpower us.

6. And finally, if you’re a veteran journalist, become a mentor to a young woman. Point her toward data journalism or beats in business and government — areas still dominated by men. Help her career develop – and you can probably learn quite a bit from one another.

If we support one another’s big thoughts and downplay our fears. If we occasionally dare to go out on a limb – maybe it won’t be such big news the next time a woman takes over a major media organization.

Visual aids from this talk:

 

 

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  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    Rock on! While WSB is a true partnership with my husband Patrick Sand, I also am proud to be an XX-chromosomed trailblazer … long before all this, I was part of a wave of gender integration of broadcasting in the late ’70s, entering radio work as what was actually described as “the token female” … those pesky federal laws just wouldn’t allow broadcasting to be all-male any more. Hadn’t heard of your site but will keep an eye on it. – Tracy in W. Seattle

    • http://zombiejournalism.com/ Mandy Jenkins

      Thanks for commenting, Tracy! I saw you and Patrick speak about starting the site at Berkeley back in the spring of 2009, when I was a Knight Digital Media Center Fellow. I was inspired, to say the least — and I have been following the blog ever since. You guys do great work that I always point to as an example of how “hyperlocal” should be. 

    • http://twitter.com/evonnebenedict Evonne Benedict

       Go Tracy! Go Mandy!

  • http://twitter.com/Buffyandrews Buffy Andrews

    Great post, Mandy!

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