It’s All Journalism: What’s changed for women in newsrooms? Less than you think

Across decades and mediums, women in newsrooms have a multitude of experiences in common. That includes shedding, or trying not to shed, a few tears at the office.

Authors Kristin Grady Gilger and Julia Wallace

It’s something that took Kristin Grady Gilger and Julia Wallace by surprise when they were writing their new book, so much so that it inspired the title, There’s No Crying In Newsrooms: What Women Have Learned About What It Takes To Lead. Gilger and Wallace, both faculty at Arizona State University and former editors, wanted to show what it’s like for women to move up the ranks in journalism.

“I spent 20 years in newsrooms, and I knew women had a lot of really interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes outrageous stories to tell about what their experiences were like,” said Gilger, senior associate dean and Reynolds Professor in Business Journalism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for publications including The Times-Picayune (now The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate) in New Orleans, the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon; and The Arizona Republic — the latter two overlapped with Wallace’s tenure there.

Gilger said that not long after Wallace joined the Cronkite School she approached her about writing a book together.

“We talked to almost 100 women, over 100 people in total,” said Wallace, the Cronkite School’s Frank Russell Chair and a former news industry executive. “And so, you know, the reporting took some time, because one of the surprising things for us is we got people — first, everyone wanted to talk to us. And then when we got them on the phone, they couldn’t stop talking, because people had so many stories and so much insight they wanted to share. And then we also spent time in person with a number of the women we interviewed, especially those who are going into depth with and profiling in chapters. So we had some fun to three day visits with some of these women.”

Gilger and Wallace wanted to highlight women who broke through barriers and overcame obstacles to get to where they were in the industry, as well as help prepare their students for the workforce. In the end they settled on a mix of interviewees including Marcy McGuinness, who worked at CBS News for about thirty years and then at Al Jazeera, and Melissa Bell, publisher and co-founder of Vox Media.

Women from public radio, magazines and newspapers, as well as a range of ages and ethnic backgrounds are also featured in the book, Gilger said.

Hearing their stories, Wallace said something that surprised her and Gilger was not so much the frequency of sexual harassment, but rather that so many of these highly accomplished women often doubted themselves at work.

“Most of them just never really felt like they had truly arrived, that they felt like they had to keep proving themselves over and over, even when you thought, wow, you know, look at how far you’ve gotten in your career,” said Wallace, who was the first female editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And, you know, that’s not an entirely bad thing — who wants to work for someone, who you know, thinks they’re absolutely right all the time, and never has any doubt? But it can be a bad thing if it paralyzes you in terms of making decisions.”

Other comments they heard included being overlooked for certain reporting beats or leadership positions, and the feeling of becoming invisible past the age of 50 or 60. And once women did make it to managerial positions in newsrooms, many said it was difficult to exact authority without being viewed as overly “bossy.”

So some didn’t — take Agness “Aggie” Underwood, for example. Wallace explained how Underwood, who started as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express in 1935 and was promoted to city desk editor in 1947. Underwood kept a baseball bat and pistol in her desk, to chase off publicists or get the newsroom’s attention.

“She had to be so tough to get the respect of all these men who worked for her,” Wallace said.

Today, Gilger and Wallace said it’s clear from efforts such as the #MeToo movement, as well as the attitudes of their own students, that women are less willing to put up with certain workplace behaviors. The reluctance to speak up more readily is something which Gilger described as mistake on the part of her generation of female journos.

“I mean, we kind of thought, you know, keep your head down, do great work, work harder than anybody else, bring up other women behind you. Keep your seat at the table, and we would solve the problems,” Gilger said. “And clearly we didn’t.”

It’s why the women said writing the book was as much about hope for the next wave as it was acknowledgement of the past.

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