By Ava Kofman
September 26, 2012
This Monday, September 24, the Women’s Leadership Initiative invited four journalists to speak about “Getting the Facts: Life as a Woman in Journalism.” From combating shyness to “getting people to talk who ordinarily don’t give you the time of day,” the women spoke to an audience of about twenty-five female students about what drew them to journalism back in their college days. Louise Story, a former Yale Daily News reporter who now works at the Investigations desk of the New York Times, said that though she was originally attracted to theater at Yale, she was soon drawn to writing, which like theater, often examines multiple perspectives and tells powerful stories.
All four journalists viewed the time they spent working at their college paper as incredible training for their future work. Melinda Beck, who works at the Wall Street Journal, described her time at the Yale Daily News as a “magic opening” through which there was always a “steady stream of eminent people” to interview. The unprecedented access one has at college to interviewing amazing subjects, she said, can really “spoil you for the real world and real newspapers.” Gabriella Stern, once a fledgling YDN reporter herself, and now the global managing editor at Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, concurred. Linda Greenhouse, currently a lecturer at Yale Law and formerly the the Times reporter on the Supreme Court beat, remembered the careful editing by her peers at the Harvard Crimson at times surpassing the input she would recieve when she first started writing for the Times. “College training gave everything you needed to know for a starting level,” Beck said.
When the journalists were asked if they had ever felt disadvantaged being women, the answers varied from the more circumspect to the historical. “I owe my career to the women’s movement because at the time that I started, the Times offered positions to very few women,” Greenhouse said. “The Times was vulnerable to adverse judgment and so had some pressure to develop careers of women who were there.” She remembered meeting with an attorney general at the Yale Club when women still had to sit behind a screen, rather than in the lobby proper. “Yale has just started to admit women. How long are you going to keep this up?” she asked the man working at the Club as she was escorted, not through the lobby, but behind a screen on her way to the restaurant. Though she pointed out that this anecdote might seem archaically absurd today, she added: “I’m not talking the eighteenth century, this was within my lifetime. It was the way things were.”
Beck spoke about gender discrimination lawsuits taking place at Newsweek, where she had worked prior to the Journal. They had to sue twice, she pointed out, because “even [after] winning the first time nothing changed.” By the time Beck had arrived at Newsweek women were no longer taking notes while only the men asked the questions. Even so, she still remembered being the only woman writer in the Nation section and encountering situations where a sort of “locker room” culture prevailed. For instance, Beck’s all-male colleagues once spent “forty minutes discussing the size of another editor’s penis.” Beck remembers being unsure of what action, if any, she should take, eventually choosing to sit through the dinner feeling “miserable.” Story, who was the youngest of the panelists, cited being a woman as a “huge advantage.” She said that her sources—mostly men in the financial and political sectors—respond differently to hearing “a different tone of voice.” She also noted that the Investigations desk at the Times, where she now works, is more than half female.
Hiring practices in journalism, the reporters all noted, have also changed in other ways. News organizations, they said, need journalists who are fluent in other languages and confident using technology. As the gender gap may be diminishing, the technological gap—between journalists able to manipulate technology and those who aren’t—has widened. Story cited her time at business school as giving her an advantage in the field.
One attendee asked the panelists about their work-life balance. The audience member wanted to know how, and whether, the dynamic between providing for family and caring for one’s family changed over time. The speakers’ responses differed, as one might guess, based on their respective personal situations. Beck said that even while working part time while raising children, she still worked as “hard or harder in three days a week as people did in five days a week.” She said she had to labor under new pressures of needing to “prove yourself” and “get everything done” in a shorter period of time. Stern spoke of the difficulties of “unplugging” at home from the computer and phone—especially when “you’re a news person and you’re really obsessed with the news.” “Anyone’s lifestyle or profession is going to have a toll on the family,” Stern added, noting that her situation wasn’t exclusive to journalism per se. Even so, she commented that the support of her husband, who’s been a fulltime dad since 2000, was crucial to allowing her to travel and succeed professionally. “I just hope that there are partners like that for all of you,” Stern said. To which Greenhouse rejoined, somewhat jokingly: “Well, there aren’t many.”
Ava Kofman is a junior in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.