In Memoriam Helen Thomas

July 21, 2013

“I was just part of a cabal, fighting the injustice of it all, of how women were treated in every field.” Helen Thomas reacts almost hesitantly when I suggest that without her, women journalists might not be where we are today. No, she is not a trailblazer, she says resolutely.

But to many of us female journalists, she was. For the past 60 years, she had been the tenacious award-winning grande dame of U.S. journalism, a straight-shooter, the dean of the White House Press corps. With wit, timeless candor and a razor-sharp voice and pen she has held an unprecedented ten presidential administrations accountable since beginning her career as a copy girl on the now-defunct Washington Daily News and then as a United Press International reporter in 1943. Thomas was the first woman officer of the National Press Club after it opened its doors to women members, and for many of us, she has become a role model and then some. In 2002, she won NYWICI’s MATRIX Award for her achievements in the field of newspaper journalism. But in light of all that, what is so striking about her is her unpretentiousness.

“I am not a woman. I’m a reporter,” is her credo. “You don’t delineate someone in the profession as to whether they’re a man or a woman, but what they do.” But when she embarked on her career, female reporters were the exception, and a woman reporter covering the White House was unheard of. If she could start all over again, would she choose the same profession, I ask her. “Absolutely! Without a doubt.” The answer comes without delay, and I can hear her smile.

And yet, isn’t journalism still a ‘Boys’ Club’? “No, I think it has become more and more a women’s club! Women have come a long way. They still have a way to go in terms of equal pay and recognition. And they should not give up the fight for equality. But times have changed for female journalists." Have they really? I probe. “Mostly beautiful, blond women make it in broadcast journalism,” Thomas once remarked wryly. Does she think that still holds true today? “I’ll give you the answer: Watch television! You have to be very attractive. That’s all I am saying.”
There are many past trailblazers like Dorothy Thompson, Martha Gellhorn, Pauline Frederick, Marguerite Higgins, Doris Fleeson and May Craig that Thomas holds in high esteem. But she won’t single out her own role models or mentors. If anyone, she says, it was her parents — who were illiterate, raised nine children and wanted everyone to be educated — who made the real contribution to her life.

Media realities are changing, but for Thomas, nothing can replace experience and real dedication to truth. “Young people often don’t react enough to what’s going on in the world. You got to have a conscience. I’d rather have my nose against the windowpane than be part of the crowd. Thank God for leakers and whistleblowers.”

What is the impact of new media and blogging on journalism and the public discourse, I ask her. “It is very effective. But I wish that newspapers would be read more. You get a much better air view of what’s going on from a newspaper than from blogging. Now everybody with a laptop thinks they’re a journalist. I don’t call them media. I call them individuals who are getting their point of view across.”

And then she thinks out loud, “I hope we’ll still have newspapers.” Will we? “Absolutely!” But the notion that the public doesn’t hold today’s media in high esteem irritates her tremendously. “I don’t give a damn! I know how I try to do my job.”

A slightly longer version of this article was published in NYWICI’s print newsletter CONNECT (Fall 2006).

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More about Helen Thomas:

Books: Helen Thomas has published six books. Her latest, Listen Up, Mr. President, was released October 2009 by Scribner.



Helen Thomas provokes White House Press Secretary Dana Perino:


May 2010: Helen Thomas asks President Barack Obama why the US is still in Afghanistan



July 2007: Helen Thomas asks George Bush about the Iraq war


August 2009: President Obama surprises Helen Thomas in the Press Room for their mutual birthday


And click here to see Helen Thomas on The Daily Show, June 2006. 

 March 17, 2010

Posted by: 
Tekla Szymanski

Profile: Katharine Graham - Conquering Self-Doubt

June 12, 2012

In honor of Katharine Graham, who would have been 95 years old on June 16, we're re-posting Gail Griffin's March 2010 tribute to the late publisher of the Washington Post. Her steady hand guided it through some of its most memorable triumphs, from the Pentagon Papers to Watergate.


“Function in disaster; finish in style.” That is a motto of the Madeira School, an elite girls’ school in northern Virginia that counts among its alumnae Katharine Graham, longtime publisher of the Washington Post and a 2000 Matrix Award winner. It could have served as her motto. From a devastating blow — the suicide of her husband after years of depression — she overcame self-doubt and fear to build the Post into the media icon it is today.

A few years ago, someone gave me a copy of Mrs. Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Personal History.”  While I’m usually not one for autobiographies, I was riveted — not only by Mrs. Graham’s front-row take on a tumultuous period for the newspaper industry and American politics, but also by her voice. Born into wealth and privilege, she came across as modest and self-deprecating, but also clear-headed and strong-willed. She exuded class and graciousness, qualities in short supply today.

Mrs. Graham was an unlikely feminist role model. She gained her position at the Post because of her relationship with two men: her father and her husband.  Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post in 1933; her husband, Philip Graham, ran it from 1946 until he committed suicide in 1963. Upon his death, Mrs. Graham took over running the paper out of a sense of personal responsibility. “When my husband died, I had three choices,” she said. “I could sell it. I could find somebody else to run it. Or I could go to work. And that was no choice at all."

“Personal History” recounts Mrs. Graham’s shyness, fear of public speaking, and lack of self-confidence, none of which helped her navigate the all-male business world that she found herself thrust into. Over time, though, her confidence grew, as did both her business savvy and her sense of journalistic purpose. She guided the Post through several watershed events in U.S. journalism — the Pentagon Papers case, which helped cement the strength of the First Amendment, and most famously, through Watergate. From a business standpoint, mentored by legendary investor Warren Buffett, she diversified the company and increased revenue exponentially.

Mrs. Graham occupied an important role in a fascinating period in Washington, and she broke ground for women business leaders in the media industry. But what I found most compelling about her life was her transition from self-doubt to self-confidence, which mirrored the larger feminist movement going on at the same time. “The thing women must do to rise to power is to redefine their femininity,” she is quoted as saying. “Once, power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact power has no sex.”

Mrs. Graham died in 2001 from injuries suffered in a fall in Sun Valley, Idaho, at a conference of the world’s top media executives — a powerful scene in which she had become quite comfortable.

These days, the Post, along with the rest of the newspaper industry, is struggling to redefine itself in the face of the destruction of profit wrought by the Internet. And these days, another Katharine is running the Post — Katharine Weymouth, Mrs. Graham’s granddaughter. What’s different this time is that Ms. Weymouth, says Post journalist Sally Quinn, “is 100 percent comfortable in her own skin. She's never felt she had to prove anything to anyone.”

Nearly 50 years after Mrs. Graham first took the reins of the Post and began to prove herself to the Beltway boys’ club, that’s great to see.

More on Katharine Graham:
•    Charlie Rose interviews Mrs. Graham
•    Katharine Graham Remembered, The Washington Post


Women's History Month Profile: Sara Payson Willis ("Fanny Fern")

March 2, 2011

March is Women's History Month, and Aloud will be celebrating with profiles of women who made their mark on history in ways we can all be thankful for. First up: journalist Sara Payson Willis.

“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Unlike many quotes attributed to “anonymous,” which in many cases were first said by women, this well-known saying is attributed to Fanny Fern (née Sara Payson Willis). It is curious that Fanny Fern is not very widely known today, considering her extraordinary accomplishments as the first woman newspaper columnist, and the highest paid 19th century American newspaper writer.

Sara Willis was born on July 9, 1811 in Portland, Maine. Her father Nathaniel Willis, a strict Calvinist deacon, was described as sober and lacking in imagination. Sara described her mother, Hannah Parker, as the source of all poetry in her nature. It is very likely that Sara’s strength of character was nurtured by her mother’s warm and cheerful personality.

Deacon Willis sent Sara to study at Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary in New Hampshire when she was 16. The school’s strong religious component appealed to her father, who hoped Sara’s rebellious spirit would be curbed. (It wasn’t!) The seminary provided what was arguably the best education for a woman to receive at the time, emphasizing the development of students’ ideas over rote memorization.

When her first husband died of typhoid fever in 1846, Sara’s father and her in-laws did not want to support her and her two children. She tried her luck at being a seamstress, one of the only respectable positions available to women, but could not make ends meet. She also attempted to secure a teaching position, but was not successful. At her father’s insistence, Sara embarked on a marriage of convenience that ended in divorce. Because Sara left her abusive husband, the scandal further alienated her from her family and friends. In a desperate attempt to feed her children, Sara began writing articles for Boston newspapers in 1851. Shortly thereafter, her articles were read in newspapers nationwide and in England. By 1870, Sara’s columns were published in several newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly half a million readers, and she sold over half a million books.

Sara’s first book was a compilation of articles and columns entitled Fern Leaves. In order to protect her identity, Sara had adopted the satirical nom de plume “Fanny Fern.” The moniker may have led later audiences to believe she was a sentimental writer of the type criticized by Nathaniel Hawthorne as “that damned mob of scribbling women.” Although a few of Fern’s early articles were of a more sentimental nature, the bulk of her later work is not. Her acerbic writing style was labeled unfeminine and immoral, and her articles were controversial, but they were also widely read and extremely popular. Hawthorne praised Fanny Fern’s second book, the autobiographical novel Ruth Hall (published in 1855) saying it was worth reading precisely because when women writers “throw off the constraints of decency…then their books are sure to possess character and value.”

In 19th century America, women were praised for being selfless and passive. A long tradition of silencing women who did not conform to society’s expectations was also well established. A woman’s place was in the home, and even progressive thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused decidedly patriarchal and limiting views on the role of women in society. In his address at an 1855 women’s rights convention in Boston, Emerson said women are “the civilizers of mankind…they embellish trifles.”

Fanny Fern wrote with humor about serious topics such as divorce, prostitution, birth control, children’s rights, venereal disease, and the need for prison reform. She was witty and abrasive, and developed her writing style as an irreverent and iconoclastic satirist. Her most passionate argument was about the necessity for women to have and control their own money. When she married her third husband, James Parton, they had a prenuptial agreement that stipulated that Sara was the owner and retained control of all copyrights for all articles and books she wrote.

Sara’s success meant she had to defend her name and style of writing on many occasions. The sloppy editorial practices at the time probably contributed to misattributed articles. The scant enforcement of copyright protection and the practice of exchange publication also added to the confusion. The courts ruled in Sara’s favor, but the legal system hadn’t caught up with Sara’s astonishing accomplishments: in court documents she was listed as Mrs. James Parton. In other words, she had to get her husband’s full consent and cooperation in order to file suit!

In her biography Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman, Joyce Warren states that Fanny Fern’s work “remained out of print for over a hundred years and has been absent from anthologies and college syllabi as well.” Warren points out the irony that Fern was “criticized by her contemporaries for her ’unfeminine‘ writing while 20th century critics disparaged her work because they regarded it as too feminine…up to the present day the revolutionary content of her work has been ignored.”

Modern audiences might be less inclined to ignore Fern were they to delve into her prolific body of work. In an article published in New York Life on August 8, 1867, Fern empowers women to value their voice: “I look around and see innumerable women to whose barren, loveless life [writing] would be improvement and solace, and I say to them, write! Write if it will make your life brighter, or happier, or less monotonous. Write! It will be a safe outlet for thoughts and feelings…[L]ift yourselves out of the dead level of your lives…Fight it! Oppose it, for your own sakes, and your children’s! Do not be mentally annihilated by it.”

It’s possible that had Sara been more politically active in the women’s rights movement, her inspiring words and refusal to be silenced would have earned her a more prominent place in our nation’s history. Sara believed financial independence for women was essential to women’s rights, and that when women had their own money, they “may rightfully demand — even the right to vote as vote you certainly will someday.”

For additional information, read these Fanny Fern columns:

Posted by: 
Giuliana Lonigro

Women's History Month Profile: Ida B. Wells

March 26, 2010

Let's face it. Lynching is one of the most shameful parts of our country's history, and you’ll rarely see it mentioned in our history textbooks. Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931) risked her life to stop this violent and repulsive act. And not only that — she also was a journalist, newspaper owner, author, teacher, civil rights activist, suffragist, wife and mother. All this from a woman who was born a slave.

Ida B. Wells was Rosa Parks before there was a Rosa Parks. In 1883, Wells sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad because she was forbidden to sit in the ladies coach because of her race. While she won the case, this significant victory was short-lived — it was overruled by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ordered her to pay the court fees. She wrote about this experience for a weekly paper called The Living Way, sparking her interest in journalism. In 1889, Wells became a part owner of the black-run Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight.

Wells used the power of her writing to great effect in her campaign against lynching. She tried to expose what she thought was the real purpose of lynching — not to punish criminals, as the white mobs claimed, but to terrorize and subordinate the black community. Hundreds of African Americans were lynched in southern states between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1892, three of Wells’ friends — local, law-abiding, black grocery store owners — were lynched in Memphis for crimes they did not commit. Wells wrote articles about their lynching that attracted the attention of both blacks and whites, and she encouraged blacks to boycott businesses and leave the state. She became a well-known anti-lynching activist and traveled the country and to Europe to speak for her cause. When she was away on a speaking tour that same year, a violent mob burned down her newspaper office and presses, and threatened to kill her if she returned. As a result, she stayed in New York to live, writing a story about the episode titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, for an African-American newspaper, the New York Age. And in 1895, she wrote an anti-lynching pamphlet titled A Red Record.

Wells later moved to Chicago, where she met and married Ferdinand Barnett, a widower, attorney and fellow activist. The couple had four children together and also raised Barnett’s two children from his previous marriage. While raising her children, Wells continued to fight for social justice and also became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. She was a founding member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association for Colored Women (NACW).

How did this outstanding woman accomplish so much? Her parents, although they were slaves, had learned to read and taught Ida how to read at an early age. After her parents were freed from slavery after the Civil War, they also were social activists, as were their friends in the community. Ida also assumed responsibility at an early age — when she was 16 years old, both her parents and an infant brother died of the yellow fever epidemic. Instead of dispersing her five younger brothers and sisters to different relatives, Ida took on the responsibility of raising them.

Ida B. Wells died in 1931 while writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice. Her grandchildren have kept her legacy alive by establishing a museum in her name in her birthplace, Holly Springs, Mississippi. They’ve also established the Ida B. Wells Foundation, which “seeks to preserve and promote Wells' legacy of dedication to the principles of superior journalism, social justice, education, equality and integrity.”

March 26, 2010

Posted by: 
Virginia Sobol

Women's History Month Profile: Nellie Bly - Undercover, Out and About

March 25, 2010

Long before the 1970s, the golden era of investigative journalism when all those cool male undercover reporters made long-form reporting fashionable — there was Nellie Bly. She was the pioneer in investigative reporting. She was a woman. And the year was 1880.

Bly was born in Pittsburgh on May 5, 1864, as Elizabeth Jane Cochran. Known as the “most rebellious child” in the family — maybe because of her curious mind and her wit — she dared to dream of becoming a writer at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, whose star columnist Erasmus Wilson (and most probably all of the readers agreed with the man) believed that a working woman was “a monstrosity.” Elizabeth, who knew many women in her hometown who needed to work in order to survive, wrote an angry letter to the editor after reading the columnist’s tirade and was hired on the spot. She took up the pen name Nellie Bly (from the title of a Stephen Foster song) and went to work. True to her motto “energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything,” she wrote about social ills, the plight of poor factory girls and their struggle to get by and the need for reforms in the state’s divorce laws. Yet, time and again, the editors assigned Nellie to the women’s pages, to write about flower shows and fashion and fluff.

But Nellie craved the real stories, and she prevailed. She became the paper’s foreign correspondent in Mexico. And off she went, filing story after story. Upon her return, however, she was back writing fluff. “I was too impatient to work at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers,” she’d later say. She quit and went to New York.

I imagine sitting with Nellie in a coffee shop close to her home in the West 30s, where she lived while working for the New York World and the New York Journal. I imagine we’d compare notes about how far women journalists have come in the past 100 years. She would be astonished to hear that women are still fighting an uphill battle for equal pay, equal representation and recognition and positions of power. She’d be appalled to learn that women were admitted as members into the National Press Club only in 1971. She wouldn’t recognize the term “glass ceiling,” but she would instinctively understand. (At left: An 1888 letter from Nellie Bly to a Mrs. Thomas asking, for a story in the New York World, "Should women propose marriage?")

We’d list the condescending remarks that we’ve encountered throughout the years, a career woman’s need to be better than the average man. We’d chuckle about how being too pushy as a female reporter makes us “bossy” and being too timid a “wuss.” Nellie would realize that she found her voice but that many women after her, for many years to come, lost theirs. I’d tell her that today, 43 percent of women still work in low-paying, “pink collar” jobs. And she would be saddened to hear that her kind of investigative journalism was declining, all because of an ever-shrinking bottom line in an ever-shrinking pool of newspapers, and that the long-form, narrative kind of journalism that she so loved is too time-consuming for today’s average reader to digest.

Nellie would tell me how she went undercover for the New York World, impersonating a mad person; she was hospitalized for 10 days in an insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City and wrote an exposé about the beatings and cruel treatments she had witnessed and experienced herself. “It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world,” she wrote. Her story led to real reforms. She was 23 years old. Then in 1889, she traveled around the world to beat Jules Vernes’ protagonist in Around the World in Eighty Days. She succeeded, clocking in at 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes. She profiled anarchist Emma Goldman and suffragist Susan B. Anthony, whom she considered “all that is best and noblest in woman. She is ideal, and if we will have in women who vote what we have in her, let us all hope to promote the cause of woman suffrage."

Later, trapped in Europe during World War I, she became a war correspondent. Back home, she continued to expose corruption, shady lobbyists and politicians, the plight of the downtrodden, how women prisoners were treated by the police and the lack of health care for the poor. And I imagine how distressed she’d be when she hears that millions in this country are still lacking health care today. When we part, she’d say, “I have never written a word that did not come from my heart."

Nellie Bly died in 1922, at the age of 57. I wish we could bestow upon her posthumously the NYWICI Matrix Award. If anyone deserves it, it is Nellie Bly. Because she worked in a hostile environment and made her mark against all the odds; because she had no footsteps to follow, yet had the guts not to give in when things got tough. I wish I could meet her to thank her for that.

To learn more:

March 25,2010


Posted by: 
Tekla Szymanski

The iPad, a Media Savior?

January 29, 2010

The iPad has finally arrived! This sleek device with a bright, colorful and vivid display but an unfortunate name that reminds me of adult diapers has Apple enthusiasts salivating over yet another overpriced gadget and the blogosphere and social media buzzing with excitement.

Judging by the reactions of the media, the iPad will save the newspaper and magazine industries from sure demise with one stylish swoop, and with it book publishing (Hachette, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan already made deals with Apple).

The British blog FirstPost nicely sums up this mood but warns: “No one is more excited about [the iPad] than publishing and print media companies. To them, the tablet represents a vision of the future that does not involve their extinction...The Devil's bargain is that you have let Steve Jobs be the gatekeeper to your customer and price-fixer of your product.”


Indeed, according to a post on Reflections of a Newsosaur, the new tablets (which the blog refers to as the “Swiss Army knife of media platforms”) have definitely “raised the bar for interactive content delivery…Unfortunately, most media companies already are late in developing editorial and advertising strategies to meet this new challenge.”

The new challenge is to entice users to actually pay for the content they consume. Yet a commenter to Newsosaur’s blog post dismisses this notion and surely represents a majority of readers: “A new uberhyperbolitron [sic] like the iPad won't make one whit of difference for old media. Embedding visual aids with text isn't going to get somebody to pay for an online 'newspaper' when there's a blogger who'll gladly do the honor of analyzing news content.” For free, may I add.

That, precisely, is the point. Unless tablets provide a platform to charge consumers for all content, no shiny new device will make old/new media profitable — at least until readers, who eagerly dished out hundreds of dollars for their gadgets, will consider rewarding those who produce the content they so eagerly click through (or copy/paste into their own blogs).

Joshua Benton, writing for Nieman Journalism Lab, shares this skepticism. “The iPad, as we know it today, doesn’t change any of the fundamental economics of news commerce...I didn’t see anything today that made me change my opinion that device-based dreams of a news deus ex machina are wishful thinking, and that the difficult revenue decisions will have to be made pan-platform.”

Nevertheless, at least three magazine publishers, Hearst, Condé Nast and Time, have already created mock-ups of their magazines for the Apple tablet. The New York Times Company is working on a tablet version of its newspaper; others will surely follow.

But old media turned new via tablets will have another important function: helping consumers wade through, organize and prioritize the vast amount of information available online. We need to come up with a formula that addresses media-flow-overload and information fatigue, caused by relentless, feverish “multitasking,” like reading a magazine on the iPad, writing a blog entry or comment on an iMac, texting or watching a YouTube video on the iPhone and listening to iTunes downloads on an iPod. (By the way, “multitasking” in my view is not reading and listening to music simultaneously, but reading and playing an instrument. But that is a separate post.)

Yes, tablets are the future of interactive media consumption. I want one, too. But I hope that the iPad will eventually do for written content what iTunes did for music: ensure that writers and editors will be rewarded for their work. Without us — the “content providers and developers” — even the nicest tablet will one day go dark.

Posted by: 
Tekla Szymanski

My Internship Abroad

Maura at Wembley Stadium for an English National Soccer Team game This semester, I was given an amazing opportunity to intern in the sports department of The Times in London, England. I'm currently studying in London for the semester, and as a part of my study abroad program, I had the option of doing an internship, which would be pre-arranged by an internship coordinato

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