From sob sisters to girl bloggers

Rosalind Russell plays reporter Hildy Johnson in the 1940 film 'His Girl Friday.' Souce: Wikimedia Commons
Rosalind Russell plays reporter Hildy Johnson in the 1940 film ‘His Girl Friday.’ Souce: Wikimedia Commons

Hildy Johnson chased down stories for a newspaper. Murphy Brown worked out of a cable station. And, as Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore wrote in this piece, today’s fictional, writerly heroines tend to toil away on blogs.

Tenore’s story reminded me of The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project by USC Annenberg to document fictional journalists through the ages. The backbone of the project is a searchable database full of fun tidbits, but it also makes for an interesting study in how technology and evolving gender standards are changing perceptions of female journalists.

One of the first female characters in the database is a woman who dresses as a man to work as a reporter in a 1874 novel. It wasn’t long, though, before women were working openly as journalists in books, movies and TV shows. As USC journalism professor Joe Saltzman writes, fictional female reporters were more socially acceptable than the real thing during the first half of the 20th Century:

Practically every major actress of the period showed up in tailored coat and pants to fight the males in the newsroom, to assert her individualism and independence… and to become one of the few positive role models working outside the home.

Saltzman goes on to describe the origins of the term “sob sister” — a label given to female reporters because they were often handed tearjerker assignments as opposed to hard news. The sob sister concept, he says, has persevered over the decades:

The 21st-century images aren’t all that different from the images of the sob sisters of the past – if a woman is successful, it means she has assumed many of the characteristics of the newsman, losing her femininity in the process. Or, in most cases, she stays tantalizingly female and uses her womanliness to get to the top. It’s still mostly a no-win situation. For every positive image of a successful female journalist in film, TV, novels and short stories, there are a dozen stereotypical clichés.

Men still dominate in lit mags, but women are experimenting with longform online

Literary journalism will have a digital future. Exhibit A: Snow Fall. Exhibit B: The Atavist.  Amazon and BuzzFeed are also becoming major outlets for in-depth narratives.

But what kind of role will women play in telling the longform stories of tomorrow?

When it comes to traditional literary magazines, men still dominate, according to a recent survey by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Harper’s Magazine, for example, published 141 stories by men last year and just 42 by women. At the New Yorker it was 613 pieces by men and 242 by women.

It’s far too soon to take a scientific look at the gender breakdown of digital longform efforts, but women have been among those experimenting on new platforms. Seven of the stories recently posted on The Atavist were at least partially produced by women, and women wrote about a dozen of the Kindle Singles listed under the “reporting” category.

Still a minority, but a start.

Questions of identity

Women’s studies was one of the best classes I took as an undergraduate, so it was a treat to spend my lunch hour listening to a presentation about LGBTQ identities among students at Mount Holyoke College.

Interesting, sure, but what does it have to do with the topic of this blog? A lot, actually. Journalism is, at its most basic, a snapshot of who we are now — or, as Jack Fuller calls it, a “provisional truth.”

It matters who is framing those snapshots and reporting that truth. Not every headline comes down to gender or sexuality or race, but those things do influence the way journalists see the world. That’s why so much time and effort is devoted to tracking newsroom demographics — and why it’s important that all kinds of people have a hand in hardwiring the future of news.

During the lecture, I tapped out some tweets. Here they are: