My first job out of college was as a news clerk at The New York Times in Washington, DC. It was entirely unglamorous. My duties included sorting the newsroom’s mail, answering phones and ordering take-out pizza for reporters stuck on deadline.
It was the late 1990s, and – perhaps I was naive – but it never occurred to me that I was entering what was very much a male-dominated industry, and what that might mean for the future of my career in journalism. Sure, there was the enduring image of the grizzled, chain-smoking reporter, invariably male, but the news business seemed at least a semi-equal playing field. At the Times’ Washington bureau, I had plenty of female role models: a handful of reporters, a top columnist and three editors on the main news desk, including one Jill Abramson.
Abramson was a smart and exacting editor. She had been an investigative journalist for many years, and had earned a reputation for being a dogged and tough reporter. Yet she was always helpful to the clerks – a personality trait uncommon in the Times’ newsroom. She was a real pro, and a kind and decent person to boot.
So, I was excited to hear the news last week that she will become executive editor of the paper in September, the first woman to lead the Grey Lady in its 160-year history. I’m still a journalist, but I am no longer so naive. I have worked in enough newsrooms to know that men far outnumber women in the industry, and many news organisations operate with an undercurrent of male chauvinism. Look at the numbers: according to the American Society of News Editors, women working full-time in daily newspapers total about 15,200, or 36.6 per cent. Women comprise 28 per cent of TV news directors in the US and 20 per cent of radio news directors, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Abramson’s appointment is not going to change things overnight, but many female journalists have high hopes for the long term. Abramson herself has graciously acknowledged how other female journalists and newspaper executives helped pave the way for her. Addressing the newsroom last week, she spoke of “my sisters”, and named more than a dozen women at the Times, including Gail Collins, the former editorial page editor, and Janet Robinson, the company’s chief executive.
“Every executive editor stands on the shoulders of others,” she said.
Hear, hear. Abramson’s ascendancy ought to encourage publishers, as well as TV and radio news chiefs, to promote more women to top jobs. It should also inspire other veteran female journalists to mentor young women and help them move up in the industry. It takes a sisterhood, after all.
Rebecca Knight is a regular FT contributor