News & Politics » Michael Miner on Media

Are the challenges faced by women journalists changing for the better?

Women's setbacks in the newsroom have become more like men's. That's good—and bad.



As an adjunct professor at Medill back in the early 90s, Susy Schultz and a colleague organized a program they called "Racism and Sexism From Sources—How Do You Handle It?"

"We decided to take a Fred Friendly approach and collect lots of real-life anecdotes," Schultz recalls. A Sun-Times reporter at the time, and also the daughter of a former city editor of the old Chicago Daily News, Schultz knew plenty of impressive women journalists in and beyond Chicago, and the stories she gathered were not from novices still awkwardly feeling their way.

"It was sad," says Schultz. "Again, these were from women who you'd think at the outset had power and were doing fine. We found when we were talking about sexism with sources they would turn the conversation to sexism in the newsroom. One woman said, 'I don't have any trouble with sources. But when I come into the newsroom the editor puts his hand on my knee and I don't know what to do. He controls whether I have my job.'"

By the standards of today's decimated industry, newspapers back then were secure and stable and comfortable places to work. But if you were a woman, not so much. Women reporters wrote stories on women's advances in the workplace that they still didn't have for themselves. When the Newspaper Guild negotiated a new contract with the Sun-Times, Schultz (who'd covered the police before she went on maternity leave and, to her fury, had been offered only the At Home section when she came back) joined the guild's negotiating team to work on "family issues." For instance, she recalls, if you had a child and your child was sick, you had to lie. "You were not allowed to call in sick for anyone but yourselves," she says. Not that fathers had it any better. But the fathers had wives.

Schultz was one of five women at the Sun-Times who began meeting for lunch about once a month to talk things over: family issues for one, newsroom assignments for another. "Were they saying 'Cindy, go cover that' or was it 'Joe, go cover that'?" remembers Cindy Richards, then an editorial writer. Certain that they weren't the only women journalists in Chicago with these matters on their minds, the five of them put out feelers. If we tried to organize, they asked, would you be interested? There were precedents. In 1988 an Association of Women Journalists had been created in Dallas-Fort Worth. And since 1985, JAWS—Journalism & Women Symposium—had been bringing together women journalists from across the nation for an annual retreat.

Women were wary, says Schultz. "Most journalists really believe you don't join things," she says. "All you have as a journalist is your integrity. It was no surprise to me that everybody made sure that this would be a group that wouldn't compromise them."

We will not be a protest group, Schultz and Richards replied. We will have no platform. We will simply exist to support women in journalism. "We had a lot of resistance but we were able to answer their resistance," says Schultz. Her personal powers of persuasion might have been decisive. Says Adrienne Drell, a legal reporter who was another of the Sun-Times five: "Susy's a natural leader. She's so full of fire and dynamite we would have followed her into the Grand Canyon."

The meeting to organize Chicago's Association for Women Journalists was held in 1993 at the Medill School in Evanston, and about 65 women showed up. Schultz and Richards each independently told me about a woman from the Tribune who stood and described the fight she was in for a room where new mothers could pump breast milk. At the time, Richards was eight and a half months pregnant. Schultz was already a mother, and the Sun-Times had let her use an executive washroom.

Before the meeting was over, more than half of the women wrote checks. AWJ was launched, and Schultz would be its president the first five years. True to its founders' word, AWJ did not turn into a protest group. It sponsored panels, studies, off-the-record breakfasts with news makers. "It was about being positive and supportive," says Schultz. "It was like a little sorority, but not exclusionary," says Drell. "I regarded it as fun."

"Women themselves might have just changed generationally, but when I got into this business, as a woman you didn't necessarily want to admit you were a woman."Susy Schultz, former president of Chicago’s Association for Women Journalists

The Association for Women Journalists just celebrated its 20th anniversary in Chicago. Amy Guth, the Tribune's manager of social media and search engine optimization (a title that would have been gibberish in 1993), is the president now and says AWJ has almost 300 members. "My main goal," she told me in an e-mail, "is to offer as much digital training and networking opportunities as possible to the membership." She went on, "Certainly our industry has evolved, and certainly AWJ members have seen the results on very personal levels, but I am also seeing an entrepreneurial spirit starting to appear in the membership. Change is hard in any industry, to be sure, but I also believe it jumpstarts creativity to a large extent."

Did AWJ have a hand in the changing circumstances of women journalists that might be called changes for the better? Schultz would like to think so. "I'm not positive," she says. "Before the crash I would definitely have said yes. Women themselves might have just changed generationally, but when I got into this business, as a woman you didn't necessarily want to admit you were a woman—if that makes any sense. You wanted to be one of the boys. You were discriminated against—that was painfully clear—but you wanted to hit the ground running as a reporter, not as a woman reporter." Now she sees women in journalism bringing their identities—as women, as mothers—to the job, not merely believing but asserting that these identities "make me a different reporter, a better reporter."

She remembers the day in 1995 when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. A TV set sat next to the city desk, and she studied the crowd that had gathered around it. "There was one woman on the city desk, and [otherwise] it was all white men, and they all looked baffled." A cluster of white men found it unfathomable that any jury could have acquitted Simpson, and when a newspaper is staffed almost entirely by people blindsided by the same slice of reality, it's too bad for that newspaper. "We've always been an industry behind the times," says Schultz. "We're an industry that, if we don't recognize that our audience is diverse, what does that mean for our future?"

Schultz and Richards now do work appropriate to an era when careers require assembling. In January, after years of full-time freelancing, Richards began an actual job—actual as in health benefits—editing a Blue Cross Blue Shield quarterly. She also edits a website,, that she began with a business partner. And she runs international projects for "I'm not scrambling," she says. Schultz is an adjunct at Columbia College and works part-time on special projects for the Daily Journal in Kankakee. She also does a lot of freelance editing.

AWJ's 20th-anniversary summer picnic was held in mid-July at the Prairie Avenue home of Tracy Baim, publisher and executive editor of the Windy City Publishing Group. "There were about two dozen people I spent time with," Richards told me. "I can think of four who are fully employed journalists in some form or another." The others were doing "stuff." "Some were freelancers. A couple have books coming out soon. But a regular paycheck—not so much."

She went on about AWJ: "It's become a job network, a freelance network. There used to be a lot more posts on our listserv about 'I was sexually harassed by a source, how do you handle it?'; 'I pitched a freelance story and they didn't hire me but then I saw the story in the paper.' Now it's a lot of 'needing work.'" But the most interesting discussions, she said, are still the ones about how news is covered. "The idea that what Hillary Clinton wears gets more coverage than her policy statements," said Richards. "Somebody will post that on the listserv and it'll blow up into people sharing thoughts."

If there are fewer discussions about stories that focus on Hillary's outfit and hairdo, I suggested, maybe it's because fewer of those stories are being written. "It still happens," Richards said. "There are still stories they would never write about a male politician." But she allowed that the conversation within AWJ on those stories has shifted from "'How do we convince people that this is inappropriate?' to 'I can't believe we're still doing it.' And the upside to losing our jobs in traditional media is that all this nontraditional media opened up. You can take to your Facebook page or Twitter or your blog and take this on in a way you couldn't in the mainstream press."

Which would make Amy Guth, social media maven, the right leader for these times we live in, just as Susy Schultz, pit-bull police reporter, was when AWJ was young.

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