Networks – Now and Then

Ever since I studied structured communication patterns as a graduate student, I’ve had a viscerally negative reaction to “network” as a verb. In this age of social media, though, such usage – and “networking” itself – is largely unavoidable. I’m a bit of a lightweight, but you can follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, send me an email, connect on Ideapod, and follow this very blog.  In recent days, I’ve been invited to join several virtual groups of women writers for more support and sharing of ideas, opportunities, and contacts. All of these networks (noun!) are bountiful sources of wisdom, inspiration, news updates, and professional and personal contacts. All of these networks are also bountiful sources of distraction, of course.

The women’s editors I write about had none of these sources of support or distraction. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Skype, computer conferencing, or Email. No fax machines, voicemail, or answering machines, for that matter. Just typewriters, carbon paper, and phones attached to the wall.

And yet, these women felt connected to each other in – I think – profound ways.  They shared ideas about stories, about layout, about workplace relationships. They figured out ways to know what was trending decades before there was a sidebar on the computer screen. They connected in ways both professional and personal.

How did they do it? One important avenue was through professional gatherings of women’s editors and writers where workshops and speakers considered topics ranging from how to cover breaking community news to headline writing to integrating color into page layouts. Some of the most important of these gatherings took place in Columbia, Missouri, where each year the Penney-Missouri awards were given for various accomplishments in the women’s sections of newspapers around the country. There were other events, as well. In 1959, the American Press Institute held its first conference for women’s editors on the Columbia University campus in New York.  So many of the women I write about – Dorothy Jurney, Marie Anderson, Gloria Biggs, Marge Paxson, Maggie Savoy – were there. Vivian Castleberry, who had recently assumed the role of women’s editor at the Dallas Times Herald, was thrilled to have the chance to meet many of the women she’d heard about:

It was really a remarkably fine group of people that I got to be with and try to check out my ideas against theirs and listen to some of the women who were at that time older than I and had been in it a lot longer than I and find out that what we wanted to do was kind of universal, that we were all journalists who were eager to move our particular sections of the paper into the real world.

These in-person conferences were supplemented with other modes of communication. My research doesn’t suggest that there was a great deal of regular phone contact among these women, but they did write letters. Sometimes to each other and at other times to influential editors about the need for change on the women’s pages or to young women looking to break into the business. They also kept up with journalistic trends by reading lots of newspapers all the time. Marge Paxson was a great proponent of this strategy – she believed that all editors should “plagiarize and localize” what was going on in other women’s sections.

Several women’s editors tried to encourage connection through the wire services, as well, suggesting that the Associated Press should include the slug line “Attn. Women’s Editors” on relevant stories. In 1960, Dorothy Jurney corresponded with several editors about getting more women’s content on the Associated Press wire and then passed these ideas along to George Beebe, then managing editor at the Miami Herald:

Mildred said she was aware that AP wanted more good women’s news coverage. She said she even had a list of stories she would like to do, but that everything else in the bureau had to come first. This left no time for women’s coverage. Compare this with the time and space spent on the sports wire. Does it seem reasonable to suggest that there be a complete re-examination not only of the quality of AP women’s overage, but also of the time and space given to it?

So this was the networking (verb!) of 50 years ago. Slug lines instead of hash tags. Yearly conferences instead of Facebook groups. Carbon paper instead of tagging or retweeting.

But it worked. The ideas spread and women’s coverage around the country benefited from the flow of ideas. And many of the bonds formed were life-long. Marie Anderson and Dorothy Jurney traveled together, even sharing an elephant ride. When Marj Paxson took a job at the Philadelphia Bulletin, she found a house next door to Dorothy, who was already there working for the Inquirer. Then, as now, these networks of women were about a lot more than simple exchanges of information – they were about building community.

So, yes, Twitter and Facebook can be total time sinks.  But as I scroll through my feeds or check in on Facebook pages populated by women all over the world doing the same kinds of things that I’m doing, I can’t help but think that my world isn’t all that different from that of Marj, Maggie, Dorothy, Marie, Vivian, and more. We are women. We are writers. We are witnesses to the same world. We need our networks.

As Marj said: “It nothing else, it lets you know that you’re not alone.”

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable. Also, thank you to Women’s Page History, a wonderful ongoing resource.


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