Women Journalists in the 21st Century: Melissa Ludtke
Melissa Ludtke, 60, is executive editor at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University after serving as editor of Nieman Reports, a quarterly magazine created by Harvard University since 1998. In addition to her job as editor, Ludtke was also involved as a consultant and board member in several groups involving child development and educational policy. Her journalism career began as a freelancer at ABC Sports and then as a reporter for Sports Illustrated. As a baseball reporter for the magazine, one of her stories about a catcher and home-plate umpire, titled “The Despot and the Diplomat,” was chosen as a feature story for the 1978 baseball issue. During her time with Sports Illustrated, Ludtke made it possible for women to gain equal rights in sports reporting when she filed a federal lawsuit, Ludtke v. Kuhn. The suit came about after the reporter was denied permission to the Yankee locker room because of her gender. Ludtke went on to win the case in 1978 when the Courts ruled that female reporters have the 14th amendment right to pursue a career, regardless of gender. Later, Ludtke went on to work for CBS News and then as a correspondent for Time Magazine. In 1997, Ludtke published her first book, On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Wellesley College in 1973 and has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a visiting scholar at Radcliffe College, and a Prudential Fellow at Columbia University. Her email is: Melissa.ludtke(at)gmail.com.
Ludtke was interviewed by Ashley Oerman, 21, is a senior journalism and English major at the University of Iowa.
Ashley Oerman: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Melissa Ludke: In 1973 I graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in art history and decided that I did not want to apply to graduate school, and after spending some time working in an art gallery I decided I didn’t want to do that either. I realized that I enjoyed sports — and after a friend introduced me to a broadcaster for ABC Sports, who offered to introduce me to people at the network in New York City, I decided to try to get into sports journalism. I worked first as a freelance “go-for” at ABC Sports and then applied for a job as a researcher at Sports Illustrated; on my second try at getting that job, I was hired, in September 1974.
AO: How do you define journalism today?
ML: Journalism is the practice of seeking out information, working to verify the information that is found, and determining the best way to distribute what a reporter finds is verifiable in ways that accurately and fairly tell the story or report on the news event. In doing this, the reporter and editor, photojournalist or producer should adhere to the principles of journalism as illuminated by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism.”
AO: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
ML: When I began editing Nieman Reports in 1998 it was only a print magazine. In the years since then, the magazine has been published in print but a website (niemanreports.org) — offering expansive content— and a website (Professor’s Corner)—where its content is bundled for use by j-school professors— have been added to the mix, along with our constant use of social media, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr most prominently, to reach audiences with our articles, images and other resources related to the practice of journalism.
AO: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
ML: It will expand on the ways that news and stories are reported, distributed and related to by the community of readers and viewers, formerly known as the audience. There will be ever-increasing interactive engagement with and by consumers in the work of journalism. More use of multimedia and social media tools as ways of telling stories.
AO: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
AO: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
ML: Women will assume every role possible — from frontline war correspondent to heading news organizations, from newspaper editor to TV anchor, just as they do now.
AO: What was the key to your success as a female journalist at Sports Illustrated, which is typically dominated by male journalists?
ML: Not sure I could say that I fully succeeded at Sports Illustrated in that I had wanted to be promoted to being a writer or at least a writer/reporter, but when I left the magazine after five years, I was still a researcher/reporter, the same position I held when I was hired. That said, I did write a number of articles, including the lead story in the 1978 baseball special issue, published at the start of the season. I took advantage of being at the magazine to work with editors —sought out one of the two female editors as my mentor —to learn how to report and write stories; I spent ALL of my “free” time at sports events and sought out opportunities to get stories into the magazine; I persevered at trying to write, even when editors told me that my writing was not good enough to be published; I worked very, very hard at being a good reporter and fact checker, which were my core responsibilities; and I volunteered for assignments whenever they were offered.
AO: What has been your biggest struggle working in sports journalism?
ML: The biggest struggle revolved around having the same access as my male colleagues to interview athletes — if women could not get to the athletes to interview them, then editors could not rely on them to be sent out on a story in which the writer would need them to assist with reporting.
AO: How do you think the ruling of Ludtke vs. Kuhn has impacted women in journalism since 1978?
ML: It increased enormously the number of young women who came into sports media — as reporters, as employees of sports teams and league offices, in agencies representing athletes and in other aspects of sports work that earlier generations of women had not been involved with, such as working as team trainers or as umpires.
AO: Did you have any hesitations towards pursuing the lawsuit because of potential career implications? If not, why? If so, what encouraged you to push forward?
ML: No hesitation, whatsoever. Never thought about implications on my own career.
AO: As someone who has had extensive experience in the magazine industry, do you think that these publications will soon go paperless?
ML: Some already are, though many more combine print publications with websites, and do so successfully, as I suspect will be the case in the years ahead.
AO: When writing, On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America, did you discover anything about women’s ability or struggle to balance work and family?
ML: Discovered a lot about women’s ability to balance work and family — perhaps most important was an understanding of the support systems, from family and/or community (“it takes a village”), that are necessary for a mother to feel she is able to be an exemplary parent as well as a conscientious and productive employee or entrepreneur.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.