Women Journalists in the 21st Century: Michele Weldon
Michele Weldon, 53, an assistant professor of Journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is an award-winning journalist and author for more than 32 years. In addition to her teaching profession, she is a columnist for the Huffington Post and a mentor/seminar trainer with The OpEd Project, which is designed to “expand public debate, with an immediate emphasis on enlarging the pool of women experts who are accessing (and accessible to) our nation’s key print and online forums.” She has been on the faculty at Northwestern since 1996, which is her alma mater. Weldon received her Northwestern bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1978 and her master’s in 1979. Initially, a managing editor at North Shore magazine in Illinois, she also worked as a market editor at ADWEEK magazine and at Fairchild Publications later in her career. Furthermore, she was a columnist and feature writer at the Dallas Times Herald. Weldon has written for a variety of news outlets including Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsday, Chicago Magazine, Parenting Magazine, Seventeen Magazine, Dial, West Suburban Living, U.S. Catholic, Nieman Reports and numerous others. Additionally, she has been a keynote speaker at over one hundred functions, on issues related to women and the media. She is the author of several critically acclaimed books, such as I Closed My Eyes, Writing to Save Your Life, and Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page and her nonfiction memoir, Escape Points. The memoir reviews her role as a mother of three sons and a journalist, being a “wrestling mom,” and overcoming cancer. Her work can be seen at: www.micheleweldon.com and her email is m-weldon(at)northwestern.edu.
Weldon was interviewed by Katie Galbreath, 20, a junior majoring in Communication Studies with minors in Mass Communication and Sociology at the University of Iowa.
Katie Galbreath: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Michele Weldon: I had my own newspaper when I was 10 called, The Juvenile Journal. I had 50 subscribers and wrote about family and neighborhood news in my monthly newsletter. I always wanted to be a writer and thought that journalism would be a great career. I followed Brenda Starr in the comics and liked Lois Lane better than Superman in the tv show. I thought it would allow me to be creative, see the world and meet influential and interesting people.
KG: How do you define journalism today?
MW: That is a huge question and one I spent four years on in my last book. Since it was published in 2008, journalism has changed even more. A very short answer is that at the core journalism is still the accurate chronicle of events from the smallest local story to the largest global story with universal impact. The values of journalism remain the same, but the specifics of how to gather the news and how to distribute the news have changed dramatically. Also who gathers and distributes journalism has changed from top down to a more egalitarian citizen journalist approach. Journalism is more exciting than it has ever been and is a real-time, 24/7 adventure that covers all platforms and distribution modes.
KG: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
MW: I started typing stories on a typewriter and now I produce video, audio, photo and digital forms of stories for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, mainstream web sites and blogs. I work faster, I work harder and I can work deeper, posting my own videos, photos and audio accompaniments to everything I do. I also teach multimedia journalism now and understand how text intersects with every platform to enhance the story, not detract or distract from it.
KG: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
MW: It changes who has access to media distribution. It changes how we get it. It changes the rate of news flow. It changes how deeply we understand an issue, receiving live video feeds, audio and photos from a news event as it happens. Technology can make us all smarter consumers of journalism. It also can take us away from journalism into entertainment if we are not discerning about what we consume.
KG: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
MW: Empowered. Through blogs, alternate sites, enterprises such as Huffington Post, even CNN.com, women journalists are having a stronger and louder voice than ever before. While we have not reached equity in newsrooms, we have been able to be heard across platforms on issues that are important to women.
KG: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
MW: Woman have the same role as men in the future of journalism, and that is as innovators and producers of high quality journalism. Because more women are rising in the ranks into administrative and executive positions, it ceases to be a men-only club. Women add a different kind of depth and insight on stories and more women are succeeding beyond the pink ghetto of lifestyle, family and home stories.
KG: What is a typical day in your career like?
MW: Today I am at the university and going through emails, (I get about 400 a day) and putting the finishing touches on my “Writing for the Web” lecture tomorrow. I am also working with two faculty members at another university editing their opinion pieces from The OpEd Project, where I am a mentor/editor and instructor. I will meet with students for two hours during my office hours. I will go on Twitter to look for stories and columns related to my lecture and I will also tweet my latest column on more.com that was published today. I just queried my editor at Chicago Tribune for an essay on reaction to the Penn State coach’s firing, and if she wants it, I will write a 750-word column by the end of the day. I will also write two recommendation letters and if I have time, post a blog entry. I eat lunch at my desk to save time. If I have meetings, I go to those, and they can last an hour or more. So my day consists of university work, teaching, meeting with students, editing for The OpEd Project and also my own writing. I try to write every day at least one hour or more.
KG: Do you find similarities between covering stories and teaching journalism to your students?
MW: Both are about communicating effectively. I prepare my lectures as I would a 3,000 word article. I do a lot of research up to the last minute to make sure I have the best and latest information on the topic. My lectures have videos, audio clips, interactive elements, even games. I try to make them informative, entertaining and challenging intellectually and worth my students’ time and attention. As a journalist, I try to make my stories engaging, informative and worth the reader’s time.
KG: As you have spoken on numerous occasions about women and the media, what do you personally believe has been the biggest accomplishment of females and the press thus far?
MW: Over the past century, women have made great strides in what we cover, how we cover it and for what outlets. The biggest accomplishment I believe is that women can cover wars and major disasters without apology and are seen as equals by most. The press is still not completely a gender-fair institution and I would like to see academia become more balanced as far as men and women are concerned.
KG: What has been your biggest accomplishment to date?
MW: I believe my first book was my biggest accomplishment. I am most proud of the writing and of the message. It continues to sell after 12 years and is in 7 languages. I have gotten thousands of letters from fans over the years and just got two last week.
KG: When you do freelance writing, do you have a favorite topic to write about?
MW: Lately because of my involvement with the Op Ed Project, I am writing more opinion pieces on news topics. I have to write about what I know about, can research and have a sense of expertise about. I could never write about brain surgery, so I tend to write about issues that intersect with my own life.
KG: What has been the most memorable part of your career?
MW: My career is far from over, and I feel I have so much more to accomplish. But being a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show for my first two books in 2002 was the most memorable. She was a great interviewer, the staff was incredible and everywhere I went for one year, no matter what city I was in, no matter what I was doing, someone recognized me and said, “I saw you on Oprah.” It was astounding.
KG: Have you seen the trend that has occurred in journalism schools across the nation, in which women now make up the majority of the student body, in Northwestern’s journalism school?
MW: Women were the majority when I was in school at Northwestern from 1975-1979, but only about 55 to 60 percent. Since I have been teaching at Medill in 1996, the numbers have been consistently around 70 percent. So I have not seen them change over the last 15 years. They are very high.
KG: What is one piece of advice you wish to impart on your students and aspiring journalists alike?
MW: Write because you love to write and you want to get better. Do not write because you want to be famous. Become a journalist because you can’t live one day without telling stories that matter.
KG: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like us to know about women in journalism?
MW: This is the best time to be a journalist, and if you happen to be a woman journalist, you will have more opportunities now than ever before to succeed. Network with other successful women journalists and help each other climb the ladder.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.