Newsmakers

Interview with Lynn Povich, International Women's Media Foundation

 
Making news, making history

lynn povich02Lynn Povich, co-chair of the International Women's Media Foundation, talks to Anjali Mathur and Shama Kasbekar.

For a feminist and a journalist, getting the chance to interview Lynn Povich was an opportunity not to be missed. We arrived at her hotel in Bombay, armed with dictaphone and a long list of questions. Twenty minutes into the interview we suddenly realised we were doing all the talking. Encouraged by her warm friendliness —and obvious skills in drawing people out —we the interviewers had become the interviewees!

It must be this very real interest in people that has fuelled Lynn's more than three decades of experience in the media. Currently co-chair of the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF), she was managing editor and senior executive producer of East Coast programming for MSNBC on the Internet from 1996 to 2001 and editor-in-chief of Working Woman magazine from 1991 to 1996, and senior editor at Newsweek —the first woman in the magazine's history to be appointed to this post —from 1975 to 1991.

Lynn made history when she, along with fellow women researchers at Newsweek, sued the management for sex discrimination in 1970. As a journalist and an activist, she has been part of the women's movement and instrumental in making women's voices heard in mainstream US media. As co-chair of the IWMF, Lynn has worked to empower women in the media, expand the organisation's very successful centre for training women journalists in Dakar, Senegal, and revamp the foundation's website to expand the reach of its programmes for women journalists.

In the limited time we had with Lynn on her short visit to India, we did not get much time to learn about her personal life, though we did meet her equally well-known husband, Steve Shepard, editor of Businessweek. Later, searching on the Internet for information, we discovered that she comes from a family of veteran media professionals. Her father, Shirley Povich was one of The Washington Post's most revered sports writers for 75 years, and Lynn is currently working on an anthology of his columns, to be published next year. Her brother Maury Povich is a popular television talk show host, and his wife Connie Chung is a high profile TV news journalist. Lynn and Steve have two children.

Povich has received numerous honours, including a 1976 Matrix Award from Women in Communications for exceptional achievement in magazines, as well as a 1992 and 1995 Exceptional Media Merit Award from the National Women's Political Caucus.

Excerpts from a long and fascinating trek back in media and feminist history with Lynn:

Q: The feminist movement, the historic suit you filed and won against Newsweek, the path- breaking changes you made as editor of Working Woman, your vision for the IWMF… we are eager to know about all these experiences. Where would you like to start?

A: The easiest thing would be to start with my history and myself. I joined Newsweek magazine as a secretary because most women were hired as a secretary or lower, but I was actually fortunate enough to get a job in the Paris bureau. So I started in Paris and came back to New York and worked as a researcher. At the time, in the late 1960s, all the writers were men and all the reporters were men and all the researchers, who were essentially the factcheckers, were women.

The women's movement was starting and I had just been promoted to be a writer because none of the men wanted to write about fashion. So I was a junior fashion writer when the women's movement really started in the United States. And I sort of brought word back to my fellow researchers and said, you know there's this fascinating thing going on — this women's movement and everything. Most of these researchers were highly educated, they were all college graduates and some had been working there for quite a long time.

So, we decided that we should organise and do something about the situation at Newsweek. We had all kinds of examples of a man and a woman coming out of journalism school, graduating out of the same class, she with a higher average than his, and he was hired as a writer and she was hired as a researcher. And we had women who came to Newsweek and said in their job interviews that they wanted to be a writer and were told that if they wanted to be a writer they shouldn't come to work here. Unbelievable things! We thought this was crazy.

In 1969, we started organising and in March 1970, we sued Newsweek for sex discrimination. We were the first women in the media who sued. There were fifty of us.

Q: All of you were from Newsweek?

A: All researchers at Newsweek. In 1970, we filed the suit. And it was very interesting because at that point, in the beginning of the year, Newsweek realised that the women's movement was a big news story so they were going to do a cover story on the women's movement, but they had no women writers! So they went outside the magazine and asked a woman who is a very good writer and the wife of one of our writers at Newsweek, to come and write the story. We women decided that was it.

So on the day Newsweek appeared on the newsstands with this big cover that said "Women in Revolt" (it was all about the women's movement), we announced the suit. We got a lot of publicity with people taking pictures of the cover and us. The management was of course very upset. We got a lawyer and we signed an agreement with them instead of waiting for the courts to take it up, on the promise that they would promote and hire women and train them as journalists.

Two years later, in 1972, we decided the management hadn't done what they had promised and filed a suit again for breach of contract. This time, Katherine Graham (owner of The Washington Post and Newsweek) asked the corporate lawyer to negotiate and level this suit. So we settled this suit in 1973, I believe.

Q: What was Katherine Graham's attitude?

A: It was interesting… this was before she became a feminist. And she admits this in her book. She talks about how she really didn't understand about the women's movement, even though she herself had felt the discrimination. She was a woman publisher and there was only one other woman publisher and at these big meetings, nobody really treated them seriously. But it somehow didn't occur to her to connect this with gender. Then she got friendly with Gloria Steinem, around that time, and I think Gloria educated her to this.

We actually asked Katherine Graham to come and negotiate with us but she said she preferred to have the men negotiate because they ran the magazine. That was her attitude at the time.

When we finally settled for the second time, we pretty much got what we wanted. We asked that a third of all the writers be women, a third of all the reporters be women and a third of all the researchers be men. It was very important to integrate the research category so they understood that it wasn't a woman's job. It was a job and anybody could do it. And we got training programmes and we got commitment to support women as bureau chiefs in the bureaus and things like that. The last thing we asked for was a woman senior editor because we wanted a woman to be in the meetings where the decisions were made. We negotiated to have a woman senior editor by the end of 1975. So they had two-and-a-half years to find one. They were quite resistant at first, but finally agreed.

In August of 1975, I was appointed the first woman editor at Newsweek. I had been editing sections in the back of the magazine —the press section, the religion section, the lifestyle section, etc.

Q: That must have been exciting…

A: Very exciting and very interesting.

Q: What was the reaction of the men?

A: Well, the editor-in-chief, after he got over the shock that we actually had sued them, was incredibly sympathetic. He had three daughters and some of them were graduating from college and looking for jobs. And he understood right away that that was something that should be done. But the real discrimination was taking place in the middle ranks and that was where we had the hardest time. So he had to sort of push them and we had to sort of push them. It was very hard.

The male writers and reporters were very supportive. They were our colleagues, we were researchers for these guys and they all understood how intelligent and talented many of us women were, so most of them were with us.

Q: I would say research requires more intellect than writing…

A: In many ways it's so! So, I was a senior editor for five years at Newsweek, editing those sections for five years. Then I had two children, one in 1980 and one in 1982, so I went part time and worked on special projects. Then I came back full time and worked on some projects and also on the magazine until 1991. I left Newsweek in 1991 to become the editor-in-chief of Working Woman magazine.

This magazine was created in the United States in the 1970s when all the women started pouring into the workplace and it was about a woman's professional and business life and balancing work and life and personal finance and handling money and all really interesting things. I did that for five years.

Q: What was the reaction of the women's movement and feminists to magazines like the Working Woman?

A: Working Woman was considered in many ways as a feminist magazine because it was started for all the reasons that the women's movement existed. It wasn't politically feminist the way Ms magazine was, but it was about liberating women, making sure they were negotiating for themselves and getting a good deal and working out these work situations equally and dealing with husbands and men. It was very much in tune with what the women's movement was about.

Q: A magazine like Working Woman had a very important role in those days. It helped to bring women's issues to the fore. Do you still think there is a need for separate magazines or sections for women today?

A: I'll tell you a funny story. I was the editor of Working Woman while my husband was the editor of Business Week, so I know a lot about business magazines. And I always felt that a professional businesswoman would also possibly be reading Business Week, but what the business magazines do not do in the United States is they don't do any service journalism. They don't tell people how to do something. They do interesting stories about companies and CEOs, but they don't do very much service. As you know, women approach information from a service point of view: what is going to be useful? How can I get ahead? And that is somewhat inferred in the male magazines but it's not specific.

So I always felt it did not matter if this woman was reading the Wall Street Journal…she might be. But she wouldn't get what she was looking for. Also, all of the work - family problems, business publications usually do not cover them. And they don't feature woman on the cover often. They do sometimes. A couple of times a year. So we don't find out about all those women out there starting businesses.

But I have this feeling too about women's pages and magazines. It's important obviously for women to be in the business section and in the political sections and all that stuff. But I also feel that there are certain things that you can write about that women are more interested in than men.

It doesn't mean that men wouldn't read that as well! What's interesting is that in the States, there are these new men's magazines that are copying women's magazine formats. Men's health magazines, etc., which are very service oriented. It's fascinating.

Q: I guess that reflects the changes that are happening in society.

A: Yes, it is. I just think that women are ahead on certain issues. For example, we used to write a lot about women pushing for flexitime at the workplace because of their children. So finally these companies started creating flexitime. And the men requested it as much as the women did. So the things that women have pushed for have actually benefited everybody, but the men would have never asked!

Q: Let's get back to your story…why did Working Woman close down?

A: I guess one unfortunate thing about this magazine was that a small businessman owned it. It struggled during the early 1990s because we had a big recession on advertising. I left in 1996, and the owner sold it to another person who actually closed it down. Sad…

I left in 1996, because I was thinking about doing something on the Internet. I thought if you are going to be a journalist, you have to know the Internet. And I didn't know that much. We'd written a lot about women and technology, but not as much on the Net. A friend of mine got hired as the editor-in-chief to launch MSNBC.com. He and I had been talking of doing something together on the Net, so he called me and asked me if I wanted to work with him. I said, look, I don't know anything about the Internet, but I know about journalism, so sure!

I was in the East coast, and he was in Seattle because of Microsoft. That's where the dotcom was headquartered. I worked on all the content with NBC news, which was our partner in New York. And a whole bunch of us launched this all-news channel / site on the Internet in July 1996. It was really exciting. And those were sort of the boom years of the Internet. I enjoyed this experience and I learned a lot.

In 2001, about two years ago, I decided to sort of take a break. I have two kids and when the last one went to college, I thought I'll just take a year off and clear my head and figure out what I want to do next. I had been on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation for about three years. I had helped get a grant to help them design a website. So they asked me if I would co-chair the board for the next two years…we have two-year terms. I thought that would be an interesting thing to do. So I've been doing that.

It's been a fabulous couple of years. I'm very committed to the organisation. I don't know how much you know about it but I will briefly tell you.

It was started in 1990 by a group of women journalists in Washington D.C. It was after the Berlin Wall fell and the feeling was let's bring women journalists in and talk about what these implications are.

So there was a conference with international women journalists. At the time people thought we ought to do something together. Women in America don't know that many women around the world and we're not international really. So eventually the foundation was formed and we're celebrating our 15th anniversary next year.

IWMF started out doing studies and forums and seminars in different areas on the position of women in various countries, doing baseline research to understand where women were in the media and what were their issues. Then we started helping them to set up networks and training women if they wanted more skills —either straight journalism skills or leadership skills.

Q: Your leadership programmes are very interesting. What has been your experience —does a woman's style of leadership and management differ from a man's? In your leadership and training programmes are you looking at this issue?

A: I think, everybody has to find their own way of doing it. But there are certain things that women have difficulty with —they have difficulty negotiating for themselves, they have difficulty putting themselves and their work forward, unlike men who seem to always be bragging about what they are doing. And they are much more collegial rather than top down in how they manage. So a lot of our training has to do with how do you do all these things better, feel good about it and be stronger.

We have women who have been promoted now to big jobs and no one's telling them how to manage all these people and how do you do time management, your own time —that's another thing that women tend to be very bad at. Not that men are so great at it either, but there are so many things we manage!

About five years ago, we started our programme in Africa after we got some funding. We opened an office in Senegal, which we still have. It's called the African Women's Media Centre. Under this project, we have been doing several things —leadership training; journalism skills training in radio, television and print; training in reporting of HIV / AIDS because it was clearly a big issue. We've been doing that now for four or five years very successfully. We've done cyberspace training, because in Africa, like in India, it's hard to get people together, so we've done live cyberspace training for three days in a row. And we've put some of our training modules on the site, to do when you can.

Q: Can our NWMI members access this too? It would be very useful to us...

A: There's only one on the site right now, which is on leadership training, but we're trying to get funding to put our HIV/AIDS training on the site as well. In fact, one of the reasons why I'm here, is because it seemed to me that if we were doing this training in Africa, then India is going to have this problem, it has a free press and it has a lot of women journalists. And we have a lot of women in our network who are here. We should come here and think about what we could be doing in India.

We really would like to do an initiative in Latin America too. We've done some studies and we'd really like to do what we've been doing in Africa in other places. Latin America is one of our top priorities and I would love to do something in India.

Q: Has IWMF done anything special for Black women journalists?

A: We did a big study in America on women of colour and it was sort of talking about where they were in the profession and what their issues are. And we have done several studies on the position of women in the media worldwide and the issues and obstacles they face. Can we do something similar in India?

Q: I think it would be interesting. But here the issue is caste and class.
One change we have noticed only recently in American media is the influx of Asian faces and voices. Earlier, America media used to be very, very closed. For an Asian, man or woman, to make any kind of mark, was difficult; in fact, journalist friends who were in the US, used to say it was impossible even to get an entry in any mainstream publication or TV channel. That seems to be changing. Am I right?

A: Well, it is and it isn't. The Internet has obviously produced enormous new outlets for news. And now bloggers, which is a whole new controversy that's going on —is it news, is it accurate, is it credible? But a lot of bloggers are professional journalists themselves and they seem to be having some influence in the kind of topics that are raging and picked up by the mainstream media.

Because of the advertising drop from 1999 to 2000 on, the number of new magazines started was much lower. It's just beginning to come back now. The problem is that there is all this consolidation going on in the United States. So companies are gobbling up companies. And rather than having more diversity and more voices, they are being controlled more and more by fewer bigger media companies.

Now you have these laws in the United States where you can own a television station and a newspaper in the same city. So what kind of outlet are those people going to be having if both of the mainstream media are owned by the same company? You know we don't have that many newspapers as you do here. We have up to three or four per city. So if one of the main newspapers and the local television station is owned by the same media company, like Murdoch or something, you're going to lose out on diversity. So the consolidation of the media is very worrying.

On the other hand, there's the Internet, which has opened up a low threshold for getting in, for entering. But the professionalising of the Internet is a real issue. How professional, how credible, how accurate, who are these people who are writing about things, what do they know?

There haven't been too many new magazines. And the new magazines that have been started recently in the United States and become very popular, are shocking magazines —they are almost like catalogues. There's no editorial content.

Q: One last question: What now?

A: For me, I shall continue working to strengthen the role of women journalists around the world through the IWMF. But the next decade should be interesting for women in media. In the US, women are well-represented in the middle ranks so we shall see if they truly advance to the top. And there will be labour shortage so we will need talented people, including women. Globally, there is a need to give women skills and leadership training to help them advance in their careers. And being a news journalist is particularly difficult for women with families because of the unpredictability of news. So work-life problems must get solved for women to get ahead. But I'm an optimist and I can see how much progress has been made in the past 25 years so I'm hoping we can continue to move onward and upward.

 

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