Monday June 25 2007
Women's eNews Five Years Later
By Kristal Brent Zook
Original at: The Women's Media Center
When Rita Henley Jensen arrived in New York City in 1977 and enrolled in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she had no idea how difficult it would be to get her stories about women published in the mainstream media. Nor did she have any inkling that out of her frustrations, she would eventually become founder and editor-in-chief of a visionary independent online news service dealing with precisely that subject.
With 40,000 subscribers and an estimated readership of four million to date, Women's eNews has already won 26 journalism awards in its brief five years of existence - largely by transforming perceptions of what constitutes "news" in the first place.
As a survivor of domestic violence and a former welfare recipient, Jensen describes toiling at daily newspapers and magazines for decades, while trying to find a space for her reporting in an environment that was not at all conducive to women's issues. "I kept struggling on my own," she says, but even as a prize-winning accredited reporter, she had one year as a freelancer where her total income amounted to a paltry $4,000.
An early adaptor to technology (her AOL address has no numbers, she says with a smile), she dove headlong into the world of web-based reporting, and learned to post an electronic file as early as 1986. She used this newfound skill to create an online news service for American Lawyer, which is still in operation today. As a reward for her efforts, her supervisor hired a male editor and gave him a corner office to manage the service. "I was bitter," says Jensen.
"Everyone who knows me knows that I work hard. I'm a hustler. Whatever. I'm charming. I'll have lunch. Whatever's required I'll do it." But she was at a crossroads. Finding another path, such as technical writing, was not an option, she says, and yet "there was no market for what I was doing."
Then, in 1994, while writing about legal corruption as a reporter for the National Law Journal (she had been awarded an Alicia Patterson Fellowship to support this work), Jensen had an epiphany.
"I was harassing rich and powerful white men very successfully," she says, when suddenly she found herself ashamed by the mainstream media's coverage of legislative measures to reform (read: abolish) welfare. Taking issue with The New York Times, in particular, whose coverage she found patently "racist," Jensen began to speak her mind at conferences and on public panels.
Seeds were planted then, for thinking about how to change the way women's issues were framed in the media. Now, for example, she says, "If you notice we never use the term 'welfare reform' at Women's eNews. It's welfare law. Because it was a repeal, not reform."
The assignments continued to trickle in, for the New York Times Syndicate and other outlets, and then, in 1999, a breakthrough.
"The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund sent me a letter saying that they were looking for an executive director to run their Women, Policy and Media Program."
Jensen was a natural for the job, and out of that position, Women's eNews was born.
"The idea was that we would write stories that newspapers would pick it up - much like the Associated Press." From the beginning, though, Jensen thought the original impulse was wrong. "For newspapers, the first obligation is to use staff copy."
A better way would be to provide an independent news service that could stand on its own. Two years later, in the wake of massive budget cuts following 9-11, support for the project came to an end and Jensen was laid off, along with her small staff of three.
"It was a horrific fall season," she says. On Thanksgiving weekend, while organizing her home office, she found a book called How to Write a Business Plan. "I thought, 'I'm a trained journalist. I can follow the directions.'" Laying out five basic revenue streams for the operation, she decided that the initial budget of $600,000 would come from major donors, fundraising events, foundation support, readers, licensing and reprints. This structure allowed Women's eNews to remain free, with daily news stories written by global cadre of freelance journalists.
"I had no choice," she says of her bold decision today. "Life without Women's eNews just didn't seem right."
While the site will always remain fearless in its approach to new technology, Jensen says that the heart of Women's eNews lies in its solid allegiance to journalism. "This is not home videos posted to YouTube, however valuable that may be. There has to be a time when facts become important. I always think that the facts are on our side."