Wright emphasizes multidisciplinary potential for teaching Wilma Soss

The featured image above depicts Wilma Soss interviewing New York Stock Exchange President G. Keith Funston. (Photo from the the Collections of American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.)

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Robert Wright, Augustana University

Classroom uses of a scholarly article find their limit in the questions that instructors and students pose, which is a function of their interests and previous knowledge, as well as the article’s content. As a multidisciplinary teacher-scholar, I hope that professors from a broad spectrum of disciplines and subfields will find my Journalism History article about media maven Wilma Soss pedagogically valuable. As encouragement, I proffer questions inherent in the article and briefly discuss the classroom settings in which they might be effective.

What was the Women’s National Press Association (WNPA) and why [is, was, might] it [be] important? When framed in the present tense, this question invites linking the WNPA to the National Federation of Press Women via the Illinois Women’s Press Association, which could be a useful exercise for students of journalism or nonprofits. When framed in the past tense, this question challenges undergraduate history students to contextualize the WNPA and look for sources that describe what it did, and how well it fulfilled its mission. Graduate history students should be able to discover that it produced written sources, including a sizable biography of Christopher Columbus (1893), which could be used to deepen our understanding of early female journalism. They should also discover that female press organizations have been largely ignored, save for Elizabeth Burt’s Women’s Press Organizations, 1881-1999 (2000). When framed conditionally, the question asks students to speculate about what roles press organizations might have played and what their impact might have been, which could be appropriate in a communications or sociology course if the instructor wants students to think in broad functional terms.

Why did many early female journalists use pseudonyms? is a classic gender studies question, but in any introductory course stressing critical thinking, simply inducing students to list examples from the text might be a good start. To that an instructor could add other well-known examples and then ask how many men wrote under another name. Few will know more than Mark Twain, but students can be nudged along with this article, which discusses men adopting gender-neutral names and even female personas in order to sell more books. The general issue of withholding pertinent information for commercial gain could be raised in a business or an ethics course and could be linked to the practice of star authors like Sylvia Porter outsourcing much of their work but selling it under their own names. In a journalism or communications classroom, that might lead to a discussion of the way The Economist uses pseudonyms and deliberately disguises authorship, presumably to reduce various agency costs, which is a major concept in economics and business courses that begs for concrete examples.

Is there a trade-off between quality and sales as Charlotte Gilman argued? would be a great prompting question for journalism, communication, and business students. Devoid of context, it could lead easily to an ungrounded swapping of opinions, so the instructor needs to be prepared to move students towards a discussion of potential methodologies for assessing it over time, place, and market. Some highbrow periodicals succeeded commercially, and Soss’s show was sophisticated yet popular–points that might be raised to induce students to inquire whether Gilman rationalized her own shortcomings.

In light of the #metoo movement, what might Paul White have meant when he said that females were “good-looking and nice to have around”? is a deliberately provocative question designed to jumpstart discussion in a gender studies course or current events seminar, but business students, from both a business and ethical standpoint, need to consider the implications of the claim, as do economics students enamored of efficiency models. Remind all students that many U.S. companies after World War II enjoyed a high degree of market power (“monopoly”), so their managers could afford to make staffing decisions based on factors other than work quality. That could mean firing efficient women or hiring inefficient ones for the reasons White alluded to.

Why was Mary McBride concerned about who sponsored her show? Was it the same reasons that Soss mentioned when in search of her “Prince Charming”? would be good starters in a comm course but also in a business course on branding, or a graduate seminar about how to build a “platform” from which to establish a reputation as a public intellectual or topical expert. In a journalism course, they could be used to approach the concepts of journalistic integrity and editorial independence.

What happened to the Mutual Broadcasting System, which for decades was a major force in radio, and why? should interest journalism and business students eager to avoid involvement in another big media failure. Business students may want to compare it with American Motors Corporation. MBS, which failed to enter television broadcasting, holds lessons regarding everything from entry into new media to capital and corporate structure.

Does it make any sense that the three earliest, and perennially most popular and lucrative, areas of publishing were religion, pornography, and financial news and data? is another deliberately provocative question that should appeal to journalism, communication, and business students. God, mammaries, and Mammon seem always to be in high demand and may be complementary goods, which could get economics students excited, too. Complementary goods create demand for each other, so people may demand more Bibles after spending all day poring over porn and stock quotations. Conversely, reading the Bible might increase demand for financial news and data; queue Max Weber in a sociology or intellectual history course. Competition prevents anyone from getting very rich from this insight alone. The companies and individuals who do something new prosper, not the ones selling the nth version of the Bible, the pizza delivery guy, and stock quotations.

Pioneers, it is said, stand on the shoulders of “giants,” of people who made their successes possible. Who were Soss’s giants? might be raised in an intellectual history or communications course to help students to see how ideas propagate over time, space, and gender. Survey students might benefit from a discussion of specific versus general influences: What was more important to Soss’s development: the individuals under whom she studied and read, or the overall Zeitgeist? How could the alternatives be parsed?

Why did so many people, men and women, assume that women could not understand finance? seems like a natural in a gender studies course but maybe business and economics students should be first asked if anyone, anywhere, ever understands finance, given the findings of behavioral economists, which suggest we’re all irrational much of the time. In a history course, instructors might want to stress that women handled household finances in most American households and that a substantial percentage is invested in savings bank deposits, insurance policies, government bonds, safe bank stocks, and, increasingly, industrial stocks and bonds.

Assess how well Porter and Soss managed their careers. What did they do right? What did they do wrong? What constraints did they face? What challenges did they surmount? should interest journalism students thinking about how to manage their own careers. Interestingly, both women cobbled together impressive incomes from a modern combination of consulting and speaking gigs, investments, formal employment, and proprietorship.

Is social media better, or just faster, than it once was? could be put to business, communication, economics, or journalism students. A heavy fan mail bag suggests that Soss interacted bi-directionally with members of her audience but at a much higher cost (time and postage) than she could today. An interesting hypothesis to pursue would be that higher social interaction costs in the past led to higher quality interactions.

Robert Wright is the author of “Pioneer Financial News: National Broadcast Journalist Wilma Soss, NBC Radio 1954-1980,” published in the Fall 2018 issue of Journalism History.

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