Diversity Essay: Beyond the Masthead

Searching the Archives for Hidden Women Newsroom Leaders

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Meg Heckman

Marjory Adams came to the Boston Globe in 1919 and spent the next year as the only woman on the graveyard shift, covering murders, fires and other assorted urban catastrophes. She loved it. Her editors were appalled, declaring it improper for a young woman to roam the city at night. Adams raised a fuss. “It would be a permanent disgrace to the newspaper business if a woman reporter is not allowed to go out and poke around!” she protesteted. But her bosses didn’t budge. Instead, they reassigned her to a new beat covering the burgeoning film industry.[i]

At first, Adams viewed the move as a demotion, but she soon embraced the work and became the Globe’s inaugural film critic—a job she held until her retirement in the early 1970s. She pioneered the kind of serious arts coverage that became a staple for the Globe and many other metropolitan newspapers, covering Hollywood with so much tenacity and style that she often upstaged the stars themselves. Her long tenure gave her a certain gravitas in the newsroom, with one obituary describing her as “the undisputed grande dame of the editorial staff.”[ii] She also mentored younger women working at the Globe and held several leadership roles, supervising at least 20 other film reviewers.[iii]

Yet, few traces of Adams and her remarkable career remain. An extensive history of the Globe written in 1971 mentions her only in passing…and misspells her first name.[iv] She has no Wikipedia page and, to the best of my knowledge, this essay is the first time anyone has paid sustained attention to her career since the Globe published her obituary in 1986. The only reason I know about Adams is because several boxes of her clips arrived at Northeastern University around the same time I joined the faculty there five years ago. What I’ve learned about her since is a reminder that, to fully account for women’s contributions to journalism, it’s important to look beyond the masthead for hidden leaders who, because of gender bias, have been omitted from media history.

Mining the Globe Collection

Adams’ clips are part of a massive new archive donated to Northeastern by the Globe. The collection includes 1.65 million photographs, 4,012 linear feet of clipping files, and 5.7 million photo negatives, plus editors’ notes, newsroom ephemera and other surprises from the newspaper’s morgue. It’s brimming with possibilities for anyone interested in the history of news production or daily life in New England over the last 150 years. For me, it represents an opportunity to examine the evolution of a major metropolitan newspaper through a feminist lens.

One of my goals is to identify overlooked women like Adams who made significant contributions to the Globe—and journalism—by shaping the practice and production of news.  There are many possible entry points to a collection of this size. I chose to focus on the byline series which contains folders of clips organized (more or less) alphabetically by the journalists’ last names. The first box I opened was brimming with decades of Adams’ stories and columns, plus a few stray photos and a dot-matrix printout of an advance obituary prepared by the Globe as her health declined in the mid-1980s.

Because the Globe Collection is minimally processed, cataloguing the byline series has required picking through the clip folders by hand. It’s been slow going and, as I’ve worked, I’ve thought often of Maurine Beasley’s 2001 essay, Recent Directions for the Study of Women’s History in American Journalism. It was one of the first pieces I read during my slow pivot from newspaper web editor to journalism professor, and it’s serving as a sort of intellectual compass as I explore the collection. The essay covers a lot of ground, but the theme that’s resonating most with me these days is Beasley’s call to “ask why only a relatively few women journalists remain in the American collective historical memory, while many others have been forgotten.”[v]

The short answer is, of course, sexism—in news organizations, in history, in journalism education and, too often, in the way modern journalism is practiced and defined.  Although opportunities for women have improved in recent decades, newsrooms remain gendered spaces that are difficult for women, especially queer women and women of color, to navigate. What counts as journalism worthy of awards, pay raises, promotions and historical inquiry has long been determined by white men. As Beasley argues, this narrow definition of which journalists are considered “legitimate practitioners” leaves women like Adams out of the frame.

That’s why it’s crucial to approach new archives like the Globe Collection with the broader lens Beasley describes in her essay. Adams’ stories are available through ProQuest or Newspapers.com, but digital archives are only as useful as the keywords we use. And, until I found Adams’ clips, I’d never heard her name—a reminder that, when it comes to women’s historical contributions, it’s all too easy to not know what we don’t know. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for silences in my reporting. Whose voices or viewpoints aren’t represented? Which communities are overlooked? How can I do a better job of accounting for what’s missing? The questions are relevant in media history, too.

Who Was Marjory Adams?

Here’s my attempt at filling some of the silences around Adams: She was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on June 9, 1896. She was smart and hailed from a somewhat wealthy family, which made it possible for her to attend attended Barnard College and, later, the Columbia School of Journalism. She worked as a stringer for the New York World and, during summers at home, the Haverhill Gazette. In 1919, she took a job at the Globe and was likely the first journalism school graduate to join the staff.[vi] After her ouster from the night shift, she embraced her new beat and helped define film criticism and celebrity news. She was, according to her Globe obituary, “known coast to coast in the world of movies, and she batted out thousands of stories in a chatty, perceptive style that won her a wide audience of newspaper readers and the respect of the industry.”[vii] Adams was unapologetic about her approach to reporting, often demanding (and receiving) regular access to even the most elite stars.[viii]

While Adams’ career includes the familiar themes of a woman struggling in a male-dominated profession, it also illustrates the importance of taking a more expansive view of journalism in the way Beasley described. Adams never held the kind of official title that might have drawn the attention of media historians, but she was very much a leader in the industry. The film beat gave her power and prestige, both in the newsroom and in the world. And she viewed her work as serious journalism. “I consider myself a newspaper woman first,” she once said, “and secondly a critic.”[ix]

Adams was also the informal leader of a group of five women journalists known in Hollywood (and beyond) as The Girls from Boston—all film critics working for the city’s various newspapers.[x] They, too, are largely absent from history, although Adams emerged briefly from retirement to document some of the group’s exploits in a 1977 column. It was a tribute to fellow critic Peggy Doyle, who had just died. “She was the only one of The Girls from Boston left in newspapers,” Adams wrote. “Others now have our jobs; they are mostly men.”[xi] That remains true today with male film critics outnumbering their female colleagues two to one.[xii] 

It’s been more than 20 years since Beasley wrote her iconic essay, and media history is, thankfully, far closer to gender parity. Adams is, however, a reminder of how easily an influential woman can be overlooked and how quickly women’s professional gains can be erased. As we work toward making journalism more reflective of society, it’s imperative that we understand how news organizations have both challenged and reinforced existing social norms. Documenting the ways women like Adams exerted and were denied power at the Globe throughout its history will, I hope, help modern media leaders make better, more equitable decisions in the years to come. 

About the author: Meg Heckman is an assistant professor in Northeastern University’s School of Journalism and the 2021-2022 chair of AEJMC’s Commission on the Status of Women. She mixes critical practice and scholarship to understand and dismantle journalism’s macho culture with the goal of creating a more equitable news ecosystem.

Featured image: Line drawing of Marjory Adams, Boston Globe, April 28, 1970.

[i] Driscoll, E. “Marjory Adams, films her beat at the Globe for 47 years; at 90.” The Boston Globe, September 3, 1986.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Miller, M. “She was a shepherd, and movies were her flock.” The Boston Globe, September 14, 1986.

[iv] Lyons, L. Newspaper Story: One Hundred Years of the Boston Globe, Harvard University Press, 1971.

[v] Beasley, M. “Recent Directions for the Study of Women’s History in American Journalism,” Journalism Studies 2, no. 2 (2001): 207–20, p. 213.

[vi] Lyons, Newspaper Story.

[vii] Driscoll.

[viii] Adams, M. “The Girls from Boston,” The Boston Globe, April 10, 1977.

[ix] Driscoll.

[x] The other women were Prunella Hall, Helen Eager and Elinor Hughes.

[xi] Adams.

[xii] Lauzen, M. “Thumbs Down 2020: Film Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters.” Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu; “Film Criticism Losing Female Scribes,” Media Report to Women 50, no. 3 (Summer 2022): 1–2.

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