Nora Ephron: Queen of Copy

The last intrepid female journalist I had the pleasure of studying was none other than Nora Ephron. She was a journalist, feminist, screenwriter, blogger, producer, and director. Perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, she was a journalist first, bringing humor to the world of news.

When I covered the life and journalism of Nancy Hicks Maynard, I encountered the problem of not having enough material. This was NOT the case with Ephron. Her work has been compiled into at least three collections including The Most of Nora Ephron (edited by Robert Gottlieb) which I used for this installment.

Nora was born in New York City in 1941. When she was about five years old, her parents, who were screenwriters, moved their family to Hollywood. For her, the journalism bug bit early in high school. She attended Wellesley College for women where she would later give a commencement address to the class of 1996. Ephron began her career at Newsweek as a mail girl and worked her way up. She quickly learned the women at Newsweek were not allowed to be writers –– The highest rank they could reach was “researcher”, a not-so-fancy term for fact-checker.

“With hindsight, of course, I can see how brilliantly institutionalized the sexism was at Newsweek. For every man, an inferior woman.” (The Most of Nora Ephron, pg.8)

She left Newsweek but participated in a lawsuit against the magazine for sexual discrimination. Even before leaving Newsweek, she wrote a parody article for a small publication, which landed her a job at the New York Post where she was a reporter for five years. From there, she began writing for magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan.

During the mid-70s, Ephron was married to her second husband (of three), journalist Carl Bernstein. Together they co-wrote a screenplay for the film adaptation of All the President’s Men, following the Watergate scandal. That screenplay was not ultimately used, but it helped her get future screenwriting gigs. She knew the identity of Deep Throat (Mark Felt) and told people if they asked, though most people didn’t believe her. Ephron and Bernstein’s marriage came to an abrupt end when she discovered his affair while she was pregnant with their second child.

Ephron turned her heartbreak into Heartburn, a mostly autobiographical novel (1982), and an accompanying screenplay (1986). Heartburn was followed by When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Julia and Julia (2009), among others. She was also the writer of three plays, including Love, Loss, and What I Wore (2008).

She died in 2012 from pneumonia resulting from an acute form of leukemia.

The Woman Who Didn’t Believe in Objectivity

(See pg 3 For Proof)

The first thing I’ll say is Nora Ephron did not shy away from getting personal. She puts herself INTO the story and freely gives her opinions. Typically, journalists are taught NOT to do this –– unless you can make it work, and even if you can, avoid it. Long story short: she could and she did. Ephron has the most colorful and humorous style of any journalist I’ve read. She uses words and phrases like prosaic, “long dingy hall”, relic, bare-bones, “morbid fantasy”, squished and coveted, to name a few. More so, I found the WAY she puts words together rather the individual words she uses are where the real magic lies. It just flows.

I thought it apt to begin with her account of how she fell in love with journalism. She tells, in vivid detail, about the start of her career. I think this was a good piece to have at the beginning because it familiarizes readers with the most of what Nora Ephron is all about.

“But for many years I was in love with journalism. I loved the city room. I loved the pack. I loved smoking and drinking scotch and playing dollar poker. I didn’t know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn’t have to. I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines. I loved that you wrapped the fish.” (“Journalism: A Love Story”, pg.12)

One of the next and most poignant articles I dove into was about the controversial Boston photographs. “They are pictures of death in action, of that split-second when luck runs out, and it is impossible to look at them without feeling their extraordinary impact and remembering, in an almost subconscious way, the morbid fantasy of falling, falling off a building, falling to one’s death.” (“The Boston Photographs”, pg.26) These images, published in hundreds of papers across America, caused uproar and backlash over what was or was not appropriate to publish in newspapers. This piece took me by surprise. It was not the kind of article I expected to find by one of the funniest women I’ve encountered. It takes a certain skill to be able to write in different styles and moods and it sets dynamic writers apart from the rest of the fold. In this article, Ephron raises several points worthy of discussion –– though uncomfortable to witness, even through pictures, death is a major part of life. Why not print those photos? Even so, editors must weigh the audience’s potential reaction against the newsworthiness and find a middle ground.

fullsizeoutput_c4fAnother less appealing topic journalists have to cover are conventions. Sometimes, depending on the subject of the convention, it is hard to make it seem compelling to readers. One tidbit Ephron makes use of is the fact that one of the presenters, Thomas Friedman, sent a video of himself giving the speech in lieu of him actually being there. It may not seem as strange now in the era of Ted Talks, but I think I would rather be presented to in person. Other points of interest Ephron comments on are: pieces of conventional wisdom often prove to become false with time, Warren Buffett reigns as the king of panelists, and despite what Friedman said about technology breaking down the world’s walls, the earth is NOT flat, and we still have plenty of walls.

I want to take some time to talk about graduations. Originally I wasn’t going to read the commencement speech Ephron gave to the Wellesley graduates of ’96, but seeing as I graduated a few months ago, I thought I might as well.

I remember three things from my commencement address: the speaker’s odd fascination with mediocre cheese curds, a misplaced rant about gun control, and something about Trojan horses. I had envisioned hearing a more empowering or inspirational speech, and maybe she did say something to that degree, but I was to busy thinking about cheese curds to really hear it.

Though Ephron’s speech is as old as I am, I found it to have more of what I needed to hear. It was practical and had the right amount touches of humor and wisdom.

“What are you going to do? Everything is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind.” (“Commencement Address to Wellesley Class of 1996”, pg. 79)

Some of us grow up to be reporters or politicians, and some of us become political journalists who write about JFK’s favorite soup (tomato soup with sour cream). Theodore H. White was once the best writer of political campaign coverage until everyone else caught up. By 1975, when Ephron wrote about him for Esquire, he was tired, frustrated and far past his prime. Ephron presents this portrait in pure narrative form, almost turning White into a character. He is perpetually alone, reading or writing, or noticing the weather. He is fading away.

“The change, the invisible landslide of change, eluded him.” (“The Making of Theodore H. White”, pg. 53)

Here, Ephron paints a pitiful caricature of a once successful man. The narrative style of the article articulates the dangers of resisting change and lingering in the past more so than what a simple features piece might.

fullsizeoutput_c50Another character Ephron makes her own is Lisbeth Salander, the fictional protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A year before the American version of the film premiered, Ephron wrote a short parody scene entitled “Lisbeth Salander: The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut”. The danger Lisbeth faces this time: a broken umlaut key! If she can’t fix it, she and Mikael Blomkvist may never know where exactly they are in Sweden…

A Quick Word About Food

fullsizeoutput_c4eI cannot write about Nora Ephron without at least mentioning food. She was a self-proclaimed “foodie” and wrote many articles about it. Her novel, Heartburn is about a food writer and includes several recipes The food-related article I read praises a hot pastrami sandwich found in a Los Angeles delicatessen. This particular pastrami sandwiches so good because pastrami is apparently never that good and this one has tender, juicy meat (a must in most sandwiches, in fact). Another selling point is the bread is hot and fresh. In Nora’s words, “It’s a symphony orchestra, different instruments brought together to play one perfect chord… a work of art.” (“A Sandwich”, pg. 406)

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What I learned

I’ll try to stick to three items, but I could probably think of more.

1) Write in whatever style is comfortable: For Ephron, that was personal and witty. If hard news is your thing, go for it. If humor is more up your alley, go up that alley.

2) Even when things are working out well, it’s okay to move on: Nora was a good journalist, but she moved to magazines. When she wanted to move on to screenwriting, she did. And she didn’t give up journalism –– she continued to write.

3) Using ALL CAPS for emphasis is fine if used sparingly: USING ALL CAPS LIKE THIS FEELS LIKE SHOUTING AND IT’S UNNECESSARY! Only capitalizing ONE word is more effective. Note: Ephron often employed this technique for emphasis. She used it in the correct way.

Nancy Hicks Maynard: Unsung Trailblazer

Nancy Hicks Maynard was one of the first female African-American journalists for the New York Times. She was an owner of the Oakland Tribune, a founder and first president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE).

Despite these achievements, her work isn’t easy to find, unlike that of Bly or Mitchell. I spent what seemed like hours searching for some of her articles. In the end I was able to find two pieces written in the mid-90s and a textbook. I thought for her being one of the first female African-American journalists for a major newspaper, her work would have been better archived. There was little biography to consult. Learning about who Bly and Mitchell were outside of their careers was exciting and informative and I wanted that same opportunity with Nancy. Even with the limited resources at my disposal, I am determined to do Mrs. Maynard justice.

She was born Nancy Alene Hall in Harlem, New York City. Her interest in journalism began when the media misrepresented her community after a fire. After graduating from Long Island University with a degree in journalism, she began working for the New York Post as a copy girl. (A “copy girl” was a way to identify female copy editors.) About a year later, she was snatched up by the New York Times. Once she reached reporter status, she hit the streets covering strikes, race riots, campus takeovers, education, and health care. In the early 70s, she traveled to China to report on its medical system. She later covered NASA’s Apollo program.

In the late 70s, she and her husband Robert C. Maynard quit their respective jobs and founded an institute for budding minority journalists. The institute now bears Robert’s name as the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. The institute is dedicated to helping journalists of color find jobs in news media. Nancy served as its first president and sat on the board until 2002.

At the time the institute was founded, 4% of journalists in major American newsrooms were of color. Now, the percentage has climbed to about 16.6%, according to the American Society of News Editors.

During the 80s, the Maynards bought the struggling Oakland Tribune. As publishers, they helped the paper recover financially and bring more diversity into the newsroom until Robert’s death in ’93.

Nancy Maynard died in 2008 due to organ failure.

Speculation on the Future of News Media

Unlike the other women I’ve been studying, Maynard’s style is far more serious. Out of the three so far, she writes the most like a typical journalist. That is to say, she focuses more on facts than people. (At least this is true for the articles I was able to find.) While I enjoy writing that features emotion and personality over facts and figures, it certainly is NOT a detriment to Maynard’s style. Without a personal angle, Maynard is able to provide an abundance of information on a rather nebulous subject: the future of journalism.

In all the work I had access to, she speculates on the future of news media, a topic journalists are still debating about. In “Managing the Future” she says newspapers serve two masters–– advertisers and readers. For the “media triangle” to avoid a collapse into a straight line, newspapers need to find a way to remain relevant and integral to the process. Maynard writes to do so is more difficult than it sounds.

“General news is omnipresent. It has become a commodity that doesn’t command a high commercial value.”

She explains that audiences appreciate predictability which general news lacks. To a large extent, each day in news is different. In contrast, sports news follows a pattern. In each game there will be a winner and a loser and fans can expect a rundown of significant plays and have access to game statistics. While Maynard remains neutral on the subject, I think the lack of expectation is what makes “general” news exciting.

Maynard moves on to conjecture on how people receive news in the future. It wasn’t spot on but I did find it interesting to read where people in the mid-90s saw the future heading.

“With fax and color-copying technology, each household could become its own printing site — at a fraction of the cost of traditional newspaper printing and delivery.”

Thankfully, the internet became the go-to place for news instead of the fax machine.

Maynard opens her next piece on Media Economics by asking “Where Is Page One in Cyberspace?”. In the digital world, where does everything begin? In digital (as well as print) journalism, what comes first––an idea or the money to fund the idea? She wasn’t able to answer the question definitively, but in the course of the article she makes the case for money being an important factor in how a pitch becomes a story. Maynard investigated how much money it took to crack big stories such as Watergate or the Pentagon Papers. The Answer: Lots. Once papers spend a fortune on investigation, they need to sell or bring in enough ad revenue to cover the costs. As Maynard writes, “Good journalism can be profitable.”

By the time I got around to reading Chapters One and Two of her book Mega Media, I was frustrated. Why couldn’t I find any of her early work? Why did I have to resort to reading a textbook? (Reading textbooks would be a lot more fun and manageable if more were done in comic form!) But Nancy herself helped me come to terms with my dilemma.

Chapter One is about news going digital. Back when computers were the size of whole rooms, it was harder to preserve content and it was expensive to track down old news. Before 1995 and the increased usage of the World Wide Web, news was perishable. Now,

“The digitization of the news, then, is like food refrigeration: All presumptions about freshness, perishability, production, and delivery times and methods are in the consumer’s favor. Search engines “defrost” information when we want it. The public largely controls what it knows and when it knows it.”

Maybe this is why Maynard’s articles aren’t able to be “defrosted” for me––perhaps no one really collected her old articles to be digitized. Before, I didn’t think about all those journalists before Maynard whose writing has since been lost.

Mega Media focuses heavily on the digital age and how embracing it makes news better. With content and statistics stored digitally, the process of gathering material is much faster. Older ways of content collection, like using the telephone, are still effective and digital methods can act as a helping hand.

Speaking of content gathering, how important is the distribution of the content? In fact, which is more important–– the content or the distribution? In recent months, I’ve heard many people say content is king. However, Maynard explains in Chapter Two of her book a combination of the two hits the sweet spot. Even good content can’t make it on its own. It must go through several channels before it can become effective. On the flip side, it won’t matter if the message is distributed through a hundred channels, if the content is not up to snuff.

Let’s go back to the question of Nancy Maynard herself. I did happen to find a tapped interview with her on the Maynard Institue’s website. Unsure how much this would yield, I saved it for last. I should have started with it. In this two-hour interview, she narrates her journey from childhood to adulthood in elaborate detail. She had storytelling in her veins. In person, she was animated and could recall the past in such elaborate detail. I learned New York Times editors were her professors at Long Island University, she worked on her campus newspaper, and was able to get a job at The New York Post right after graduation. Though she was at the post for a little over a year, she was there at the same time Nora Ephron was! At the Times, she struggled with her editors because of her race and gender, but she stuck it out and moved departments. By moving departments, she was able to experience more than the education beat and flourished in science and health care. In the 70s, her editors wouldn’t pay for her to go to China for a story, so she paid her own way, and her story made the front page. She said she was never afraid to go out on assignments alone, a feat she credits to her youth and naivety. Maynard wasn’t afraid of risks as she left one uncertainty for another. Her job at the Times could end at any time, and the move to Oakland might not work out. But it did work out, and she was able to help hundreds of minority journalists achieve their goals. Lastly, while running the institute and raising children, Maynard found time to attend Stanford Law School.

What I Learned:

Listening to Nancy talk about her life and her career was like turning on a lightblub.

Be tenacious in everything: Like with the other two women I’ve encountered through this project, Nancy had to work for what she wanted. Because of her race, she had to work harder for some opportunities. By not letting others tell her what she could or couldn’t do, she was able to accomplish a lot.

Be open to sharing knowledge and resources: Nancy quit her job at the Times to use her experience and resources to help others like her to become journalist and to increase the percentage of journalists of color in newsrooms. Extraordinary things can happen when people come together and help each other out.