Journalism Halls of Fame as Public History

28 May 2020 8:48 AM | Melony Shemberger (Administrator)

By Kimberly Voss, Ph.D.

Professor, University of Central Florida

Journalism Halls of Fame often mirror the histories of journalism where the stories of white male trailblazers are widely lauded and institutionalized. Left in the margins or footnotes are women and people of color. When the portraits and busts that populate these shrines are primarily male, the echo chamber grows and these groups are forgotten or ignored by history.

Nominating important but overlooked journalists to these halls of fame is a way of engaging in public history.

Public history is largely defined as using historical methods outside of the academic world. Typically, it is the audience that differentiates the public historian’s work from more traditional historical fields. (This, of course, does not mean that researchers won’t use the information. One of the fashion editors I study, Madeleine Corey, has only been referenced in the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame.)

Two examples of women I’ve successfully nominated to state journalism halls of fame are Marjorie Paxson and Roberta Applegate, though the process is not easy. Both took repeated nominations before gaining entrance.

Marjorie Paxson

Paxson was a groundbreaking journalist who covered hard news for a wire service during World War II (an unheard of opportunity prior to the war) before being forced back into the women’s pages during peacetime – where she helped change the definition of women’s news. By the time she retired from journalism more than 50 years later, she had been one of the first female U.S. newspaper publishers and established the National Women and Media Collection (NWMC). She also was editor of Xilonen, the eight-page daily newspaper published for the United Nations World Conference for International Women’s Year held in Mexico City in 1975, played a significant part of the 1976 governmental report To Form a More Perfect Union and in 1963 was elected president of Theta Sigma Phi (now known as the Association for Women in Communications).

She was the fourth female publisher in Gannett — first at the Public Opinion in Pennsylvania (1978-1980) and then the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma (1980-1986). In Muskogee, she used her power to change her newspaper’s editorial stance that had been previously opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment and changed newsroom policy to allow women to wear pants — something that had been prohibited. She made a difference for female employees and women in her community.

Despite all the accomplishments throughout her journalism career, she was not a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, which I sought to correct. It took five years to get her inducted. (She would have been officially inducted posthumously in a March event but the virus postponed it. She will be officially honored in the fall.)

Roberta Applegate

Several years ago, I nominated women’s page editor (and later Kansas State University journalism professor) Roberta Applegate into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. Her father, Albert A. Applegate, was a longtime journalism professor at Michigan State University, and had been inducted into the Hall of Fame years earlier. It took two nomination attempts to get Roberta inducted, but when she was, it marked the first father-daughter combination in the hall. Along with her brother, I had the honor to speak at her induction ceremony.

After earning a master’s degree in journalism, Applegate covered the Michigan statehouse during World War II and went on to become one of the first women to be a press secretary to a governor. She then wrote for the top women’s pages in the country – at the Miami Herald. Ultimately, she became a journalism professor at Kansas State University where she subscribed to the leading women’s pages to help her students improve the sections.

Her inclusion in the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame means that Roberta Applegate is an official part of journalism history. She needed two nominations before earning her recognition. Part of the process was to submit numerous letters of recommendation – which is no easy feat considering that she died when I was in middle school. Luckily, she saved everything and the NWMC included her reference letters from the World War II era.

Marie Anderson

Fingers are crossed that legendary Miami Herald women’s page editor Marie Anderson gets inducted into the Florida Journalism Hall of Fame. Anderson’s section won so many Penney-Missouri Awards — the top recognition for the sections — that she was retired from the competition. She was a groundbreaking editor and became a regular speaker for newspapers across the country who wanted to improve women’s page news. 

I recently turned in the nomination paperwork for Anderson. Several more nominees will be sent in soon. It’s a way of making marginalized women visible. If you know of a woman or person of color who is a part of local journalism lore but has been left out of the historical record, consider engaging in an act of public history and nominate him or her to their state or regional journalism hall of fame. But be prepared to do it more than once — but it will be worth it for its contribution to public history.

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