When Rita Henley Jensen felt that women weren't getting the media attention they deserved, she stepped up to the plate. Now her Women's eNews service reaches about 3 million people daily
Some people allow passion to drive their search for a career. Others use logic and reason to guide that decision. For Rita Henley Jensen, it has been a combination of both.
As a young single mother of two in the late 1970s, she decided to become a journalist because of the stability the profession could provide. More than a quarter-century later, she has leveraged that experience into a career so full of passion and commitment that she is determined to change the attitude and slant of commercial - she prefers that word to "mainstream" - media one article at a time.
Jensen is the editor-in-chief and founder of Women's eNews, a nonprofit news service whose mission is to bridge the news gender gap. "I think people are deeply dissatisfied with most news media," she says.
Yet it was her experience in the traditional media that eventually led to the development of Women's eNews. Fresh out of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she got a job as a reporter at a Paterson, NJ, newspaper.
"I came to Paterson with an Ivy League degree, but a more hardscrabble background," Jensen recalls, adding that she was divorced and on welfare at the time. Because covering typical events like town meetings would have required her to work at night - something not conducive to single parenting - she says she purposely sought out stories that she could complete during regular business hours.
That mindset was not only beneficial for her situation as a single mom, but turned out to be good for her career, too. She wrote series of articles on such topics as racial bias in education in Paterson and corrupt activities within the Police Department. Reporting on such controversial topics is something that came as second nature to Jensen. "This was shortly after the Watergate era," she says nonchalantly. "I thought it was what we were supposed to do."
Her career continued at several other publications on the East Coast, but it was while she was in the middle of an Alicia Patterson fellowship that she became motivated to do more for women's representation in the media by an unlikely source: Newt Gingrich. At the time, Gingrich was working to drastically reduce or end welfare benefits, something Jensen thought the news media wasn't sufficiently covering.
"I was ashamed of my profession," she stresses. "[The coverage] was never about women alone raising kids, which is what welfare is about."
At that point, Jensen became determined to fix the situation. "I had to figure out how to use journalism to tell women's stories because they weren't [being told] in the media," she explains. But she soon found that there was no commercial market for women's news.
Through a twist of fate, a few years later, while teaching journalism at Hunter College, the National Organization for Women (NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund asked Jensen to start a news service about women's issues. Thus, Women's eNews was born.
The website launched in June 2000 and has been publishing every day since. There have been some changes along the way, Jensen reports. After 9/11, for example, NOW wanted to discontinue the service because of funding issues. But Jensen was determined to keep the service going, and so she decided to branch out on her own.
One of the most noticeable changes in Women's eNews since its inception is the current inclusion of international issues. "What's [taking place] on the other side of the ocean [provides] some compelling stories," she says. In 2003, the site launched an Arabic-language version to tap into a core audience. Jensen adds that she is hoping to develop a Japanese site in the future.
Robin Hindery, a writer with the Associated Press international desk and former writer at Women's eNews, says that she was immediately impressed by Jensen's passion for having women's issues addressed in the media.
"From the very beginning, you're just knocked over by her energy," she says. "Any time you start an organization, you're passionate about it, but she just seems to have these unlimited reserves."
That dedication has not gone unnoticed. Both Jensen and Women's eNews have garnered numerous honors; she was recognized as best editor of a website by the National Federation of Press Women, and the site has been recognized by the National Women's Political Caucus for its coverage of domestic violence. In addition, the New York Daily News named her one of the 100 women who shape lives in New York City.
Loreen Arbus, former executive at Showtime and current owner of a television production company, says that Jensen's success has been executing a "groundbreaking" vision. "Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's figuring out how to take an idea, mobilize and implement it that truly makes it significant," she says.
"Rita has truly done it all," Arbus continues. "At the helm of any success ... there's always someone in charge. Rita is the visionary, the fearless leader, the person who has plotted and planned. She's the general."
Nancy O'Brien, deputy opinion editor of the New York Daily News, says that she often passes along story ideas she sees on Women's eNews to other editors and reporters at the newspaper. "It's just always there giving you the information that you may not get in the traditional publications," she says.
For Jensen, spreading that information is the ultimate goal. And there's a role for everyone to play. PR pros, she says, are particularly important because they serve as the conduit to the media. Choosing female spokespeople for clients when possible is one way to help, she says.
For now, Women's eNews is making serious strides. Nearly 3 million people read the service's daily e-mails, and 250,000 people visit the site each month, all of which is good news to Jensen.
"I hope the time comes when women are equally represented," she says. "As we can tell, we have a long way to go."
Rita Henley Jensen
Editor and founder, Women's eNews
Director, Women, Policy, and Media program, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund
Lecturer in journalism, Hunter College
Alicia Patterson fellow
Newspaper and magazine reporter, editor, and writer