The best advice Gail Collins has for prospective journalists is to work for nearly bankrupt newspapers.
While her advice sounds comical, that is how the current New York Times editorial page editor worked her way up the journalism ranks. Collins spoke of her newspaper experience to the Quinnipiac University community as she kicked off the 8th Annual Celebrating Women’s Creativity Conference on March 22.
“Journalism is a dicey business,” said Collins, who entertained student and faculty questions before her keynote speech. “You really have to love it or at least find it very entertaining.”
There is no mistaking Collins’ love for journalism. She got her start in Connecticut, working as a weekly columnist for the Connecticut Business Journal, a senior editor for Connecticut Magazine and a journalism professor at Southern Connecticut State University.
Collins’ then joined the New York Daily as a columnist until 1991 when she started at New York Newsday. She joined the New York Times in 1995, as a columnist for the Op-Ed page. Then in June 2001, Collins was promoted and became the first female editorial page editor at the Times.
She has also written two books, including “The Millennium Book.”
“It’s strange to think so many people are reading what you are writing,” said Collins. “It gives you an incredible sense of responsibility.”
After her session with journalism students and faculty, Collins was whisked away to a short reception and then was off to the law school’s Grand Courtroom.
Collins first spoke of women’s history, an admitted obsession of hers and the subject of her latest book. She reminded the audience of a time, not so long ago, when women were silenced by custom.
“First you need something to say, and as far as I can tell that’s never been a problem for women,” said Collins. “Second, you need a right to say it.”
Looking up at the crowded courtroom, Collins told the story of pioneers Anne Hutchinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Hutchinson was accused of heresy in the 1800s for speaking about religious subjects with women during childbirth and to groups of men and women, which at the time was considered “promiscuous.” She was later banished to Long Island where she was later killed.
Whenever Stowe, a talented writer and orator, was asked to speak she would sit in the balcony while her husband read her prepared speech to the “promiscuous audience.”
“We stand on a great many women’s shoulders,” said Collins. “Although they were occasionally sneaky, they were never afraid to speak.”
Collins then turned the subject of her speech to Sept. 11, a tragedy that occurred only three months after she was promoted to an editor position. The Times staff did extraordinary things to get to work that day, according to Collins.
One editor took a pontoon across the Hudson River from New Jersey. Another photographer was at the base of one of the towers, snapping pictures, when it collapsed. She dove under a fire truck and came back to the office covered in white dust.
Because of heightened security measures, Times employees now wear badges, participate in more fire drills and have more escape routes. Their mail is also steamed to prevent against anthrax, so it arrives “late and sort of crispy,” said Collins.
The tragedy also impacted the Times in another way. Collins’ department receives 600-700 letters to the editor on a normal day, mostly through E-mail. After Sept. 11, they were receiving 600-700 letters an hour.
But while Collins’ job has its stressful days and trying moments, her enthusiasm is overwhelming.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “Writing editorials is an art form. It takes a little practice.”