First Journalism Fellow is Jane Eisner ’77

Olivia DrakeJanuary 19, 201010min
Jane Eisner '77 is Wesleyan's first Koeppel Fellow in Journalism.
Jane Eisner '77 is Wesleyan's first Koeppel Fellow in Journalism.

Q: Jane, you are Wesleyan’s first Fellow in Journalism, a position endowed by a member of the class of 1979. What class will you teach this spring?

A: I’ll teach a small seminar called “The Journalist as Citizen.” We’ll explore the many ways journalism has affected democracy and civic life in America. Mostly, we’ll write and write. For that reason, this isn’t just a class for aspiring journalists – it’s for anyone with an interest in public life who wants to improve his or her writing.

Q: You graduated from Wesleyan, cum laude, in 1977 and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in 1978. How did your time at Wesleyan prepare you for a career in journalism?

A: I really believe that the best preparation for journalism is a strong liberal arts education. The actual craft of writing and editing stories can be learned later, but fine journalism depends on an ability to analyze complex people and events, to be intellectually curious, and to care deeply about the world. And to be willing to question authority – something Wesleyan taught me!

Q: You worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years. What various positions did you hold there? What are topics of your most memorable assignments?

A: I was so fortunate to work for the Inquirer at its zenith, when the newsroom was exciting, exacting, filled with lots of opportunities. I covered local news, city and state government, and Western Europe as the London correspondent; I oversaw the features department, ran the editorial board and then, for my last five years, wrote a national column. By the time I left, I think I wrote for every section of the paper – even sports! Certainly the most exciting job I had was as a foreign correspondent, a position that sadly doesn’t exist anymore for the Inquirer and too many other papers who aren’t willing to invest in that sort of coverage. To live and report overseas was a great adventure. And my five and a half years as editorial page editor were a great privilege – a chance to shape the public agenda and to provide a forum to debate the great issues of the day. But for pure, old-fashioned reporting, there’s nothing like covering City Hall, which I did for several years — not only because Philadelphia politicians were such characters, but also because I wrote about subjects that had real impact on the lives of our readers.

Q: What other papers/publications have you written for?

A: I worked for The Hartford Courant and Norfolk Virginian Pilot. I also spent two and half years outside of journalism after I left the Inquirer, as vice president of the National Constitution Center.

Q: In 1976 you were the first woman editor of The Wesleyan Argus. In 2008, you became the first woman editor at the Forward newspaper. You’re also the first woman to win Wesleyan’s McConaughy Award for contributions to journalism and public life. When you began your career, did you find yourself working within a predominately male work force? Has this changed?

A: Oh, yes. When I became editor of the Argus, I was still the only woman on the entire editorial staff! It was me and the guys, working late on deadline nights, eating greasy food afterwards at the old O’Rourke’s diner on Main Street. (The new O’Rourkes is much nicer!) I was the first woman editorial page editor of the Inquirer, the first mother ever sent overseas – the list goes on, and it wasn’t just because of my abilities. I was fortunate to enter journalism at the very moment when opportunities were opening for women like me, when editors were willing to take a chance on someone different. I remain indebted to the brave women who paved the road for this transformation, and just as importantly, to my husband and family for supporting me. It can be lonely being first. Now, I’m pleased to say that at the Forward, the managing editor is a woman (also a first), and two of the five editors are women.

Q: You’re the author of the book, Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in our Democracy (Beacon Press 2004). What prompted you to write this, and do you have any other books in the works?

A: The book drew on years of reporting about civic life, but it also grew out of my experiences as a mother. I remember the first time my oldest daughter went to vote. You know, we make such a fuss of “firsts” for our children – the first time they drive, or go to the prom, or graduate kindergarten – but this central civic activity went almost entirely unnoticed. That got me to wonder about the message our society sends to young people about civic involvement and responsibility. It was a real pleasure to explore these ideas in book-length form. I have plenty of ideas for other books, but right now, editing the Forward and teaching at Wesleyan will keep me busy enough.

Q: How do you encourage students to pursue journalism despite the newspaper industry collapsing L across the country? Are there jobs in journalism? Where are new writers starting their careers?

A: Yes, there are jobs! I have hired more than a dozen people in the year and a half since I joined the Forward, and while you will never get rich doing this sort of journalism, there are great professional rewards. Journalism is obviously changing dramatically from an ink-on-paper enterprise to a multimedia profession, and sadly, many news organizations have diminished their commitment to aggressive reporting and exceptional writing. But there still are plenty of places, large and small, where fine journalism is practiced and I would encourage bright, talented Wesleyan students to pursue those jobs if that is their dream. Plus, journalists are some of the most creative, outlandish, entertaining people you will ever meet. After spending a few years away from a newsroom, I was so happy to return.

Q: Where are you from and where do you live now? How long will you be at Wesleyan?

A: Well, right now I live in two places, New York and Philadelphia. I live in Manhattan during the week, but my husband stays in our family home just outside Philly, where he works as an oncologist in a small biotech company helping to develop cancer drugs. So we take turns being in either city on weekends. Since all our children are in college and graduate school, this actually works! I will be on campus on Thursday evenings to teach and hold office hours, and plan to occasionally come for the day.

Q: What else should we know about our new Fellow in Journalism?

A: I have a great passion for teaching, having served as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania for five years and also a fellow of the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center at Bryn Mawr College. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to teach about writing and journalism at Wesleyan.