Saturday, May 29, 2021

Media: "On the 'Girl Stunt Reporters' Who Pioneered a New Genre of Investigative Journalism"

When I read that Nellie Bly had done this my first though was "But what if she couldn't get out?"
Those places would drive you nuts.

From Literary Hub, April 16:

Kim Todd Remembers the Fearless Women Who Changed the Trajectory of Memoir and Reporting 

The Chicago Times’s Girl Reporter might seem exceptional in her readiness to risk scandal to tell a story no one else would, but she was not alone. The same script was playing out in cities from coast to coast. She was just one of the nation’s “girl stunt reporters,” pioneering a new genre of investigative journalism, going undercover to reveal societal ills. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, women from Colorado to Missouri to Massachusetts dressed in shabby clothes and sneaked into textile mills to report on factory conditions, slipped behind the scenes at corrupt adoption agencies, fainted in the street to test treatment at public hospitals.

At the time, American journalism, a field on the cusp of professionalization, was plotting its future. A revolution in printing technology made putting out a paper cheaper than ever before, and an influx of immigrants offered a tantalizing new audience. Newspaper rooms, from San Francisco’s Examiner to New York’s World, battled viciously for market share with weapons of scandal and innovation. In the process, they shaped the growing metropolis, reflecting it back to itself. On the one hand, cities were engines of opportunity; on the other, magnets for sin. They drew people seeking better lives and sometimes swallowed them.

Publishers were looking for a new kind of story to fill those numerous pages, to tempt those new readers, to stoke their anxieties but also feed their hopes. And when Nellie Bly’s 1887 “Inside the Madhouse” series for the World hit the streets of New York, readers couldn’t get enough. She had faked insanity to get committed to the asylum at Blackwell’s Island so she could document the starvation and abuse of patients.

Even more compelling than the situation she revealed was the way she told the story—a firsthand account from a charismatic narrator, filled with dramatic twists and laced with warmth and humor. The exposé sold thousands of copies of the World, resulted in the municipality committing $50,000 for better asylum management, and created a publishing sensation.

Slipping on a disguise and courting danger suddenly became a way for writers to get a foot in the door. By crafting long-form narratives that stretched over weeks and read like novels, using engaging female narrators to explore issues of deep concern to women, and promising real-world results, stunt reporters changed laws, launched labor movements, and redefined what it meant to be a journalist. These footloose exploits were so sought after by readers and publishers that reporters willing to attempt them commanded high pay. And, while in 1880 it was almost impossible for a woman writer to escape the household hints of the ladies’ page (the kind of writing one female journalist termed “prostitution of the brains”), by 1900, papers were publishing more bylines by women than men....


Also at LitHub, a couple years earlier:
The Reporter Who Went Undercover at an Asylum