Three Things About the PW Gender Discrimination Suit

A female former Philly journalist responds.

I should start by saying that I don’t know Tara Murtha. We tumbled around in the same circles when I was at City Paper and then at Metro, so I’m familiar with her work — and have nothing but respect for it, especially her excellent animal rights coverage — but I don’t know her. I also don’t know what her day-to-day job was like at Philadelphia Weekly. It very well could have been a hostile, litigation-worthy, oh-hells-no discriminatory environment.

What I do know, however, is what it’s like to work in a noisy, messy, inappropriate newsroom around the clock for no money. This is part of the job. Some days, it’s all of the job.

Some thoughts on her suit:

“Plaintiff complained about excessive noise by male co-workers while she was trying to conduct a telephone interview with a Pennsylvania state senator. Rather than correct the frat house atmosphere of the office, an office supervisor allegedly told Plaintiff to ‘go find an empty room and close the door.'”

This is the passage most people who have even stepped foot in a newsroom won’t be able to get past. Because here’s the reality of working at a newspaper: People get loud. People get rowdy. Occasionally people get angry and toss out swears you’ll have to Google. Eventually, people get drunk and forgive each other. Notice we’re talking about “people” here — not just the frat boys, but the women, too. If you’re working at a newspaper in 2013, you’d better be a feisty cookie with a sense of humor — it’s a tough job, it’s only getting tougher, and it attracts a tough crowd who aren’t worried about your feelings. This isn’t a “boys’ club” — it’s a club of people insane, damaged and hilarious enough to still be doing this job when Buzzfeed exists.

“One male colleague’s cubicle was decorated with pictures of naked and/or scantily clad women” and despite Murtha’s complaints “no action was ever taken to address… [his] onanistic aspirations.”

I get it — this might not fly at your office. And fine, this isn’t a garage, so I suppose you can reasonably expect to not have nude photos hanging up (or, as the lawsuit later calls them, “pornography displays”). It’s probably a valid point in a lawsuit. But again, this is a newsroom. There are inappropriate, offensive things everywhere — your job is frequently inappropriate and offensive. As someone who has written the gossip page during Lohangate and interviewed Real Housewives, I can attest that there’s plenty of day-to-day, part-of-the-job icky to go around in media. (I would, however, like to give a shout out to Murtha’s lawyer for introducing me to the word “onanistic.”)

Murtha was paid “approximately $40,000 per year,” a salary that was later decreased to $38,000 after a pay cut. A new-hire male counterpart was hired at $40,000 despite Murtha’s “comparatively superlative academic and professional credentials.”

What’s most shocking about this part is how many of my media friends and ex-pats were shocked to hear that any staff writer at PW was making $40K. Not because this seems so incredibly low for a talented and respected journalist (although bring me into your world, marketing crew). But because this was a little more than we expected. The truth is that no one really cares about your superlative anything when the industry is tanking this hard and fast — there’s no money, and there’s always an intern willing to do it for much less and add video. A Pulitzer isn’t going to save you, let alone any of the awards (which are numerous and impressive) listed in this lawsuit.

Murtha and her male colleague were both significantly underpaid. Did he make slightly more because he was a man? Possibly, and if so, that’s shameful and very may well qualify as gender discrimination. But I’m guessing it was because they’re both worth way more, and he asked for $50,000 and PW got an incredible bargain either way.

Before taking refuge in the Emerald City of copywriting, Monica Weymouth was an editor at City Paper and Metro newspapers. She loved it, but they wouldn’t hire her dog.