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Ms. Finds Some Muscle

New editor hopes to bring a harder edge and broader focus

July 11, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As carpenters hammered and drilled away in Ms. magazine's not-yet-finished Beverly Hills offices, Tracy Wood--named this week the publication's new editor in chief--sat down to talk about the future of the often-struggling feminist publication co-founded in 1972 by Gloria Steinem.

Given that Wood is a former investigative journalist for The Times and the Orange County Register, it is no surprise that she intends to pursue hard-edged stories. "I'm a news person," she says. "I'm not fluffy."

She speaks of investigative stories that "will have an immediate focus on women, but a larger focus on society as a whole. There are some obvious areas. All you have to do is look at the Taliban. Right away they went after women. Wherever that happens, there has to be a voice that's not afraid and speaks very clearly and has a wide audience."

She wants Ms. stories to expose wrongdoing and to spur reactions "that protect women from those kinds of overt abuses." Further, Wood says, the magazine--which last year was bought by the Feminist Majority Foundation and is now operating as a nonprofit--will "absolutely" have more of an international focus, with a regular world section under the direction of an editor "very experienced in world affairs," not necessarily an American journalist, but "somebody to help us keep track of all the major things that affect women--such as world slavery--and put them in context."

Wood, who grew up in Fanwood, a small New Jersey town, knew early on that she wanted to be a foreign correspondent. So off she went to the University of Missouri to study journalism--and was persuaded by CBS correspondents visiting the university to opt instead for a broader curriculum. She wound up with a dual major in economic geography and religious philosophy but left college at the end of three years when a summer job at City News Service in Los Angeles, where her parents had relocated, led to a permanent job offer.

She then joined the UPI news agency, which sent her to Sacramento and New York and, in the spring of 1972, to Vietnam as a combat correspondent. She has chronicled her experiences there in a book, "War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam," to be published in August by Random House. It is a compilation of the stories of nine women who covered that war from "before it was even on people's horizon up through the last emergency helicopter evacuation."

Her chapter, Wood says, is titled "Spies, Lovers and Prisoners of War," which "kind of sums it up. It covers how I got there, which was over the objections of the foreign editor, who did not want to send a woman, and my introduction to combat. We were all in our 20s, and virtually none of us had any combat experience. We learned on the scene how to cover a war and learned firsthand what death looks like close up."

It was a defining moment in her life, "my coming of age. There's a part of you that wishes you never had gone because it hardens you, but life hardens people one way or another." Wood covered the arrival in Saigon of the Viet Cong and the release of the American prisoners of war in Hanoi.

It is that background in hard news that she will bring to Ms. She is reluctant to talk about specific stories that will run in the Oct. 1 issue, the first under her stewardship, for fear of being scooped. But she promises that Ms. will cover everything from sports to current events and that "even the features will have a news edge."

Despite the magazine's shaky financial history, Wood says, she jumped at the chance to be editor. "If you're an investigative person and a woman, it's almost like they created the job for me." But she said her hard-news orientation does not preclude publication of fiction and poetry, as has been traditional. Some of the issues Ms. will continue to address are ones it tackled 30 years ago. Domestic violence, for example, has not gone away, Wood says, but "today there are places for women to go" so it's no longer a matter of being "out there banging on walls" to call attention to the problem. Rather, "we have to look at what still needs to be done, and we also have to support what has been done."

The anti-abortion forces are going to be fighting "till their last breath," Wood says--just as Ms. will be fighting for a woman's right to choose. "There's no change there."

Workplace issues still need to be resolved. In her generation, says Wood, who is in her 50s, "we made choices" within an imperfect system. But today's young women often are trying to figure out how not to lose ground in the career race without shortchanging their husbands, children and themselves. "Child care is still a massive issue." Wood hopes this type of story will attract the young readers it seeks. (She estimates the magazine's average reader is between 35 and 50).

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