When people tell stories about Nellie Bly, they often tell about her first big series in the Pittsburgh paper.
They tell how Nellie went into the factories and revealed the hidden truth about how badly young women were being treated.
Over her career, that’s exactly the kind of thing Nellie did: She went where no other reporters went and told stories no other reporters could find.
But not yet. Those stories they tell are exaggerated. In March of 1885, Nellie Bly still had a lot to learn about how to be a reporter.
Still, she had some good ideas.
She suggested a series of stories about the young women in the factories, and her editors let her write eight nice, long stories, one each Sunday for two months.
Nellie wrote about the women, and what kind of work they did, and what the factories looked like. She even wrote about the little girls, eight and nine and ten years old, who worked in the factories.
But she hadn’t yet learned one of a reporter’s most important skills: Knowing when someone isn’t telling you the whole story, and figuring out how to get the facts that nobody wants you to know.
It was a good series of stories, but it didn’t criticize the factories.
It didn’t say little children shouldn’t have to work. And it didn’t reveal any big secrets.
Writing that kind of series would take a more experienced reporter than Nellie Bly.
When the factory series ended, the editors began to assign their new reporter to the kinds of stories that women usually wrote about: Gardening and fashion.
Here’s what Nellie was learning about working at a newspaper: Sometimes you have to write about things you don’t care very much about. Still, if you are proud of your work, and proud of your byline, you have to write the most interesting stories you can, even if you aren’t excited about the subject.
So Nellie Bly wrote the most interesting stories she could about gardening and fashion.
But here’s something else she was learning about working at a newspaper: If, before the editors think of something for you to do, you come up with your own ideas, you’ll often get to write about what you want to write about.
So Nellie got to write more about her favorite subject: Poor girls in the city. She wrote a column saying that someone should provide a safe, clean place for girls without money or nice clothes to go have a good time.
A wealthy woman wrote to the newspaper to say she would help pay for such a place. Others wrote in to say how much they appreciated Nellie Bly’s interest in the subject.
”If we had more people like Nellie Bly to think of something for the good of the working girls, it would be better for us,” said one writer.
Nellie would always be interested in the problems of poor women and children. After nine months at the newspaper, however, she began to think about her career. She still had to write too many stories like the one about a new kind of rubber raincoat.
She was 21 years old already, and she did not want to write about rubber raincoats for the rest of her life.
She needed to do something big, something that would get her away from rubber raincoat stories forever.
Her mother was making money by running a boarding house, a place where people could rent rooms and eat around the dining room table almost like a family.
Several of the young men who stayed there worked for the railroad. They liked Mrs. Cochrane’s smart, pretty young daughter, Pink. They used to play practical jokes on her, even though she never thought the jokes were funny. Or maybe that was why they played practical jokes on her.
One night, they tied strings between the chairs. When Nellie came walking through the darkened room with her long, confident stride, she tripped on the strings and fell.
She lay on the floor in a pile of chairs and string, shouting angrily for her mother while the young railroaders laughed and laughed.
But the young men did something Nellie did like: They told her exciting stories about all the distant places they had been to.
Those were the stories Nellie wanted to tell! She wanted to do a kind of reporting that no other women were doing. She wanted to go to faraway places nobody in Pittsburgh had ever seen.
Like Mexico! Nellie had met some people from Mexico who stopped in Pittsburgh on a business tour of the United States.
You could take a train all the way from Pittsburgh to Mexico, if you were curious enough and had the courage to go far from home.
How exciting it would be, to go way down south to Mexico and write a series of articles to tell everyone back home all about it!
You understand, young women didn’t just jump on board trains and go off to Mexico in those days.
That was exactly why Nellie wanted to do it! She got permission from her editors to write the series, persuaded her mother to come along, and then Nellie Bly jumped on board a train to Mexico!