Mashable pushes readers to reevaluate Miss America’s standards

The high-school principal who helps students resist the call of Philadelphia’s roughest streets. The transgender woman who was spat on after publicly shaving her head in a push for equality. The self-described “shy” mother who rallied for paid sick leave at the White House.

These are some of the 16 women profiled in Mashable’s four-part multimedia series The Real Miss America, which published its closing chapter on Tuesday. The project blasts the stereotype of the pageant contestant as a two-dimensional woman in a glitzy dress. Reporter Rebecca Ruiz decided to use the 95th annual Miss America Pageant, which ended on Sunday, as a launchpad for a larger discussion about the culture of modern pageantry. Rather than “celebrating a woman’s potential only when we can score her body and beauty,” she says, it’s time to recognize women for what they do, not how they look. It’s a laudable move from Mashable, which has been venturing further into stories of substance.

The resulting collection of vignettes offers not only a departure from society’s long-cradled perceptions of beauty and women’s worth–it offers a tangible alternative to the seemingly nonstop beauty pageant-bashing of recent years.

“There is, I’m sure, a skepticism among readers around this subject in particular, to say, ‘Ugh, someone else complaining about the pageant. Get over it,’” says Ruiz, a feature writer who covers gender, sexuality, and equality. “But this isn’t about coming up with a list of complaints. It’s about finding ways to expand our definition of what it means to be a woman today and how we can be more inclusive.”

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Of course, this kind of journalism flirts with advocacy, but The Real Miss America narrowly avoids that trap. The series’ four installments are titled, chronologically: “Miss Equality,” “Defending pageants,” “Miss Body Positive,” and “Miss Next Generation.” Some are bolstered by short video segments. Ruiz and her team–an editor, video producers, and an illustrator–are careful to let their subjects do most of the talking. The series also includes interviews with people from the Miss Universe and Miss America contests. One chapter even defends pageants, citing their favorable effects, in the form of confidence-building and scholarships, on some participants.

Mashable’s guiding perspective here is both fair and head-smackingly obvious: In American society (along with most others), women still don’t have  equal footing with men professionally, socially, or otherwise (here’s one recent example of far too many), and it’s the job of journalists to amplify their voices.

Like its digital peers, Mashable has grown headstrong in championing issues adopted by its largely millennial audience. The most noticeable examples include same-sex marriage and climate change. Jim Roberts, executive editor and chief content officer, says he doesn’t run a “crusading publication,” but he adds that his writers will speak, and speak loudly, the truths gleaned from their reporting.

Mashable, founded in 2005 as a hub for coverage of emerging social media, now has 120 editorial staffers across the globe. While its tech roots remain firmly planted, Roberts says he’s pushed the website to expand its coverage to the events and concepts held dear by the social media generation.

Undertakings like The Real Miss America and The Faces of Transgender Teen America require resources and ambitious reporting. Some might argue that those resources would better serve policy-heavy enterprise pieces (Ruiz says those stories are on the way). But these innovative, youth-geared takes go far beyond the aggregation and light dives into online culture that have long been the backbone of tech blogs, though Mashable still hasn’t totally veered away from such fare. “If somebody comes to me with a really good idea and says, ‘I need some time to make this happen,’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it,’ ” Roberts adds.

Just as it’s difficult to imagine old-guard newspapers printing a series like The Real Miss America, it was once tough to envision an outlet like Mashable funneling time and money into a project of this scope. This collision of millennial values and committed reporting represents the next stage of journalism on the Web, and it has yielded praiseworthy stories du jour for plenty of sites, from Vox and BuzzFeed to Business Insider and Fusion. Mashable’s most recent step confirms yet again that aggregators can grow into newsrooms that do real journalism, too.

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha