A Woman's Touch: Jablonski Broke New Ground in Industry
W hen W. M. Jablonski's first story appeared on the front page of the N.Y. Journal of Commerce in 1944, readers found an important new voice in oil reporting.
Jablonski's analysis of the likelihood of fierce competition between coal and oil in America "hit the bull's eye," according to The Washington Post. As Jablonski had predicted, oil quickly overtook coal as the country's primary source of energy, turning the U.S. from net exporter into net importer. By 1948, oil prices had doubled -- to $3 a barrel.
The 28-year-old journalist's scoops and brilliant insight almost single-handedly put the Journal's oil page "on the map."
"Petroleum Comments," Jablonski's weekly column as the new petroleum editor, set new standards in business journalism for investigative reporting. Within a decade, W. M. Jablonski, whose influence on the international oil industry was unprecedented, came to be known by first name only: Wanda.
On Tuesday, Sept. 30, at 5 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, journalist and historian Anna Rubino will present her book, "Queen of the Oil Club," the first biography of the path-breaking journalist, publisher of "Petroleum Intelligence Weekly" -- the "bible of the oil industry," and a power broker so influential in the oil world that she was called "the midwife of OPEC."
"In addition to being a great story," says Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power," "Queen of the Oil Club' is a must read at $140 a barrel. Through this history, Rubino really helps to make sense of how we got to today's $4 gasoline."
Wanda Mary Jablonski was born in 1920, in Trnava, Slovakia. As a child she followed her father, a petroleum geologist for Mobil, to West Texas, New Zealand, and the Middle East. She learned the language of the oil business from him.
"She could talk derricks and drill bits because that's what she learned as a child," Rubino says. "And that's what helped open doors for her."
But many of those doors remained closed. After being refused entry to Yale, Princeton and Harvard (which didn't accept women), Wanda received a bachelor's degree from Cornell. She completed Columbia's graduate program in public law and government, with a specialization in international affairs, but left without turning in her thesis. When she sought work at the Council on Foreign Relations she was turned down because she couldn't type.
In late 1943, she got a job as a copy boy at $16 a week at the N.Y. Journal of Commerce, the main rival to the Wall Street Journal.
"I was hired because I could be underpaid," Wanda said. "The most important thing is opportunity, not equal pay."
Her byline for the next 13 years read "W. M. Jablonski." She didn't question the Journal's unwritten rule that women kept their sex hidden by using initials in their bylines. According to The Washington Post, "an economic story under a woman's byline just wouldn't have any credibility."
When she wanted to move from the Journal to The New York Times, she was told they weren't hiring women, and certainly not female business reporters.
Jablonski was repeatedly shut out of industry gatherings held at men-only clubs, and even denied a visa for the Persian Gulf states because there were no "facilities for lady visitors." In 1955, when her influence in the oil industry was unquestioned as international editor of the new oil magazine, Petroleum Week, she and other women were banned from Washington's National Press Club, not just as members, but also from actually setting foot inside the club.
Secrecy among the "Seven Sisters," the major oil companies that handled nearly half of the world's total petroleum production and trade, was legendary, making it a difficult industry to cover. In the tradition of J.D. Rockefeller, any effort to expose or explain the inner working of the business, particularly to reporters, constituted a threat, a violation of proprietary information; but protecting sources was a key component of Jablonski's modus operandi.
As a result, she gained the trust of both the oil executives and the oil ministers in the Middle East and Venezuela. The Economist's senior editor conceded that he never got the access Jablonski had. "She alone won the confidence of the most difficult, most egotistical, most prickly people in the world."
The chairman of Royal Dutch/Shell said, "Wanda was the only journalist I talked with and met regularly -- the only reporter who really knew the business. Information is power, and Wanda had it in spades."
During the next four decades Jablonski allowed herself to be a conduit, exchanging information on an international level with both the majors and the oil-producing countries, and did it on a scale bigger than any other reporter on oil or OPEC before or since. She produced the most extensive coverage in the western press on the emergence of nationalism as a serious challenge to the seemingly unassailable oil club.
In the process, she educated all sides -- oil nationalists as well as Western executives and diplomats about the complexities of the issues at stake. While the press often demeaned the efforts of Venezuela's and Saudi Arabia's oil ministers, Perez Alfonso and Abdullah Tariki, Jablonski's coverage gave them credibility -- and the confidence -- to lead the other oil-producing nations -- Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960.
In 1955, Jablonski warned that the U.S. was becoming too dependent on Arab oil. Less than 20 years later, in the middle of the 1973 Arab embargo that turned the oil world on its head overnight with prices skyrocketing to $10 a barrel, Wanda offered another warning:
"Given the decline in U.S. reserves, Americans need to cut consumption through strong conservation measures, stimulate output by decontrolling oil prices, and develop alternate sources of energy so we won't be dependent on foreign oil 20 years from now. The U.S. must cut its oil consumption because if it sends in troops to secure Arab oil, we'll have a showdown and no oil."
Anna Rubino, a journalist and historian, attended the University of Paris (Sorbonne), earned a bachelor's degree at Vassar, and two master's degrees and a doctorate from Yale. She has covered oil and business news from New York and Brussels, and worked as a reporter for Jablonski at Petroleum Intelligence Weekly for four years.
She is now working for OTR Global, a San Francisco-based investment news service, as a reporter specializing in the natural-food business. Rubino lives in Winston-Salem with her husband, Richard Schneider, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law.
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