Ethel May Jacobson was born at Lyttelton, New Zealand, on 6 September 1877, the seventh of fourteen children of Margaret Dougherty and her husband, Howard Charles Jacobson, owner and editor of the Akaroa Mail, and Banks Peninsula Advertiser. Her maternal grandmother, Sarah Dougherty, was an early settler and community leader in Marlborough. Ethel distinguished herself academically, winning a Junior Scholarship in 1895 while attending Christchurch Girls' High School, and two exhibitions, in 1898 and 1899, at Canterbury College. After graduating BA in 1900 and MA in English and French in 1901, she taught for two terms at Nelson College for Girls. However, in 1903 her father became ill and called her home to Akaroa to help with the paper. Even though she enjoyed teaching, she agreed to go.
Howard Jacobson died in 1910, leaving Ethel as editor and business manager on a salary of £150 a year 'besides reasonable clothing and maintenance'. He had been a domineering father and specifically excluded his rebellious eldest son, Howard, from any association with the business. Later, William, a younger brother, took over the business management and there was a staff of four in the printing department. Ethel remained editor for almost 50 years.
She recalled her earlier years as a journalist with humour and modesty: 'When I started off most people really meant it when they told women they had no brains.' To report events and meetings for the paper Ethel rode side-saddle all over Banks Peninsula; she wore a wide-brimmed hat and hobnailed boots. A large-boned woman with a striking if heavy-featured face and a cultured voice, she was a familiar sight on her horse, Captain. She also travelled by horse and gig, and by launch to Pigeon Bay and Port Levy. Forthright but kindly in her dealings with people, she was a competent writer and proud of her paper's high standard of reporting and printing. The Akaroa Mail was a tribute to her scholarship and ability.
Howard Jacobson had written small pieces for the Akaroa Mail on old identities and early historic events. In 1884 he had gathered these together with J. W. Stack's Maori history and George Hempleman's diary and published them in a book, Tales of Banks Peninsula, which was reprinted in 1893. A fire in 1900 destroyed all his manuscripts, although the back numbers of the Akaroa Mail were saved. Despite this seemingly insuperable loss, Ethel brought out a third edition in 1917. In its preface she emphasised the authority of first-hand accounts from the pioneer settlers. She was also primarily responsible for the publication and production of the centennial history, Akaroa and Banks Peninsula, 1840–1940.
After her father's death Ethel Jacobson continued to live with her mother and sisters Alice, Mabel and Barbara at their nine-acre family residence, Mt Leinster, in Rue Balguerie. The women shared the household tasks, kept pigs and turkeys, and sawed logs for firewood. They attended Akaroa's St Peters Anglican Church and Ethel, a keen gardener, was a strong supporter of the Akaroa Horticultural Society. She was also a foundation member of the Akaroa Women's Institute and through this group played a vital role in reducing the isolation and loneliness of women on Banks Peninsula. On her retirement in December 1952 she was paid tribute by a large gathering at Akaroa who applauded her long service to the community, her sound judgement and her warmth of personality. She never married, and died at Mt Leinster on 14 June 1965.