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American Journalism Review
Slow Down at Gender Gap  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1993

Slow Down at Gender Gap   

Newspapers are scrambling to find new ways to attract women readers.

By Colleen Collins & Karen Schmidt
Colleen Collins, former reporters at the Republican-American in Waterbury, Connecticut, are freelancers in the state.      Karen Schmidt former reporter at the Republican-American in Waterbury, Connecticut, is a freelancer in the state.     

He's ignored her for years. He'd rather talk sports with the boys than listen to her. Now she's leaving, maybe for good. Suddenly, he can't live without her. He's sending flowers, candy, all tied up with pretty ribbons.

Can you blame her for being wary? She knows flowers and candy are no substitute for respect.

Newspapers have been offering flowers and candy for some time now: women's sections, "female-focused" features and promises to use more women sources. But will that bring women readers back?

Twenty years ago more women read newspapers than men. Today, readership surveys show women consistently lagging behind. The younger the reader, the greater the gap. If a generation of women is showing less interest in daily newspapers, critics would argue that perhaps it's because daily newspapers haven't shown much interest in them.

"I think newspapers haven't really gone far enough" in attracting women readers, says Susan Miller, vice president/editorial at Scripps Howard Newspapers. Papers are changing, she says, but not as fast as their readers.

A 1991 Knight-Ridder Women Readers Task Force survey asked women around the country their opinion of newspaper content. "Women talked about fashion sections, for example, that feature clothes no normal person would wear with price tags no normal person could begin to afford, modeled by stick-thin, gorgeous, young women," the report said. "They talked about food sections featuring recipes with ingredients they've never heard of or that take time to prepare that they don't have. They also talked about personal finance articles on investments way out of their reach, about government or education stories written with interpretations of events that have no apparent relevance to their lives...

" 'You must be putting your newspaper out for some man who has got to know this stuff for his job, because it is like work to read it,' said one woman in Detroit. 'It certainly isn't put out by people like me.' "

Indeed, the Women, Men and Media project, which examines news coverage of women, concluded in a report released in April that for the fifth year in a row, women remain significantly underrepresented as sources, subjects and reporters. The survey found that in January 1993 women were cited only 15 percent of the time on the front pages of the 20 newspapers surveyed. Only 34 percent of the page one stories were written by women. Two newspapers had cases where some front pages were written exclusively by men.

The Knight-Ridder study found that women are interested in topics such as their children's education and how they learn (not the politics of the school board); time and money and how to save both; safety and health issues; women in the workplace; social concerns, such as homelessness; and family and personal relationships. But women also care about the way newspapers approach news: Women want information to be useful and easy to find. At the same time they want depth. And they don't like it when reporters invade privacy or are insensitive to disaster or crime victims.

To close the gender gap, analysts say newspapers need to re-examine what they cover and how they cover it. "I think everyone has come to believe the industry must change or die," says Tonnie Katz, editor and vice president of the Orange County Register. "Everyone's made that leap of faith, but a lot of handwringing is going on about how to change."

Today, papers are taking a fresh look at women's sections. Unlike the traditional ladies' pages with recipes and fashion, the sections are aimed at today's women who juggle career, family, time and money.

Some papers have designed beats to make news more relevant to all readers. These approaches rely less on politics and institutions and more on issues that touch readers' daily lives. In the process they are generating more stories of interest to women. At the same time, newspapers are changing the way they cover traditional beats, with less emphasis on insider wheeling and dealing, for example, and more on how government actions affect people's pocketbooks and their lives.

In addition, some say newspapers need to include more women in high-level, decision-making positions so their perspectives are included when deciding what gets in the paper and where it will run.

Nancy Woodhull, formerly an editor with USA Today and president of Gannett News Service, is now a newspaper consultant specializing in understanding women consumers. She believes that whatever the changes are, they must be substantial. "You can't just put new labels on things and force things to change." But the industry has yet to settle on the ideal formula. "Some of it is silly flailing around," says Woodhull. "Some of it is very serious."

Women's Sections

In the past, many newspapers had ladies' sections that ran stories considered to be of interest to the typical American housewife: recipes, social gossip, tips on housecleaning, parenting and the like. They flourished until the 1970s and early '80s, when the women's movement became more influential and more women entered the workforce. Newspapers gradually dropped those sections because they were thought to be sexist and demeaning. At many papers, they were replaced by lifestyle sections.

Now, newspapers are taking a second look, and sections targeted to women are coming back although they are very different from their predecessors. The best women's sections, says Woodhull, follow the model of Working Woman magazine. They contain inspirational stories of women breaking gender barriers at the workplace and elsewhere, and articles that talk about balancing those things that compete for a woman's time and energy.

They also contain a measure of humor. In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer's "Everywoman" section consciously puts some comic relief in every week, with cartoon strips, quotations from comediennes and humor columns. This draws women in for the same reasons that television shows like "Designing Women," "Murphy Brown," "Roseanne" and "Northern Exposure" are so popular among women, Woodhull says. "They are rather poignant about what our lives are like and they also allow us to laugh at what our lives are like."

The best women's sections are also participatory, Woodhull adds, becoming forums for women to talk to one another, with features like phone-in lines. In such forums, women can express their views about issues, such as abortion, the economy or discrimination.

There is debate, however, over whether these new sections represent progress or tokenism. Knight-Ridder published opinions from both sides in its 1991 report.

"Please don't tell me that in a gender-obsessed world, a women's section won't emphasize the perceived and demeaning differences that women are struggling to erase," wrote Marty Claus, then a managing editor at the Detroit Free Press and now vice president/news for Knight-Ridder. "Why buy into the patriarchy [again] in newspapers? It's not right and it's not fair."

On the other side of the page, Scott McGehee, publisher of the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, took the opposite view. "When women are a significant, under-served portion of our audience with unique needs, why shouldn't they have a place in the paper to call their own?" she wrote.

"I think it only demeans women if you do it in a demeaning way," McGehee said in an interview.

Miller also takes a more charitable view of such sections, including the traditional ladies' pages, which she characterizes as being full of "news you can use." With the death of those sections, newspapers gave readers less coverage of food, childrearing and how-to pieces. "[That kind of coverage] should be treated seriously and done the very best we know how to do it. But it shouldn't be pitched to women," she says.

When she joined the Chicago Tribune in the mid-1970s, the first thing Senior Editor Colleen Dishon did was to kill the ladies' pages. She created the Tribune's Womanews section in 1991.

When it was first published, Womanews conducted focus groups in which women talked about such things as work-related problems. These discussions often became springboards for stories. The staff continues to keep in contact with women in their community. "We're dealing with women on a one-to-one basis, and we're speaking to them on a one-to-one basis, and that's why they get hooked," says Dishon. Some modern-era women's sections "just rearranged the old stuff and put an abortion story on the front page and said, 'That's it.' "

Other women's pages have focused on profiles of superwomen who handle career and family with seeming ease, says Dishon. But this sort of focus alienates some women by making them feel like second-class citizens. "You begin to think there's something wrong with you," she says.

"Where it's done right, it's very effective," says Woodhull, who estimates there are at least 40 women's sections in the country. She thinks the sections benefit women's coverage overall, "because you have experts in your newsroom following women's issues, and they are selling things to page one." But, Woodhull warns, "I don't think women's sections are the end-all. We also need to mainstream women. You have to be really careful that the result isn't ghettoizing women."

Mark Silverman, director of Gannett's News 2000, a project dedicated to improving newspaper content to reflect changing reader interest, also believes the sections risk stereotyping readers. "I see a problem with any section that is targeted just to one group of readers," he says.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press learned a lesson about pitching exclusively to women when it changed its Sunday business section last fall. The goal was to cover more women in business. But the prototype page called "Women and Business" flopped with focus groups of businesswomen.

"They wanted that kind of coverage, but they didn't want to be pigeonholed," says Michael Peluso, the business editor. The page was renamed "Entrepreneurs," targeted to both men and women, and has achieved its original goal. "What it has largely done is increased the frequency and the positive nature of coverage of women in business," Peluso says.

Restructuring Beats

Another tactic papers are using that could help close the gender gap is restructuring beats. The classic newsroom covers the classic beats: cops, city hall, business institutions traditionally dominated by men. But the disproportionate attention to institutions like government and big business tends to alienate many women, minorities, and blue- and pink-collar workers.

Some news organizations are responding by changing beats and reporting stories of interest to a wider audience. Instead of covering the Social Security Administration, they're covering aging; instead of covering organized religious denominations, they're covering religion and ethics.

At Newhouse News Service, Washington Bureau Chief Deborah Howell decided to scrap the Supreme Court beat in favor of one that concerns more people. She filled the slot with a reporter covering violent crime instead.

On the day she was interviewed, Howell was editing a story by her violent crime reporter about how there are more women on death row than ever before. For a story about America's love affair with guns, the reporter chose a woman as the subject of her anecdotal lead.

A broader focus is what the Herald-Mail newspapers in Hagerstown, Maryland, had in mind when they recently offered five of their 21 reporters thematic "super beats" in addition to their regular ones. "It's forcing the reporters to think differently and it's forcing me to think differently as an editor," says Managing Editor Gloria George. For example, the education super beat turns traditional reporting upside down by focusing on what happens in the classroom instead of the school board room.

"Changing beats can be a fine way to refocus energies on topics that you have defined as being of interest to your readers," Miller says. At Scripps Howard's Cincinnati Post, families, children and health are all covered by one city desk reporter. Those topics, traditionally seen as women's issues, are getting on page one "because [reporters have] got the commitment that it has to be good enough to get on page one," she says.

The Orange County Register was one of the first papers to revamp its beats four years ago and a distinct snicker could be heard at newspapers around the country.

"At the time, we were very much considered crazy Californians," says Editor Katz. Now she gets phone calls from editors and publishers every week about the Register's approach. When the Register discarded its organizational division between metro, features and business, it wasn't particularly trying to attract women readers. Sending reporters out to cover topics such as pets and hobbies and malls as communities was seen as a way to better reflect the interests of all readers.

"We didn't single out women..," Katz says, "but we felt our coverage needed to be more diverse and our newsroom needed to be more diverse to better reflect the demographics of Orange County."

Although appealing to women was not the specific goal of the revamped beat structure, it has produced more stories of the kind women say they want to read. The paper still covers traditional topics and maintains its watchdog role, Katz says. But now page one had room for a recent story about how supermarkets are changing to meet the needs of an older population.

"That never would have been done [before]" Katz says. "It certainly wouldn't have gone on the front page."

Nearly two years ago, the State in Columbia, South Carolina, took a hard look at itself. "We felt our news coverage was too institutional," says Bunny Richardson, an assistant managing editor at the 134,000-circulation Knight-Ridder daily. "Too much concerned with agencies, government and process, and not enough about people."

Months of study led to the adoption of a new system in January 1992. "We approached our beat structure as a series of circles rather than boxes, overlapping circles," she says. The aim was to improve the newspaper, not specifically to draw in women readers.

Reporters were assigned thematic beats with non-institutional names like "kinship," "workplace," "quality of life" and "passages," and told that they were general assignment reporters first, specialists second. The reporters are grouped in teams, each with an origination editor. The community roots team, for example, includes beats on religion, the military, workplace issues and South Carolina trends. Three news editors determine play, with an emphasis on putting the best stories out front, no matter what the topic.

New Approaches to Old Beats

At many papers, not only are women excluded from front page stories, what is on the front page often turns them off. In an article titled "Opportunity Squandered: Newspapers and Women's News," published this year in the Journal of Media Studies, Susan Miller points out that traditional approaches to news hinge on conflict.

"Witness how we cover politics like a 'win-lose' sports event," she wrote. "Witness the hordes of reporters badgering public officials about allegations leaked by their opponents, the harsh spotlight on hapless victims of accidents or crime and the use of extremists as spokespersons for causes."

Women prefer a more moderate approach, Miller wrote, that gives everyone a chance to express an opinion. They want crisis coverage that tells them how they can help. And they want balanced local coverage that includes good news as well as bad. Miller recommends that every section of the paper be charged with attracting more women and men. For example, the sports section should devote more space to participatory sports women prefer, such as jogging and tennis; business sections should focus on career advice, work relationships, business ethics and local businesses.

Classic crime coverage tends to consist of voyeuristic accounts of who did what to whom, says Woodhull. A woman reading a crime story wants to know if it was an isolated incident, if it's a trend, and if she has to restrict her movements because of it.

"We very rarely put [crime] in context," she explains. Although some crime reports might spawn stories about how to avoid becoming a victim, she says, "I know how to avoid being robbed. What I want to know is what the police are doing about it." That kind of information is usually left out, Woodhull believes, "because men don't feel as vulnerable as women do."

Though Newhouse Washington reporters have thematic beats now, Howell believes that the old institutional beats can be made relevant to all readers, including women. "You don't just cover buildings, you can cover issues," she says. "You can make traditional beats much more accessible to readers by making sure you include not all the usual white male suspects. You just enlarge your scope for what's important and who's affected."

City hall may be full of white men, but what happens there affects the whole city, Howell says. The challenge of a good government reporter is to track those effects.

Getting the bigger story, reporting the ripples generated by a government action, makes for better and more inclusive stories: When covering a tax hike a reporter should look at how it might affect someone buying a quart of milk, says Gannett's Silverman.

"We don't cover women seriously when we cover serious news," he argues, which is the fundamental reason for the readership gap. "If the superintendent says something, it's probably going to affect a few school principals, and a few of them are going to be women," he says. Their reactions should be sought, along with comments from parents. "Half of them are women," Silverman points out. Gannett urges papers to compile source lists with an eye for diversity in gender, race and sexual orientation.

Both Howell and Silverman stress that throwing out the traditional news topics wholesale is not a good idea. Newspapers have a responsibility to keep doing investigative and public service stories because nobody else does, Howell says. And people do have an appetite for the nitty gritty; Ross Perot's pie charts proved that, she says.

Let Women Be Women

Changes are producing better stories for women, but there is plenty of room for improvement. George points to a story the Hagerstown paper ran about when to intervene when one suspects child abuse in someone else's family. That story ended up in the features section because "walls in the newsroom" have yet to come down, George says. "I think we ought to put all the stories in a pot, and put the best stories out front." One reason that hasn't happened yet is habit. Another is that the feature editor is not invited to the 5 p.m. budget meeting, according to George. She believes every department should be writing page one stories. That means the city editor and the feature editor need to be considered equals at the budget meeting.

At newspapers where most of the editors are men, budget meetings can turn the conference room into a locker room. Often, the editor who shouts loudest is the one whose story makes it on page one, says Woodhull. Women editors who pitch women's stories risk being labeled the "workplace mommy" or the "workplace feminist," she says.

Newspapers need to let women be women, she says. When women, or men, present a non-traditional idea in a news meeting, they shouldn't be made to feel foolish. At the end of each meeting, the top editor should ask, "Have we thought about a variety of communities, including women, in these stories?" Woodhull says. That kind of deliberate, checklist approach can extend throughout the newsroom.

The Knight-Ridder study also recommends that newsrooms constantly seek out gender diversity. "Is 52 percent of your professional staff women? Is every department diverse... Is top management half women? Who attends daily budget meetings? Who decides what goes on page 1A?.. Whenever any meeting is convened at your newspaper, if women aren't fairly represented, does someone notice and suggest that the makeup of the meeting is unbalanced?" the report asks.

According to a recent survey sponsored by the Freedom Forum, 34 percent of all journalists are women, the same percentage as a decade ago. A 1992 survey by the National Federation of Press Women found that women fill 19.4 percent of the top editorial and management positions in newsrooms. And there are only a handful of papers where women are the top editor, although that appears to be changing. At the Milwaukee Journal, Mary Jo Meisner was recently named editor; at the Oregonian in Portland, Sandra Mims Rowe recently took over the top post.

Despite the low figures, Woodhull says there's no conspiracy keeping women and minorities out of the newspaper. "The best of journalists with the best of intentions have a bias of omission that they're not even aware of."

But coming up with real change can be painful; old habits die hard. The new system of revised beats isn't easy for reporters or editors, acknowledges George at the Hagerstown papers. It requires a lot more planning than before. "Hopefully in a year, it will all just be habit," she says.

Change hasn't been easy at the State in South Carolina either, but it's been worth it, Richardson says. "It's not a nice, neat, easy system," she says. "It works for us. I think we're getting better stories. I think we're getting stories and sections we never would have had."

If nothing else, the restructuring trend has led some papers to be more diverse, more inclusive and less insular. That's good news for any underrepresented group, minorities or women.

And change may be slow, but it's visible. Easter morning, the New York Times had a page one story about the decline of housecleaning. "When the New York Times has a front page story about housework," Howell says. "That's progress."

Miller suggests a direct approach to force editors to change their ways: Reward them with staff, with newsholes, with promotions according to how well their readership mirrors the demographics of their communities.

"The women's readership gap," she says, "would disappear." l



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