High-Tech Challenge: Attracting Women Readers to Cyberspace
By Rosalind Resnick
Rosalind Resnick , a former Miami Herald reporter, publishes the online newsletter Interactive Publishing Alert.
While women make up about half of all newspaper readers, publishers rushing online have found them harder to attract to cyberspace. Fewer than 20 percent of the users of the major online services, on which many papers have launched electronic editions, are female.
Some online editors blame the chasm on the hostile, male-dominated culture of cyberspace; others say women aren't finding enough content tailored to their interests. While no papers have yet created the online equivalent of 1950s-era "women's pages," a variety of experiments are underway to attract more female readers to online publications.
The New York Times is hoping that its emphasis on arts and entertainment, two areas it believes interest women in particular, will close the electronic "gender gap" for its online edition, @times. "It is a fact that women play a very important role in mabing family decisions about leisure time activities," explains Times Co. spokesman William Adler.
The Chicago Tribune plans to add an electronic "food page" with recipes, coupons and a grocery service to its online edition, hoping it will appeal in particular to women who shop for their families. Chicago Online hopes to team up for the venture with Peapod, an online food service that boasts more than 50 percent female users. The paper also plans an online travel guide – another service it believes will interest women.
"It isn't that women won't go online," says Gene Quinn, who oversees Chicago Online. "It's that the things they're looking for aren't there yet."
Other editors have taken a more general strategy: Offer high quality editorial and lively online discussions and you'll attract more readers of both genders.
"To assume that the [general] content isn't of interest to women would be presumptuous, and probably incorrect," says Susie Kamb, managing editor of Mercury Center, the online edition of the San Jose Mercury News. The best way to get more women to read online newspapers, she adds, is to "create a need or a perception on the part of women that they are missing something of value."
That may be a better strategy than creating specific areas targeted at women, according to a recent survey of 59 female online users. Communicating with others – participating in discussion groups or swapping E-mail – ranked as the favorite electronic activity for women (men like to log on; women like to connect). Only a small percentage cited shopping, banking or travel as primary interests.
Among magazines, U.S. News & World Report has attracted 3,000 to 5,000 visitors to its "Women's Symposium" on CompuServe since March, when it was launched to mark International Women's Day and promote a cover story about the state of women worldwide. The forum now includes message boards on everything from sexuality to relationships to "good reads."
üSays Kristen Gunn, who oversees the forum, "It's a much kinder place. In other forums, if someone doesn't agree, they let you have it." Author and former Wall Street Journal reporter Susan Faludi assisted in choosing message board topics (including on° about men), and Rep. Patricia Schroeder, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund and former National Organization for Women chief Patricia Ireland have visited.
ýany electronic publishers believe that a gentler setting is a key enticement to getting more women online. Conventional wisdom says that women are too busy juggling work and family to log on. But the confrontational male discourse that is common on the 'Net, and the sexual harassment that women often encounter there, may play a larger role.
"Most women give up [cyberspace] because it's just not worth the hassle," says Betsy Richter, former online manager at the Village Voice and now an editor at NetGuide magazine. "I don't buy the bit that women are not technologically capable."