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Should Women Run All Newspapers?

Yesterday, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released this study THE GENDER GAP: Women Are Still Missing as Sources for Journalists. One way to lessen the gender gap may be for women to run newsrooms.

Should women be in charge of newspapers? If you agree with Cynthia Gorley Miller’s arguments, there is good reason to believe so. She is a former metro editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with 22 years experience in news coverage and newsroom management. She now runs the Newsroom Leadership Group, a coaching and consulting team, with her husband Edward Miller. This Leonard Witt, IM Interview, is a part of the Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust project, funded in part by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Key Quotes:

In some cases, papers can go days without a female face on the front page. It’s no wonder that women see newspapers as a product for someone else.

There isn’t any story you can’t write in a more interesting way once you start asking yourself, “How does this story relate to women?”

Leonard Witt: Hi Cynthia. The topic today is going to be women and newspapers. Tell me a little about the work you are doing in that arena.

Cynthia Miller: We believe the flight of women readers is the most pressing challenge facing newspapers today. Tied to that is the retention of women on the newsroom staff. We think those issues are related. Newsroom Leadership Group conducts several workshops, including a Women in the Newsroom workshop that focuses on the content of the newspaper and the culture of the newsroom. We also produce a monthly e-newsletter that is sent to more than 3,000 female editors and male newspaper executives.

Witt: Why is it so pressing? What’s different from the past?
Miller: It’s the economic argument. The generally accepted figure is that women make 80 percent of all purchasing decisions. The 10-year trend line is very clear; not only are circulation numbers continuing to decline, but numbers are declining faster with women readers. And that’s a bottom line issue.

Witt: You know, I read in the Rocky Mountain News that 80 percent of people in newspaper stories are men. Seventy percent of photo subjects are men. Can that be true? And if so, what’s going on?

Miller: Those aren’t new numbers, either. A PBS study in 1999 showed that about 80 percent of the news sources in all American media were men, and of the 20 percent that were women, most were victims of crime. We see many newspapers today, and it’s amazing how many front pages and section fronts are produced without female faces on them. In some cases, papers can go days without a female face on the front page. It’s no wonder that women see newspapers as a product for someone else.

Witt: So what do you do to make changes? The newspaper Readership Institute, which did some of these same studies on women, characterizes the newsroom as being aggressive/defense. How do you change that kind of culture?

Miller: Newspapers — and newsrooms — are still pretty much the same as they were 25 years ago. The newspaper content is a reflection of a newspaper’s culture. In most cases, you still have a very “male” view of a newspaper, with master narratives of conflict, winning/losing, who’s in/who’s out … and if you study male/female communication, such as the studies done by Deborah Tannen, you know that this is not just a male style, but a style that turns women off. How do you change things? You change the paper by understanding what is going on in each market. Journalists need to see the need to change. You change the content by making intentional decisions to do so, not by doing things the same old way — which, by the way, isn’t working.

Witt: So a newspaper has limited resources, you have too many old white guys like me. What do you do, give them their walking papers?

Miller: No, but who better to develop content appealing to women than women journalists? This is where newspapers are off-balance. Only 33 percent of those working for a newspapers are women, and the higher you go the smaller that number. But its more than just women leaders … a woman leader doesn’t guarantee a newspaper that is appealing to women. It’s the culture that limits the content, and the culture that sends women out the door. Some of the smartest women I know are now newsroom ghosts … no longer working for a newspaper because of the difficulties in balancing work and life. And changing doesn’t take more resources … it takes more innovation. We do an exercise in our workshops where women create a front page that is appealing to women. It’s a great example of what you can do if you think differently. These women are making new front pages out of the content already in their newspapers.

Witt: What do those front pages look like, and how are they different from what I might see in the average American newspaper?

Miller: You won’t find a newspaper in the country with front pages like those created by these women. These front pages deal with all the news of the day, but are conceived and presented in ways that will appeal to women. The happy irony is that these pages would also be more appealing to men. There are more people, more topics appealing to women, more narrative stories, less political-news-I-heard-last-night and dry stories that most journalists think they should spoon-feed readers. They are front pages designed with a target market — women — in mind, not the front pages journalists feel obligated to produce.

Witt: Can you give a couple of specific examples of the kinds of stories that might be appealing? And here comes an old white male question: Are we talking about the runaway bride story?

Miller: No, we’re not talking about the runaway bridge story, but stories like Social Security. About 27 percent of the U.S. households are headed by single women, all who clearly have a stake in Social Security. We’re talking about crime stories, but not the usual cops and robbers, but women are keenly interested in crime coverage as it relates to personal safety. Any story related to health is of interested to every family chief medical officer (women make most of the medical decisions for a family, too.) In general it’s topics and coverage more relevant to the real lives of women. For example, high school sports is not just game coverage, but the stories of families arranging their lives around the sport. There isn’t any story you can’t write in a more interesting way once you start asking yourself, “How does this story relate to women?”

Witt: The goals are admirable. Anyone with common sense would say let’s make this happen. But as you said 25 years have passed with all kinds of possible reform efforts and little has changed. Give specifics on how you are going to change a male dominated, aggressive, defensive culture, which doesn’t get it intrinsically, as in my runaway bride question.

Miller: You’ve summed up the problem perfectly. But here’s the real question: Can newspapers afford NOT to change? Recently, nearly every newspaper in America found out what it already knew: Circulation is declining. And we also read that the Newspaper Association of American is working with an agency to change the image of newspapers. How about we change the CONTENT of newspapers? Clearly what we’re doing isn’t working, so why not try something new? As for changing a culture, you start by understanding the danger of not changing. When there’s agreement on the need to change, then you can experiment with all kinds of ideas. That’s what we want to do … work with an innovative newspaper to test the hypothesis that if you make changes in marketing, advertising, circulation and content of a newspaper, you will gain women readers. Some of the most innovative work in the world is going on in Hamilton, Ontario, where the Spectator underwent a “revolution.” (their term). Two years ago ago, the paper made changes across the board to appeal to women readers, even at the expense of other readers. The result? Readership by women readers ages 25-49 is up 5.2 percent, women overall by 7.7 percent and baby boomers (men and women) up 8.3 percent. What U.S. newspaper wouldn’t like to see numbers like that?

Witt: Here’s the last question, and it pertains to changing the culture. I know you and Edward make your living from providing newsroom training, but wouldn’t it just be easier and make more sense to start your women’s newspapers online city by city rather than wage internal battles with change resistant mainstream media newsrooms.

Miller: We’re really passionate about newspapers. Yes, online with women in growing, but that’s not the same thing as a newspaper. We still believe that newspapers have a place in a women’s world. We don’t want a women’s newspaper. We want a newspaper that is appealing to women. There’s a difference.

Editor’s note: Want to brainstorm on the need for changing newsrooms? Join us at our A Wake Up Call conference on August 9, 2005 in San Antonio.

One Response to “Should Women Run All Newspapers?”

  1. Anna Says:

    > “a very ‘male’ view of a newspaper, with master narratives of conflict, winning/losing, who’s in/who’s out… this is not just a male style, but a style that turns women off.”

    This is so right – I never thought about it like this. Maybe men do see the newspaper as gladiatorial forum, and women see it as a place for all voices to be heard and shaped into civility. The best publisher my local paper ever had was a woman, Margaret Wade; likewise K.C. Meadowes (F.) of the Ukiah Journal is great. I think that papers in fractious communities benefit immensely by having a ‘mom’ at the helm.

    (no data, just strong gut feeling and these two women as examples.)