By Sheila Gibbons
Monday, March 30, 2009
The massive layoffs and cutbacks in news operations are taking a toll on women who worked hard to make names for themselves in a male-dominated field. Sheila Gibbons talks to three veterans who have plenty to say, and some silver linings to report.
(WOMENSENEWS)--It's painful to watch: relentless cost-cutting and rounds of layoffs and buyouts throughout the news business, shrinking staffs and resources at newspapers and TV stations. By the end of 2009, a quarter of all the newsroom jobs that existed in 2001 will be gone, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
This outgoing tide is taking away the reporting, editing and producing jobs of seasoned journalists, many of them women.
I'm thinking of investigative reporting ace Roberta Baskin of WJLA-TV in Washington, who in January picked up a prestigious duPont-Columbia University Award for her work at the station and lost her job the next day.
Another casualty: Glenda Holste, former associate editor of the editorial page at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who left the paper when her values and those of her corporate bosses "no longer matched," as she put it, and staffing levels began to shrink.
Margie Freivogel, for 34 years a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, took a buyout in 2006 when the paper was sold.
They, and many like them, lost or left jobs for which they were superbly qualified. What a loss for them, for their viewers and readers, and for younger people to whom they could have been marvelous mentors.
"It sometimes takes so long for women to get to those spots, it is worrisome," says Dawn Garcia, deputy director of the John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford University and president of the Journalism and Women Symposium.
What does it mean for the quality, breadth and depth of journalism to lose so many veteran female journalists who worked hard to establish themselves in what had long been a male-dominated field? And what does the narrowing pipeline mean for women entering the profession? I decided to ask Holste and Freivogel, who have left newspapers but had silver linings to report.
"Thousands and thousands of skilled and passionate women have lost access to traditionally practiced newspapering," says Holste, now a public affairs specialist at Education Minnesota. Women who did not have a "full voice in deciding what was news then" aren't likely to gain influence now, Holste says, if the survivors discount women's interests and voices.
However, Holste notes, "I think we have more upside than downside to reach a more accurate portrayal of women in the whole society because the new platforms make the traditional media gatekeeper less relevant than it's ever been."
Freivogel agrees that the new days on the Internet may be friendlier to women. In the 1980s, there was a very clear need to open the doors of opportunity for women. "I think since I took the buyout my perspective is that what we were doing before was on the Titanic. It was all going down! The importance of having women's voices and perspectives is still important. We just have to make it happen in a new way."
Of course, there are regrets, and the stress that comes with dislocation and farewells to important jobs. But some veteran female journalists are also relieved by the freedom to write the next chapters in their careers.
Freivogel is the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit online regional news site.
"Since we've launched the Beacon, I've discovered I love doing journalism online," she says. "The Web is a far superior tool for journalism because you don't have to choose between being fast or in-depth. You can be both."
The entrepreneurial, exploratory transition to online newsgathering strikes some as more inclusive than the often-rigid hierarchy of "beats" in newspapers and television, where covering politics and professional sports were high-status assignments that often went to men.
"I have to say that I really have not encountered the sense that doors are shut to women," says Freivogel, who notes that four of the five senior positions at the Beacon are held by women. "I think, to the contrary, everybody's looking around at who's got a good idea, who's doing something that might be emulated elsewhere. That's really different."
Baskin says that even before audiences began drifting away from papers and evening news broadcasts and young people demonstrated a preference for the Internet, journalism began to be afflicted by corporate interference in newsrooms.
The shift was felt in the 1990s, according to a report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In 1999, about half of the people in the news business felt that "increased bottom-line pressure is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage." By 2004, sizable majorities of journalists (66 percent nationally and 57 percent locally) thought so. And fully a third of journalists said they were feeling pressure from advertisers or corporate owners about what to write or broadcast.
"When I was at CBS, I had a personal and professional goal of doing at least one foreign story each year," Baskin recalls. "That was when they were closing the overseas bureaus."
Still, in 1996, Baskin managed to break the story on Nike's Vietnam sweatshops on CBS's "48 Hours," which received enormous attention. The program was updated for re-airing in 1997 but was pulled after CBS and Nike inked a deal for coverage of the upcoming Winter Olympics that put CBS's correspondents in clothing displaying the Nike "swoosh," Baskin says.
It was more than a little disillusioning, she recalls. "The place I'd revered the most--the Tiffany network, home of Edward R. Murrow--had fallen off the pedestal." Though CBS disputed the connection between the Nike sponsorship and the program cancellation, the decision remained controversial.
Baskin's career continued successfully, with stints at ABC, the Center for Public Integrity in Washington and at WJLA-TV, where she and longtime investigative producer Sandy Bergo were reunited. Their "Drilling for Dollars" reports, about a pediatric dental clinic performing unnecessary procedures on children to collect Medicaid reimbursements, won a slew of awards, including the duPont-Columbia. As advertising income at the station declined, Bergo was laid off shortly before the award was announced, prompting Baskin to tell me, "We went from being the I-Team to the I." The day after Baskin and Bergo accepted the award, Baskin got the phone call telling her she was out, too.
In addition to the loss of service to news consumers, the brain drain from traditional newsrooms is especially disturbing because the handoffs from seasoned to less experienced journalists won't happen the way they once did.
"I've always loved mentoring young people. It's in my DNA," Baskin says. "I've had many tell me how much they learned from me. That's hugely gratifying. I miss having the opportunity to do that."
"One of the things I hear from women is that one of the victims of the downsizing in newsrooms are jobs that are flexible for women," Garcia says. "So if you had a job-sharing situation, two reporters who are moms, there is less opportunity for that to happen now. That would be a cause for concern because you're going to have fewer women who can be in journalism."
Garcia also notes that "journalists are very good at networking for a story, not always so good at networking for themselves. Women in journalism are going to have to get better at that."
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.
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Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report, "Bottom-line Pressures Now Hurting Coverage, Say Journalists"
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