Women at Newspaper Helms Face Risky Business

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Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–These are rather dark days for the newspaper industry, as it copes with declining readership, falling advertising revenues and the need to transfer its practices to an online world of savvy information-seekers who believe an ink-and-paper newspaper is oh so yesterday.

New data suggest that it may be up to women to lead the industry out of the clouds and into the sun.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors released its newsroom employment census at the end of April. The 2006 numbers showed that women held 35.5 percent of newsroom supervisory positions, the highest percentage since the group added women to its diversity tracking census in 1999, when the figure was 33.8 percent. Overall, women are 37.7 percent of newsroom professionals.

And Northwestern University’s Media Management Center’s report, “Women in Media 2006: Finding the Leader in You,” found a two-percentage-point increase of women in leadership positions since 2003, to 29 percent of top managers. This report, released in early April, assesses executive clout in other newspaper departments as well as news.

We shouldn’t get carried away over two-percentage-point increases in both studies, but at a time when layoffs and buyouts are being implemented at venerable newspapers such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, even women’s small gains in influence are significant.

Female Leaders Boost Business

The Northwestern analysis also compared the composition of leadership with a newspaper’s financial health, and found that business results are better when women are in leadership positions.

“Newspapers that enjoy growth from innovation and development are more likely to have a diverse set of leaders at the top. There are more women and minorities there than at newspapers that are not growing,” wrote Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center. “We can tie women in leadership to profitability.”

That’s great news.

But could women be grabbing the brass ring of newsroom leadership at the riskiest possible time for achieving success?

Newsroom managers face daunting challenges. Cost-cutting is digging into news-gathering operations and piling pressure on those who remain. At the same time, staffers are trying to produce the daily paper while straining to move beyond the constraints of the printing press with dynamic and constantly updated Internet products.

Although buyouts offered to veteran journalists tend to involve more men than women, there is some evidence of a female brain drain. Pam Moreland, assistant managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News and president of the Journalism and Women Symposium, an advocacy organization of female journalists, researchers and educators, regrets that loss: “I know too many strong female newsroom leaders who have taken buyouts or walked away from their jobs to think there is any good news associated with this industry trend.”

Sue LoTempio, assistant managing editor for the Buffalo News, says the shrinking newsroom and the climate of career insecurity pose special problems for female journalists with family obligations. “Flexibility will go out the window as there are fewer people to put the paper out,” she said. “And the end result will be fewer women going into a profession that’s quickly going to be labeled not women or family-friendly.”

The Topping-Out Factor

The increase in the percentage of women holding supervisory jobs could be short-lived, too, says Christy Bulkeley, retired Gannett executive who was the first female publisher and CEO of a Gannett newspaper. “My sense is that the increase in supervisors comes through longevity of women journalists and will top out if the percentage of women journalists overall doesn’t increase.”

Even as women scored those gains, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual census shows the overall percentage of women in the newsroom has barely moved the needle off the 37 percent mark.

One thing female newsroom leaders will have to do is negotiate effectively for their advancement.

The gains in supervisory roles for women fade a bit as newspaper circulation increases. “Women outnumber men in entry-level jobs. But when it comes to the prestige beats, the assigning editor ranks, the department heads and upper management, the scales tip back toward the men,” Moreland says. “The larger the newspaper, the likelihood is that you will find male publishers, male executive editors, possibly a woman managing editor, two or three women in the deputy or assistant managing editor ranks, and two or three women department heads. Progress when compared to 30 years ago? You bet. Progress when compared to five years ago? A bit.”

The Northwestern report lays out negotiation strategies women can use to build on their base of influence and extend it to areas where it’s lacking.

And as the Northwestern study showed, a successful leader will foster diversity on staff that will influence best practices and contribute to the bottom line.

Influencing the Atmosphere

“It has made a significant difference to have a woman at the top in the newsroom,” LoTempio says of Margaret Sullivan, executive editor and vice president of the Buffalo News. “She’s made it her mission to bring more women into mid-management roles and to add more women and minorities into the newsroom as a whole. It’s made an impact, a very positive one, both in the atmosphere of the newsroom as well as our coverage of the community.”

One of the most pressing challenges for women leading news organizations, and those on their way to those top jobs, will be to anticipate new ways to deliver news and ensure diversity among staff involved in new media ventures.

“What I worry about is how much of the future is about different platforms: online, podcasts, cell-phone delivery,” says Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register and currently holder of the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting, University of Missouri School of Journalism, Washington bureau. “I see fewer young women than young men when I look at the upcoming leadership there.”

Moreland is more optimistic: “I think as newspapers move into uncharted waters on multimedia and convergence, women are going to increase in leadership roles.”

In my view, the positive signs for women in newspaper journalism will outweigh the negatives if they leverage the positions they have into areas that call for innovation and inventiveness, such as reaching readers via the technologies Overholser describes.

Today’s newspaper is not your mother’s newspaper. The transformation of the medium takes energy, smarts and commitment, and those who study newspapers have provided the evidence that women possess ideas and leadership skills crucial to the re-engineering effort. It’s only logical to expect to see more of them running the show.

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, 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.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

American Society of Newspaper Editors
“ASNE census shows newsroom diversity grows slightly”
(April 26, 2006):
http://www.asne.org/index.cfm?id=6264

Northwestern University Media Management Center
“Women in Media 2006: Finding the Leader in You”:
http://www.mediamanagementcenter.org/publications/wim2006.asp

Journalism and Women Symposium:
http://www.jaws.org/

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