Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Theories, but no hard data. Just worrisome trends that won’t quit, and newspaper readers who do.

That’s the upshot of a report published in August by the International Newspaper Marketing Association analyzing why women read newspapers less than men in nearly every country of the world.

In an effort to learn why this is so, Carly Price, the report’s author, has brought to the surface extensive research on women, on media use, on cultural contexts, on socioeconomics.

Alarm bells should go off when media executives read it and realize that their female readers–the primary household purchasers and increasingly important wage earners that advertisers court–are migrating to newer media that, in Price’s analysis, "allow greater flexibility and innovation for both consumers and advertisers." The urgency of the problem is clear–but newspaper managers don’t seem to have the will to innovate to preserve and grow their female readership.

The report connects the dots, documenting the busy schedules and competing choices of women to see how or if newspapers fit into their lives. But Price concedes that her analysis was hobbled by newspaper companies’ failure to study female readers and evaluate any efforts they’ve made to reach and retain them. The organization that sponsored her research, the International Newspaper Marketing Association, has more than 1,100 members in 65 countries, mostly senior marketing officers at daily newspapers.

"Newspapers have implemented innumerable initiatives to lure more women to their products," the report says, "but these efforts tend to resemble each other and rely on conventional generalizations, gender stereotypes and anecdotal or qualitative information, rather than quantitative and measurable results. Countless newspapers are still failing to maximize their potential to reach female readers, or are neglecting to leverage their existing female subscribers to cultivate new revenue opportunities and gather critical data."

Executives Unresponsive to Findings on Women

The report is damning in other ways. It demonstrates that newspaper executives haven’t acted on information they do have: that women respond most strongly to news that is intensely local, has an accessible graphic presentation, is solutions-oriented (this is especially important in foreign and political reporting, women say) and is told in a storytelling style, rather than a "just the facts, ma’am" approach.

Just peer through the plastic cover on any newspaper rack and you’ll see the body count from Iraq or from corporate America, personal profiles of male political leaders in distant countries, photos of despairing women and children caught in war zones, the scores of professional sports teams and the scandals of their players’ personal lives. Not much there to make a woman stop and pick up a copy.

If this report does nothing else, it holds a mirror up to the newspaper industry and shows that its approaches have failed to stem declining newspaper readership among women. (Readership is also declining, though less steeply, among men).

Danger of Girls Not Developing Newspaper Habit

This is a survival issue for newspapers. In the United States, the newspaper is the traditional medium of record through which the community and the world at large are interpreted. Even with the increasing use of the Internet for news, the newspaper as a news tradition has retained its credibility and importance. But newspapers face real danger as more women reject it as a vital source of information, and as newspaper industry research shows girls and younger women don’t seem to be developing the newspaper-reading habit at all.

Unlike magazines, which target carefully defined niches, the newspaper is the major print mass media. The newspaper’s "mass-ness" contributes to some of its difficulties in serving its two masters, readers and advertisers. Price points out that "advertisers continue to further dissect markets and target narrower groups of people, while most traditional newspapers are still attempting to broaden their audience scope," including adding more female readers, who control the spending for themselves and for their families.

Newspapers could overcome this apparent conflict by improving their performance with female readers and providing local advertisers with unique access to them. "Having larger numbers of female readers than male readers would actually give a newspaper a statistical advantage for retention in the long term because women live longer than men," the report says, and notes that this cohort of older women is projected to grow fastest in the next 20 years.

Missing Women on Page One

But instead of beefing up promotions to women, restyling the paper to make it more rewarding for women–and Price has data to show that this can occur without making it less of a satisfying read for men–and bringing more of the content that interests women forward onto Page One, newspapers have instead tended to throw women a bone in the form of women’s sections or periodic female-themed supplements.

While these have produced incremental results in some markets, Price says, they "are not a panacea." An organic shift in all sections of the paper would seem to be in order–but it’s the one thing newspaper executives seem incapable of doing.

As a result of the inertia, sources and subjects of newspaper reports remain overwhelmingly male, and receive prominent positioning. Cory Armstrong of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s study of newspaper subjects found that stories featuring males were more likely to appear on the front page, and the representation of females was "dependent on the absence of males within the story."

These patterns probably would not turn off female readers right away, but a day-in, day-out practice that doesn’t see women as worthy of being featured in its main section eventually will. Why can’t editors see that and respond with something other than an occasional magazine-style insert on fashion, family and health?

Decline in Female News Executives

Another critical concern is the gender of those making news decisions. "Women in Newspapers 2002: Still Fighting an Uphill Battle," a report from Northwestern University, found that the number of women in top editor positions at major U.S. newspapers declined from 25 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2002, and the number of women executives declined from 29 percent to 26 percent. The well-documented exodus of seasoned newspaper women who did not move up the ranks makes it less likely that their former employers will be positioned to produce content that will attract female readers.

Tamara McKee, creative and development manager of The Bermuda Sun, told Price about launching a monthly supplement for women in conjunction with efforts to boost the amount of content for women throughout the newspaper.

"Our current obstacle is convincing the male editor and publisher that women’s news is not soft and that it has value," she told Price.

It’s the same old struggle. As more time goes by without a resolution, and as more female readers consult their newspapers less and less, many newspapers may find themselves stuck with aging male readers and few others.

And the advertisers? They’ll follow the women who used to read newspapers, wherever that may be.

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., and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

The International Newspaper Marketing Association–
"Exploring the Newspaper Readership Gender Gap":

Media Management Center–"Women in Newspapers: 2002":