Eve Burton takes a bite of her fettuccini while she checks her email on a gadget she wears on her belt. She now teaches law at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and after spending her formative years as deputy general counsel for the New York Daily News and then as CNN’s top lawyer, she admits to being a news junkie. She also is a member of Women’s Enews’ advisory board.
“This is so great,” Burton exclaims when she sees the day’s Women’s Enews story pop up on her tiny screen. “I already know what the news is that I get from everywhere else—the White House did this, the Congress did that, Rumsfeld thinks this. Women’s Enews tells me what I don’t already know.”
Covering stories often missed by behemoth commercial news outlets is precisely why Women’s Enews exists. Each morning, Women’s Enews serves up one story to 6,000 e-mail subscribers and on Wednesdays a commentary appears. Updates are made each day to our Web site (www.womensenews.org), which receives 70,000 daily visitors. Not only do e-mail subscribers consistently receive news they don’t already know, but the journalists who write for this news service report news about issues that affect women’s lives, particularly. For example, in a recent week our Web page and news service featured pieces on:
- Women’s wages dropping in comparison to men’s.
- A government investigation into so-called crisis pregnancy centers run by anti-choice advocates.
- A comprehensive look at women running in gubernatorial races.
- An examination of three proposals for changes in Social Security laws.
- The possible undervaluing of women’s lives by the actuarial rules used by the special master in charge of The September 11th Fund.
Women’s Enews can best be described as an exercise in optimism. The vision for it emerged out of a 1996 roundtable discussion with the solemn title “Feminism in the Public Eye” funded by Barbara Lee Family Foundation and organized by NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. Author Susan Faludi, columnist Katha Pollitt, legendary Glamour editor Ruth Whitney, and Ms. editor Kate Rounds were asked to help the fund understand why feminism had such a bad reputation in the dominant media and what might be done to change it. At the time, I was writing a column for The New York Times Syndicate on women and the law and joined the discussion.
It wasn’t until three years later, in 1999, that the fund decided to act on this vision and create an Internet news service in which stories would go to email subscribers but also be made available to commercial media, all at no cost to the recipient. One hope was that once these stories were found and reported, then coverage of these issues might expand on the pages of U.S. newspapers and in nightly newscasts.
Kathy Rodgers, president of NOW Legal Defense, asked me to create this new entity. In offering me this opportunity, she tapped my personal and professional frustration with the failure of commercial media to adequately report on many issues critical to women’s well-being. Not only did I think welfare reform—an issue affecting millions of poor and low-income women—had not been well covered, but I believed that reporting by the mainstream media often failed to convey essential information and perspectives about women’s medical care, reproductive rights, job bias, wage discrimination, and child care. And I knew that many other women shared my frustration and linked the omission of this type of coverage to the relative lack of women in news media ownership and management.
“When women are at the top, we can and do change the culture,” Pat Mitchell, head of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) said at a forum hosted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The occasion was the release of the center’s March 2001 report that found that only 13 percent of top executives of media, telecommunications and e-companies were female, and women held only three percent of the “clout” jobs. The American Society of Newspaper Editors issued similar findings a month later. Its most recent annual newsroom census found that two out of three newsroom supervisors were male, as were 60 percent of the reporters. These numbers have remained static, even though women comprise 70 percent of journalism students.
As content analyses demonstrate, women’s presence in the news columns and on TV news shows is remarkably similar to the percentage of women in the top ranks. Male sources consistently outnumber female sources, and women’s voices appear more often in “soft” news coverage. The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center and Women, Men and Media (a media watchdog project) reported in 1998 that on the three U.S. broadcast networks, 87 percent of sound bites by experts were provided by men.
And this trend continues on the nation’s opinion pages and news talk shows. Geneva Overholser reported on National Public Radio that, during the first week after September 11, The New York Times and The Washington Post—the two dailies most read by policymakers—had 65 signed opinion pieces, with only four written by women. In the Los Angeles Times national editions that week, 22 out of 23 op-eds were by men. In December, the White House Project announced similar findings related to appearances on Sunday talk shows. The project said its research indicated that women constituted only 10.7 percent of guests on these high-profile platforms before September 11, and they made up just 9.4 percent of guests during the following months.
A 1999 survey of women of color in U.S. newsrooms by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that only 22 percent of those surveyed believed that the staff in their newsrooms reflected the diversity of the market it served. Among the same group, only one in four believed that the news produced by their organizations reflected the diversity of its market.
Yet another content study of The New York Times pointed out that women wrote only 15 percent of the op-eds in 1998 and only 28 percent of the magazine’s cover stories. And when women were published on these pages, more often their topics included family, parenting and other domestic issues, not foreign policy issues or economic analysis.
In September 1999, I became editor in chief of Women’s Enews and began to figure out how to create a news Web site that would attract journalists and learn how exactly one would go about finding and reporting news related to women’s lives. Scanning The Associated Press’s daybook would not work for us. Women’s Enews had to find news that people didn’t already know and find sources—not the conventional ones—who could lead us to that news.
Gradually, we came to realize we had to identify not new methods of covering the news, but new approaches to how we use available sources. What follows are examples of what we did:
- Because women direct many nongovernmental organizations, one of our early efforts was to identify these organizations and develop news stories relating to their issues.
- Women leaders can be found in federal, state and local governments. Clearly, these women represent broad electoral constituencies, so we decided to look at specific pieces of legislation they might be proposing that related to women instead of simply reporting on them because they are women.
- Every governmental body—from the United Nations to the U.S. Supreme Court, from city councils to boards of education—have platforms, decisions, regulations and policies involving specific women’s issues. Reproductive health is an example of an arena of public policy that strongly affects women. Economic development is another. We find them and report on them.
Using these three primary sources of news—and a tiny budget—we reached out to experienced freelance journalists from around the world to report these stories about topics of great interest to women, news that otherwise would be unlikely to receive this kind of worldwide media attention. We also asked every member of JAWS (Journalism & Women Symposium) to subscribe and offer us ideas. And we created a WE-Sources area on our Web site that lists female experts on more than 150 topics as a resource for journalists and others.
On June 15, 2000, Women’s Enews was launched. That day our story was about the Philadelphia police disregarding many women’s complaints of rape. It was written by a man—the reporter who broke the story—veteran Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter Mark Fazlollah. Soon we were off and running and, given that it was an election year, we did a lot of reporting on politics. That coverage focused on efforts to elect more women to public office. Journalists—many of them women—also wrote stories about education, business and finance, science and technology, health and reproductive rights, culture and important legal developments affecting women. There are several topics we watch very closely, looking for opportunities to report new news.
With each assignment, the central question our reporters ask is: What do these events or this news mean for women? A story about a proposed bankruptcy bill examined what it would mean for single women who are heads of households, and what we reported was not encouraging for women. While the legislation had plenty to please banks and credit card companies, its key provision would have put credit card companies—with their enormous legal resources—on the same footing as parents seeking child support payments. We broke a story about inadequate medical and legal services for rape victims in New York City, and Women’s Enews carried a story by a Ugandan journalist who wrote about why women in her country did not have the right to own land. Our reports on anti-abortion violence revealed links between America’s neo-Nazis and the anthrax threats to clinics and political leaders.
Bias is a loaded word in journalism, as I am reminded each time a journalist asks me whether Women’s Enews is biased. When journalists first write for us, some seem unsure about whether we play by the usual rules or prefer “slanted” pieces. One reporter who worked for Newsday and the (New York) Daily News and now writes as a freelancer for us recently asked me if I wanted her to include comments from the pro-life movement in the piece she was writing about New York City’s new abortion policies. “Yes,” I wrote back to her on e-mail. “Yes, indeed.”
Our reporters do seek out a wide range of comment and information and, as editor, I do my best to scrub out adjectives and adverbial phrases that indicate a point of view. But within these parameters, the staff is dedicated to equal and fair treatment for women— and, if that is a definition of feminism, then we are feminists. Thus, our lack of “objectivity” might play out in our story selection, yet we believe that the journalists who write for us report with the kind of fairness, balance and accuracy that would be similarly applauded at other news outlets.
To develop readership for Women’s Enews, we reached out to those we consider our natural audience: women interested in public policy. We sent word to the head of the 100-plus-mem-ber National Council of Women’s Organizations, to the 92 research centers that belong to the National Council on Research on Women, and state and local women’s commissions in every state. We encouraged them to send us their press releases and let their members know about how to subscribe to us. Women’s Enews also sought out, as subscribers, journalists and editors at newspapers and other media outlets. Many signed up, and we let them know how they could reprint our stories or otherwise reuse them as long as they asked permission (via e-mail) and credited Women’s Enews and the writer. Once a week, we send 200 of the leading newspapers in the country a press release detailing the stories we’ve published; our weekly commentary also goes to 200 editorial page editors.
Stories have been picked up and republished by other media, from MSNBC’s Web site to the Chicago Tribune. But there have not been as many “pick-ups” as we’d like to see. After freelancer Siobhan Benet’s story on the increase of AIDS among older women went out via e-mail and was included in our regular press release, we thought we’d be inundated with requests to use the story. Never happened.
To me, this speaks volumes about why Women’s Enews exists and how difficult it is to realize our goal—that tiny Women’s Enews could be an agent of change for other, larger media. It also reminds me why we must keep at it, not only because we still hope that commercial media will change, but also to meet our readers’ need for the information we distribute.
In our first 18 months, our goal has been to build a robust audience and earn recognition for our journalism. We’ve done that, with individual praise received from many journalists as well as awards for articles we’ve published. In addition to Benet’s AIDS story, which won the Newswomen’s Club of New York prize for best Internet “features and service journalism,” we won the University of Michigan Media Award for Excellence in Coverage of Women and Gender and a certificate of excellence from Women in Periodical Publishing. By the second half of 2001, Women’s Enews even began to gather some strong financial support, most significantly a $250,000 two-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Then September 11 happened. NOW Legal Defense—like most nonprofits—was forced to tighten its belt, and Women’s Enews began to be seen as an expensive experiment from a different time. Simultaneously, Rodgers and I decided that Women’s Enews would become more credible if it was a standalone news service funded by many sources. I wrote a business plan and on January 1, the relocated Women’s Enews was born as a self-supporting news agency, with the encouragement of the Knight Foundation and the assistance of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
While we travel on this new path, we look with optimism at our growing list of subscribers. We intend to remain a nonprofit while reducing our reliance on foundations and continuing to seek new sources of revenues from what we do, perhaps by licensing and reprints. Subscribers won’t be charged, but we do and will ask them for contributions, much like National Public Radio does. And I keep my fingers crossed that we honor the first rule of a new media outlet: to survive. Then, we move on to the second: to thrive.
Rita Henley Jensen is editor in chief of Women’s Enews.