Forty years ago, give or take a few years, women journalists set out to enter what was, for them, a strange land—the land of “hard news,” news beyond the women’s sections of newspapers, the kitchen-home-family programs of television and radio. Some extraordinarily talented and dedicated women already worked in news; a few always had, here and there, around the country and even overseas. Some others who worked in women’s and Sunday feature sections, and “soft news” public service television, who covered issues often ignored by city side, were also poised for moves into news reporting and management. But this was a time when the unusual would gradually start to become more usual.

In 1971, a landmark study of journalists found that an estimated 22 percent of daily newspaper journalists were women, and women comprised nearly 11 percent of television journalists. And, during the next decade, growth in news workforces was accompanied by an increase in the percentage of women journalists. By the next study in 1982, researchers David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit reported in the 1986 book, “The American Journalist,” that more than 34 percent of the staff in daily newspapers were women and 33 percent in television, due in part to government licensing incentives. These percentages remained nearly static for the next 20 years, even though by the late 1970’s—several years before the first Weaver-Wilhoit survey—women were the majority of journalism students and have been 60 percent or more of journalism students since the early 1980’s.

On the job, progress for women during the 1980’s and 1990’s was measured in their advancement into management positions at newspapers and television. The 2001 annual survey of daily newspapers by The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), made just before the softening economy, estimated that women were 37 percent of the news staffs (for the second year) and 34 percent of “newsroom supervisors.” The Radio-Television News Directors Association’s (RTNDA) annual survey for 2000 reports that women are 40 percent of the news staffs and nearly 35 percent of television news management.

Beyond the news departments, a study for the Newspaper Association of America, the trade association for daily newspaper management, reported that women were 20 percent of top newspaper executives in 1998 (publisher, general manager, president, etc.), up from nine percent in 1990. RTNDA found that women were 14 percent of TV general managers in 2000, with “no consistent pattern based on market size, staff size, affiliation or region.”

For more than 20 years, Vernon Stone, a journalism professor, has tracked the status of women in TV and radio. His analyses show women progressing from management in small and independent stations to larger group and network-owned stations. No one has tracked the numbers and positioning of women in newspapers as long or as consistently as Stone and RTNDA (which supported Stone’s work and continued the annual surveys with other professors following his retirement). The newspaper story must be reconstructed from other sources including three comprehensive histories of women in the various journalism professions and a number of other research projects, most of which reported only some findings in terms of gender.

Women and Newspapers

The stories about women and newspaper journalism are more complex than a mere telling of the numbers suggests since they are, not surprisingly, connected to broad societal trends. The 1960’s and 1970’s were, in addition to the decades of increasing women’s presence in news staffs, years of stunning news coverage of civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, resignations and all the related and mostly unprecedented works of the democracy—in short and in journalism terms, great news years.

These decades witnessed the emergence of the pioneering generation of women promoted into all areas of newspaper management—nearly three percent overall and more than five percent in news supervision by the mid-1970’s. But other challenges increasingly occupied newspaper executives during the 1960’s and 1970’s: Television news was gaining acceptance by viewers and advertisers as the ratio of newspapers to households dropped. The potential of technologies to revolutionize production was becoming apparent, as were the great costs involved in both capital and in the loss of newspaper production crafts. Family owners sold newspapers to groups or chains and newspaper companies—whether family-owned or otherwise—sold stock to the public. Business practices considered standard in other businesses were adopted and adapted to the new operating environments.

As women gained in numbers and experience, some discovered they weren’t getting the pay and promotions of male colleagues. Raising such issues with managers rarely brought change, so formal complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and lawsuits followed. According to mythology, the women should have been satisfied simply to be allowed to work as hard news journalists. Their actions were, at first, just one more bother. (Indeed, a male executive with The Associated Press joked about differing raises for a recently promoted man and woman while the sex-discrimination lawsuit against The A.P. was still pending in the early 1980’s.) Yet women working for AP, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others, eventually won cash and management changes in pre-trial settlements. From the beginning (the women at Newsweek filed the first EEOC complaint involving a major news organization in 1970), this action involving legal challenges forced many male newspaper executives to take diversity issues more seriously. By the mid-1970’s, Gannett attached part of executive bonuses to how successful managers were in helping women and minorities to progress.

By 1978, the leaders of the American Society of Newspaper Editors were concerned enough about the lack of minority journalists that they vowed to focus on increasing staff diversity and started an annual survey to monitor progress. Gender was not mentioned explicitly. Informally, women’s rise into editing roles was tracked by counting editing jobs in each annual edition of the Editor & Publisher Directory. The stagnation in professional staff wasn’t yet apparent. The ASNE goal was to have minority staff equal to the minority population by the year 2000. By 1998, with minority news staff at barely 11 percent, ASNE pushed the target date for parity with population to 2025 and added gender questions to the survey. Among those who lobbied ASNE to add women to the annual survey was the Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS), which recognized the need to know what was going on. (As it turns out, white women are the only major Census 2000 group whose news staff presence is close to the population’s.) The problem seems to be systemwide. Though women dominate journalism schools, newspapers are of career interest to a less than proportional group (perhaps reflecting lower newspaper readership by girls than by boys). Further, women generally have been no more than half of new graduates hired by newspapers. And they leave newspaper jobs at a higher rate than men do. The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) has been monitoring newspaper staff turnover for more than a decade with periodic management surveys of turnover and surveys of people who left newspaper jobs. [Findings from those surveys can be found at]

The Media Management Center at Northwestern University, after a two-year study including a survey and interviews, concluded that “women are underrepresented in newspaper management” and they are “clustered in low- and mid-management positions.” Its recent report, “Women in Newspapers,” discusses the “quite different perceptions of the key barriers that are holding women back” and also cites ways newspapers could reduce the turnover of women, which remains higher than that of men, and increase the likelihood of their promotion. The study emerged out of the center’s realization that in its programs for senior executives, in classes of 30 to 40 people from top jobs in the newspaper industry, “there was only a handful of women.”

A Freedom Forum research project surveyed journalists from newspapers of 25,000 or greater circulation in 1999 to explore job satisfaction and turnover of racial/ethnic minorities. The research sample of 853 included 351 white journalists, 452 journalists of racial/ethnic minorities because of the project’s purpose. Reanalyzed by gender (463 men, 389 women), samples often are so small that they offer clues more than conclusions, but they do show the importance of seeking information by gender and race/ethnicity and age. Sometimes the various subgroups agree almost completely along gender or racial/ethnic divisions; other times, each group is quite different from the others.

Women more than the men who said they might leave newspaper journalism identify as major factors a cluster of negatives—stress, family considerations, burnout, “feeling isolated from colleagues,” working conditions. The questions were asked only of those 400 respondents who said they might leave. In that group, white women and African-American men agreed most strongly that something “could be done” to keep them in newspaper journalism. The whole sample was asked about some of the more straightforward situations—immediate supervisor support for individual journalist’s stories and interest in career development, for instance. Responses weren’t reported separately for the more than 40 percent who said they might leave newspapers. As with other judgment questions, in some of these women as a whole were more positive than men. Similarly, only the minority journalists were asked some of the key questions. Clustering responses show that women journalists of color over 35 are the most distressed, echoing the NAA finding that among former employees, African-American women had the least satisfactory experience.

The Impact of Women on News Coverage

The record also is mixed on whether increased numbers of women journalists in a news organization affect content. Beginning in 1989, M. Junior Bridge inventoried women’s bylines and women in news photos and stories in a 20-newspaper sample for Women, Men and Media. Her eight annual reports show female front-page bylines rising from 27 percent (in the first-year sample of 10 newspapers) to a range from 33 to 35 percent for the last five years (close to the staff percentage). Women were named in only 11 percent of the stories in 1989, to a high of 25 percent in 1993, and dropped back to 15 percent by 1996. The pattern for women in photos was similar but higher: 27 percent in 1989, 39 percent in 1993, and 33 percent in 1996.

Northwestern’s Media Management Center, as part of an ambitious readership project, analyzed all stories for a week in 2000 from 100 newspapers. Men were quoted in 93 percent of the 3,500 front-page stories, women in 50 percent, and women were only about 20 percent of the sources overall. The broad-stroke results also show themes of all stories with only men as sources (more than 60 percent about science and environment, nearly 60 percent about parenting and religion) and those with at least one woman source (68 percent in education stories; health, home, food, fashion and travel more than 67 percent). Given the depth of the project and the care to capture all imaginable data that could be analyzed, the project might yet provide the elusive connections between newspaper staff diversity and compelling connection with its audience.

Anecdotally, women journalists (and journalists of color, male and female) have unlimited stories of ways they have made differences in news content—topics covered, sources consulted and quoted, storytelling approach, how stories are covered and illustrated—and how newspapers are managed. Presence of women as sources doesn’t guarantee, of course, differing points of view from those expressed by men or determine what’s news any more than absence of women negates these possibilities. But, arguably, presence increases possibilities as Bridge found in two projects.

  • One study, done for a consulting group in Oregon, examined the portrayal of leaders/leadership in selected newspapers and other publications in 1994 and 1996. Essentially, she found that white men are labeled leaders while women and men of color, described with the same attributes as the white men, weren’t labeled as leaders.

  • Bridge’s second study looked at whether and how nurses were involved in health coverage in seven newspapers in September 1997, plus news magazines and trade publications. Bridge guided the research group that found nine percent of the stories that month were on health care. Nurses, the largest professional group within health care (at 2.5 million), were only four percent of the sources—most often in local news sections and in stories with female bylines. (A similar look at three major newspapers in 1990 had found nurses were only one percent of sources quoted directly, with byline gender not related to nurses as sources. Women physicians were cited more often by women reporters and somewhat more than their presence in the field.)

Presence also sends a message to readers of a greater sense of possibility and diversity. It helps respond to the complaint, “I don’t see myself in that newspaper,” that is heard from some who believe newspapers have little or no relevance to them. A greater sense of possibility comes from a report commissioned by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and published last summer. Substantial percentages of the 360 editors who responded (of 512 editors of newspapers with 20,000 or more circulation) said in various ways that they and their staffs work to cover diverse aspects of stories rather than just conflict and controversy. For instance, more than half reported that they try “always” or “most times” to report “the choices or trade-offs a community might need to address a community issue.” Perhaps coincidentally, women are more likely than men to see issues in these levels of complexity.

About the time that women started making inroads into journalism, I set out to earn my way covering government and politics. I didn’t know there were issues about journalists who are women. I found out fast and, with the top boss’s encouragement, started seeking ways to deal with the issues. Eventually, I accepted a move into management. Many women (and those of our bosses who promoted diversity) believed some of us had to go there to help make changes that could make work better for women and men and could help journalism serve the public more effectively. We just didn’t think it would take so long to happen.

The experience of pioneers—those women who were “the first,” “the only,” the plaintiffs—along with the increasing numbers of women who are today in newspaper work and in the executive suites, help define the perspectives and values many women bring with them to their jobs. Research also continues to help clarify and quantify issues and opportunities. When seen through the prism of various perspectives, this knowledge can lead to an expansion of the common ground between the genders. And at these points of common ground can also be found ways to increase journalism’s value to democracy. Unhappily, research also reminds us that for now women journalists, in particular, will need to keep asking tough questions about our profession and continue to care enough to insist on getting answers.

Christy Bulkeley, a former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher, is part of a research group compiling and updating benchmark research about women in journalism and communications education and professions.

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