Early on, female journalists were typically limited to covering stories about women; in 1937, a group of them listened to Republican National Committee member Marion Martin outline plans for organizing Republican women. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press
Edited by June O. Nicholson, Pamela J. Creedon, Wanda S. Lloyd, and Pamela J. Johnson
University of Illinois Press. 321 Pages.

In reading “The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press,” I found myself thinking about how much progress women have made since the mid-1960’s when I was told that the Chicago Daily News wasn’t hiring me “because we already have four women.” And trust me—that was a lot of women in one newsroom in those days. I am almost certain they never said words like those to any man who they weren’t hiring because they already had 40 others. Or there was the time when a newsmagazine bureau chief asked me what I would do if someone I was covering ducked into the men’s room.

Ask any woman journalist of my generation and her stories will be much the same. Yet, with perseverance, we broke through. What comes through in this book is how many of the women we meet in its pages, along with numerous others who became newspaper editors and publishers, helped other women to progress as well.

Still, it can be disheartening to read about women’s circumstances in newsrooms today, and doing so reminded me that we should be further along now than we are. In 2005, women held more than half of the nation’s professional jobs. Yet in the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) employment survey in 2009, women were 34.8 per cent of newsroom supervisors and 37 percent of newsroom employees, and those figures are down slightly in each category from the previous year. In 1971, 22 percent of daily newspaper journalists were women. This doesn’t seem like enough progress to have made in nearly four decades, especially at a time when there are far fewer newsroom jobs.

So what does this mean for the news business and for its consumers? Sandra Mims Rowe, former editor of The Oregonian and a past ASNE president, summed it up this way:

[Even though increasing opportunities for women] is a defining social change of the last 50 years … many of the same questions and issues I faced 25 years ago continue to derail career advancement. Women with children still feel great pressure to accommodate and juggle (I long ago stopped calling it balance) home and family demands. Consequently, flexibility or lack thereof in a particular boss or workplace or day-care arrangement often can be more career-defining in crucial years than any other factor. That, along with whether there is positive encouragement in the workplace and the presence of successful role models, markedly affects the number of women who stay in the pipeline for promotion.

When I wrote the book, “A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page,” in the late 1980’s, I tried to spell out the different perspective that women bring to covering the news—not better, but different. Many women (not all) see stories in ways many men (not all) do not. In what topics they choose to cover, in how they decide to tell the story, and in their commentaries, men and women display different approaches. Gender can also play a role in reporters gaining access to or trust of sources. In Muslim countries, for example, women reporters have an access that men often lack—to interview women.

With more women in management today, they are now able to affect the style of newsroom operations. They tend to be more consultative than authoritarian—although certainly successful male publishers and editors are opening their ears to a wider range of ideas than “back in the day.” As Diane McFarlin, publisher of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune and also a former ASNE president, put it: “Now Gen X and Y employees expect a greater role in decision-making, so a more consultative style of leadership is required.”

In addition, blogs and online social networks have conditioned readers to expect more interaction. One way to connect, wrote Donna Reed, who is vice president for news and multimedia strategy for Media General in Richmond, Virginia, is to rely on “our own instincts.” We should do this, she said:

… not just as journalists but also as siblings, children, parents, homeowners, apartment dwellers, and grocery shoppers. We’re people, too. For years we’ve professed total neutrality about life in order to appear to be perfectly objective observers. Baloney. In the process of sticking to the strict separation of community and newspaper, we’ve abandoned important connections. We’ve lost touch with what people really want newspapers to help them sort out. Our elitism is apparent to readers who have responded by leaving us.

Hiring more diverse newsroom staffs is an obvious way to reach more communities, but too many news organizations still don’t get it. Many women do. Among them are Sandy Close of the Pacific News Service and the New America Media Association, and Sharon Rosenhause, retired managing editor at the (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel. Rosenhause, who chaired ASNE’s diversity committee, believes women assumed much of this leadership in promoting diversity because of their own history of “second-class citizenship, a history of not being listened to and of being disrespected.”

Women who are in news management today face enormous challenges as news media fracture and readership turns online or off completely. Julia Wallace, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, quotes another female editor as saying, “How come when the guys were in charge, they could just put out a good newspaper? Now that we’re in these jobs, we’re supposed to save the newspaper.” It’s a tougher job now, but somebody’s got to do it and news organizations that ignore half the talent pool by not doing what is necessary to attract and promote women make it even harder on themselves.

Generational change fascinates me, and among young people I know today I find a high level of concern for social justice. This is reflected in the pages of “The Edge of Change,” through young women who don’t give up on objectivity while also demonstrating their empathy in the stories they write and the photographs they take.

The book has some important career advice as well, including this from Pam Luecke of Washington & Lee University and a former newspaper executive:

You must always remember that your career path is for you to set. It’s not something that happens to you; it’s not something that others draw f
or you. When you encounter a brick wall, rather than stand there and curse at it, make a right turn and explore some other avenues.

Luecke is not saying run away from the challenges, but think about other ways you can make things work for you.

Today’s generation of women journalists faces challenges—not necessarily the ones my generation faced, though some endure, such as the demands of juggling of work and family. “Given the progress that has already been made,” asked pioneering Washington Post reporter Dorothy Gilliam, “how much further do we push? My answer: a lot further.”

We are, as the book’s title declares so aptly, still only on “the edge of change.”

Kay Mills is a longtime newspaper journalist and the author of several books including “Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television” and “A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page.”

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