It’s not just Jill Abramson: Women everywhere are getting pushed out of journalism

Blame the techies.

Nikki Usher
May 28
Nikki Usher is the author of Making News at The New York Times and an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

The firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson has been covered with all the gossipy verve of a traditional tabloid scandal. But by obsessing over the sordid details, we’re missing a key point: Technology has made it harder for women to survive, and thrive, in journalism. And that has big consequences for the quality of news we receive.

Admittedly, the cards have always been stacked against women. As Washington Post reporter Lydia DePillis aptly pointed out on her 100 percent men Tumblr, every single editor of The New Republic has been male. Almost every single newspaper chain is headed by a man, save Gannett. A recent New Yorker issue was written entirely by men.

It’s harder for women to be recognized as top journalists too. A study out of the University of Missouri looked at 814 Pulitzer winners; just 113 were female. This, even though their qualifications were largely better: they were more likely to have graduate degrees and work at a top newspaper. Not a single woman has hosted a network late night show.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 10.27.45 AM

A post from 100 percent men showing an all-male Wall Street Journal event. That incomplete list has since been updated to include more women.

But the requirements of a digital-first newsroom are only widening that gap. Sophisticated infographics, interactive storytelling, and data-crunching have become essential to online journalism. It’s part of a critical mission to keep web news profitable. And unlike many other parts of traditional newsrooms, these teams are still hiring. But they’re hiring programmers and techies, most of whom are male. Women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs. According to Forbes, that number isn’t growing.

I’ve seen this phenomenon firsthand. Over the past three years, I’ve studied major newsrooms across the country and the world for my research. From The Times to the BBC to the AP – and more – it’s jarring to see how few women hold the programmer-journalist roles that have become so prized.

When I do find women in these spots, they’re often doing front-end work, designing the interactives rather than doing the programming that’s so highly prized.

Journalism has also seen a terrific flourishing of new kinds of news — venture-backed for-profit start-ups that promise to deliver editorial content in new kinds of ways, from long-form to mobile delivery.

But these efforts, too, are dominated by men. Take Vox, headed by Ezra Klein, formerly of Wonkblog. He started it with a woman co-founder, Melissa Bell, who has gotten significantly less attention—certainly no profiles in The New Republic or New York magazine. Data phenom Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight promises to give us quantitative assessments of social phenomena, has defended the poor ratio of only six women on his 19 person staff.

“The protagonists are almost exclusively – and increasingly – male and white.”

As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, argued in The Guardian “the protagonists are almost exclusively – and increasingly – male and white.”

It’s also harder for women to get venture capital to back their projects. Only 2 percent of venture money goes to women. Two percent.

•       •       •       •       •

Why does this matter? Pro forma, it’s not politically correct to say that women have a different perspective. But the fact that they face structural inequalities may make a critical difference in how they conceive of and cover stories, and how they understand their audience.

As I was working on my book, “Making News at The New York Times,” I saw Jill Abramson help appoint other strong woman leaders in the newsroom. I watched journalist Tanzina Vega rise from web producer to race and ethnicity national reporter, a Page One beat.

The Times also saw other new kinds of coverage, as Slate’s Amanda Hess notes, from stories about virtual sexual harassment of female gamers to stories about female homeless children, disrupting what Hess called “the paper’s masculine approach to news coverage.”

What we’re ultimately talking about is a serious consequence – the type of news we get stands to be less diverse and ultimately, may fail to capture some of the diversity of experiences that need to be reflected in journalism to tell a complete story of social life.

So the discussion begins with the dramatic exit of one woman from The New York Times, but it has to continue for us all.

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