The Case of the Vanishing Young Mothers

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Post editors are concerned that young women with children are not becoming Post readers as they get older. Younger mothers, ages 18 to 34, read The Post daily at about half the rate of men with children. That is true for women who work outside the home and those who are college-educated.

A Post task force is looking at the problem and will make recommendations. I'd love to hear from young mothers about this. If you know anyone who fits this demographic and doesn't read The Post, please send them my way.

Concern about keeping women as newspaper readers has been an issue for many years. Older readers will remember the old "women's pages" that carried social news and recipes. Those started to disappear in the 1960s and '70s as women entered the workforce in droves. Updated feature sections of wider and more sophisticated interest were introduced. The Post created Style and separate Home, Health and Food sections.

While male and female readers can be interested in the same journalism, several factors may contribute to women not becoming regular Post readers. Time may be the biggest one, and the hardest for The Post to resolve. Sunday readership is about the same between younger men and women, so women do read the paper when they have time.

Would younger women with children read The Post if they found it more compelling or if they found themselves reflected more in daily coverage? After all, many women read magazines avidly, and as one young woman told me, magazine ink doesn't rub off on her hands.

Several young mothers in the newsroom said that they hardly have time to read The Post daily. Sports department administrator Jackie Alvarado said she subscribes only to the Sunday paper. "There really isn't any time in the day where I can stop and read the paper. Just about all of my girlfriends have the same type of scenario as I do, and we many times don't really find things in the daily paper that catch our attention and would make us slow down and be late for things in order to read it."

While most top editors at The Post are men, there are many female editors who are mothers, and a few are in upper management. Men make most story choices for Page 1. I believe women want to see more stories that are not on The Post's front burner -- on families, relationships and parenting. Men might want to read these stories, too. Those stories were more prevalent when the Style section had Style Plus five days a week for personal and consumer information. It was cut to three days, but now it runs one day a week and consists mainly of reader essays. Style, Home and Health occasionally deal with family and parenting issues.

Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for Metro news, said Annie Gowen of the Fairfax bureau and Donna St. George of the Montgomery County bureau were recently assigned to write stories on suburban culture and family life. Reporter Ian Shapira's primary beat is Prince William County's schools, but he also is writing about young upwardly mobile people in the area. A Jan. 15 front-page story by Shapira about young professionals with toddlers brought compliments from readers, many of them women.

Health reporter Laura Sessions Stepp, who has written about such issues, said, "My sense is that there are fewer staff-written stories now about relationships, parenting dilemmas, faith and religion, and consumer problems, as well as community breakdown and cohesiveness and what contributes to both. Women don't see enough of their everyday lives in our paper other than in Style, Health, Home and Food."

Reporter Miranda Spivack, who covers Montgomery County, said: "Women are especially interested in local news. They are careful readers of Metro, especially the suburban professionals and neighborhood activists I bump into all the time. They want to recognize themselves, their neighbors, their neighborhoods, their issues in the newspaper."

She sees the Metro section as "a mirror of the community, an opportunity to recognize shared experiences. Their issues: schools, schools and more schools. We don't write enough about how our school systems are really working, what it's like to be a family coping with an underperforming school system or one that has schools operating on extreme overdrive, such as Montgomery and Fairfax. Anything affecting children -- health, mental health, how to cope with the challenges and joys of being a multitasking parent -- is important. How to make ends meet in a highly expensive area. Too often we seem to write for and about the very wealthy and show little knowledge or empathy for the lives many of our readers live."

Copy editor Charles Clark commented: "Not to stereotype, but judging by the differences between the way my wife and I read the paper, I might surmise that women tend to be slightly more interested in articles on how to live one's life and less avid about articles on inside-the-Beltway policy disputes (The Post's stock-in-trade, of course)."

If The Post is to get those female readers, it will have to be important to men as well. Steve Holmes, a National assignment editor, said: "This shouldn't be seen as just a woman thing. We need to get this right, and guys ought to pay attention to it. Men still run the paper at most levels, and we need their buy-in."

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at

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