By Deborah Howell
Saturday, December 13, 2008 6:07 PM
Women and men read The Post in roughly equal proportions, but female readers don't read it as frequently, and the paper is failing to draw women with younger children. Readers who follow women's sports or their daughters' athletic teams complain that women's sports don't get the ink they deserve.
The Post, like most of the news media, is dominated by coverage of men from the A section to Business and Sports. Over the years, researchers at Northwestern University and the Project for Excellence in Journalism have found that in the news media, men are the focus of many more stories, are quoted far more often and appear in more photos than women do. A recent study of two weeks' worth of content at The Post reached a similar conclusion.
That is partly because the world's newsmakers -- whether sports figures, religious leaders, military officers, public officials or criminals -- tend to be men. So women do not see themselves portrayed as fully in The Post.
"Male dominance of news inevitably reflects men's greater likelihood of holding positions of authority, yet women seem absent from political news in disproportionate share to their positions of power," according to an overview of the subject done for a November 2007 seminar on Women and the News at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. A study of the news media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in 2005 found that 88 percent of the stories quoted at least one man, compared with 41 percent quoting a woman; women were quoted more than 50 percent of the time only in lifestyle stories. Newspapers tend to be better about using female sources than other media.
For years, studies by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press have shown that while men and women have equal interest in the news, women almost always score lower than men on basic current-events questions, no matter what their education, age and work status. But women are just as knowledgeable as men on issues that are of particular interest to them, such as education and health care. (Men can name the secretary of state, and women the local school superintendent.)
Post readership research mirrors that, showing that men and women are equally interested in breaking and national news, but that women are more interested in local news, especially about schools, and in health, food and home topics.
A group of women in the Post newsroom studied the issue this year and urged top male editors to pay more attention to issues that draw women, to look for female experts to be quoted, for female leaders to be featured and for women to be in photos as much as men.
Several studies conclude that women are far more likely than men to make spending decisions related to the home, something that should interest advertisers, and that they plan to a greater degree than men, making the Weekend section or online listings of greater relevance.
Plus, as I've urged before, women's opinions must be featured more often on the op-ed page, which is still overwhelmingly male.
Another way to draw all readers is for stories and information to be presented in a way that shows what importance they might have to readers. Too many Post stories are presented from an institutional point of view.
Opportunities abound, especially on Page 1, to draw in women with stories about families, relationships and parenting. The Post in print has precious little coverage of those topics outside of Style advice columnists. Washingtonpost.com has a blog, On Parenting, and women gravitate to the Web site's Smart Living page. Women also care about consumer issues, which can get short shrift.
Getting more women into news pages may be easier than getting them into sports pages, which, like the rest of The Post, have a dwindling amount of space for stories. The sports pages' readership is dominated by men, and local women and their coaches frequently complain that women's sports and top female athletes don't get high-profile coverage, whether for high school, college or the women's pro teams.
There's almost a one-word answer to that: Football. This region loves football more than any other sport, and for that reason, the Redskins and high school and college football get more coverage, said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, assistant managing editor for sports. Sports editors have guides that other editors don't; besides Post readership studies and washingtonpost.com traffic, television ratings and game attendance are important.
It's no surprise that the Redskins are king. Garcia-Ruiz said readership figures show the team has "dipped a little" in popularity, from "unbelievably popular to extremely popular." But the team is at the top for female readers as well. Because they're popular with both sexes, women's tennis and Olympic sports get more coverage than other women's sports.
Dan Uthman, high school sports editor, said, "We cover girls' and boys' sports equally. We treat volleyball the same way we treat wrestling; girls' soccer the same way we treat boys' soccer; softball the same way we treat baseball. It is equal in philosophy and practice." He said Sports "gives more attention to football, and boys' basketball slightly more play than other sports, but that is merely to serve general demand and interest among the readership."
The newsroom, among professionals, is split about 60 percent men and 40 percent women. There are many mid-level female editors, but only two near the top. And Page 1 decisions ultimately are made only by men.
The Post, both in print and online, reports to Katharine Weymouth, a mother of three; that's why I'm optimistic that The Post has the impetus to make needed changes.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.