Anita Dubey

A Woman’s Place in the News

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

The women's pages are back. But are the women?

Joanne Ramondt thought she had found a good example of male bias in the pages of the Calgary Herald. In a photo of a husband and wife business team, the husband was standing in the foreground, clearly the focus of attention, while the wife sat off in the background with the children.
Ramondt is a member of the gender monitoring committee at the Herald, which has been surveying the paper for such biases since last May. Although the photo indicated to Ramondt and other committee members that something was wrong, they agreed one photo wasn’t enough proof. But it took just a few more weeks to confirm their instincts: in almost every photograph of a family, the husband was the dominant image and the wife was in the background with the children. When the photo department was presented with the series of pictures, it realized its unconscious bias. Coverage immediately improved.
This was just one example of what the committee saw. “Whole days went by and we found our section fronts presented men only, even with the entertainment and life sections,” said Ramondt. “When you have day after day of this, you start to understand why women aren’t reading the paper.”

The Herald isn’t alone among Canadian papers, either in its lack of female presence or in its skew to a higher male readership. About 63 per cent of Canadian women say they read a newspaper yesterday, compared to 75 per cent of men, a gap which translates into hundreds of thousands of papers not read each day. And newspaper articles refer to women as subjects or sources only 19 per cent of the time, according to a Media Watch study of 15 Canadian papers.
Newspapers are no longer the main source of news for most Canadians, who turn to television instead. Merge that with the fact that women-the main audience advertisers want to reach-have stopped reading newspapers in alarming numbers in the past two decades. This explains why, over the past few years, newspapers have seriously committed themselves to regaining this lost constituency.
The women they’re seeking are too busy with careers and families to read anything not interesting or relevant. Weekday readership dips to its lowest levels, at 57 per cent, among women in their late 20s and early 30s, 75 per cent of whom are in the work force.
The most direct approach to the problem has also turned out to be the most controversial: the creation of a special section for women. The concept aims to reflect the lives of women in the 1990s, but evokes memories of the fluffy women’s sections of the past. The approach has been called “condescending” by some and “liberating” by others. The Montreal Gazette became the first, and so far, only Canadian newspaper to try it when their weekly five-page section, called WomanNews, debuted in March, 1992.
At worst, it’s seen solely as a gimmick to attract advertisers. The first of these new women’s sections was the Chicago Tribune’s, which appeared in 1991. In its first year, the Tribune’s Womanews drew a 21 per cent increase in ad lineage over the previous section, launching a women’s-section trend in the United States. But the biggest concern is that these sections will become a ghetto for stories about women, excusing editors from improving women’s coverage elsewhere.
“My first choice is to have those stories all through the paper,” said Patricia Graham, a senior editor at The Vancouver Sun. That is, in fact, what the Sun and other newspapers, such as the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, The Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald are attempting. But it’s tricky. Not only must papers implement changes quickly, they must market them aggressively, or they won’t convince women to start reading newspapers again.
That’s why the new women’s sections, though not necessarily the best answer to the problem, shouldn’t be readily dismissed. Unlike previous women’s sections, they have a more dynamic feel, with articles such as how feminism excludes minority women, advice on being a pregnant working professional and opinion columns by freelancers from across the continent.
But newspapers still need to make a strong and vigilant commitment to improve coverage overall, in order to dispel the perception among many women that newspapers are for men. Women obviously aren’t going to start reading the paper regularly just because of a few pages once a week. A special section, however, may be a starting point to draw them in. And The Gazette’s WomanNews, although it hasn’t attracted much advertising, does seem to please its target readers, including busy working women.

The new women’s section works because of the simple premise on which it is based: find out why women are reading papers less, understand who they are and give them what they want. Then they will read. This idea came out of the experience of Colleen Dishon, a senior editor at the Chicago Tribune.
As a manager, she heard stories from women who worked for her complaining how difficult their lives were. Dishon thought that the newspaper was not meeting the needs of these women and others like them. “There was nothing in the paper that showed them they weren’t alone in their struggle, that others were in the same boat,” she said, “How could the paper serve these women? With the affirmation that this was a large group.”
And so, in 1985, Dishon created Tempo Woman, a section aimed at working women. Over the next six years, following extensive research, it changed three times and broadened its target audience. Its final version, called Womanews, appeared in April, 1991. “The male reporters thought it was a terrible idea,” said Dishon, “but they would think that any special thing for women would be.”
Womanews uses all the paper’s bureaus and has a large freelance budget to produce a mixture of in-depth news stories, features, profiles, a calendar and classifieds. Distributed in the 7ribune’s Sunday paper, it goes to more than two million readers.
Almost three-quarters of the 7ribune’s female readers say they read it regularly, and it has the strongest appeal to working women, particularly under age 35. In less than two years, Womanews has been syndicated to more than 60 newspapers. It was a model for The Gazette’s WomanNews as well as similar ventures in Arizona, Ohio, Oklahoma and Kentucky, to name a few, with names like Every Woman, Accent on Today’s Woman and You. Its critics no longer complain.

“Women-food” reads the big banner headline of The Gazette’s women’s section from 1960. A glance at any such page of the time shows what editors thought women were interested in: weddings, social gossip, cooking, fashion and not much else.
It wasn’t always so. In 1889, Kit Coleman started writing a column for The Toronto Daily Mail called “Fashion Notes and Fancies for the Fair Sex.” She soon renamed her column “Woman’s Kingdom”-perhaps sarcastically-and started filling a page with political commentary, literary criticism and short stories along with the lighter items. Coleman had thousands of fans, male and female, including Wilfrid Laurier.
The women’s pages survived into the 1960s, but they had their critics. In 1963,Christina Newman wrote in Macleans condemning their content. “In the collection of cliches and
claptrap, of syndicated syrup and trumped up trash they call the women’s pages, the editors and publishers of newspapers are apparently trying to reach some long since vanished female who measures out her days dispensing kindliness in tea gowns and sandwiches on silver salvers, preoccupied mainly with the length of this spring’s skirts or the content of this Sunday’s supper menu,” she wrote. The sour attitude toward the new women’s sections may well be rooted in memories of these old sections.

Lucinda Chodan of the Gazette was skeptical when the male managing editor mentioned the idea of a woman’s section to her in the summer of 1991. Chodan, assistant managing editor, immediately thought “ghettoization.” That August she visited the women’s section editor at the Tribune to study the idea. “I came back converted,” said Chodan. The success of the Tribune’s section as well as Dishon’s extensive research convinced her that a new women’s section might work in Montreal.
The research considered, for instance, the startling fact that American papers lost about a quarter of their female readers in the 1980s. In Canada, the losses have been similar, but not so dramatic. In 1992, there was a 12 per cent gap between the number of men and women who read newspapers, compared to 1968 when 82 per cent of women and 81 per cent of men said they read a newspaper on an average day.
Yet a U.S. study found that women between the ages of35 and 44 find time to read three hours a week, compared to 2.7 hours by men the same age.
“These women are reading magazines,” said Donna Nebenzahl, editor of WomanNews at The Gazette. “The reality is that there isn’t anything in the paper they want to look at.”
The committee on women’s coverage at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix found that women “will make time to read gripping, intelligent writing, even longer pieces as well as humorous articles and practical, well-organized features that help them cope with their complex lives and demanding roles.”
When they do pick up a newspaper, women are more prolific readers than men. They have a wider range of interests and will look at or read more sections and pages. This makes them appealing to advertisers. Women control 85 per cent of consumer spending, and advertisers believe they are responsible for most household decisions (including the cancellation of newspaper subscriptions).
The research from the Tribune, The StarPhoenix and The Gazette also showed that women want information relevant to them in one place, so they don’t have to search for articles of interest.
Unlike the Lifestyle or Living sections which followed the women’s sections in the 1970s, WomanNews at The Gazette is targeted exclusively at women and based on a “news you can use” philosophy. “There’s nothing in the section about how to cook, how to parent or how to clean,” said Nebenzahl. And unlike most women’s magazines, it examines harder news stories. The section has published an infographic on dealing with stress, a story on the low percentage of women working in the sciences, a fashion piece on briefcases, and every week it carries news briefs and a calendar of local events.

Still, some women are offended by the idea. Where is the guarantee that male editors will still worry about coverage of women’s issues, or about male bias in the rest of the paper? Will this hinder more than help women in the long run?
“It’s insulting to give women 10 pages and say that’s enough,” said Linda Hawke, who conducted Media Watch’s survey last year. “Is that what we’re aiming for? I don’t think that 10 pages in a newspaper is what we’re aiming for.
“We’d like to see things more evenly distributed throughout the paper, and dealt with in a comprehensive way. There has to be more of an effort to get women’s opinions and voices in the rest of the paper.”
Nebenzahl says the section isn’t intended to replace the news, but to put a new spin and local angle on items of particular interest to women, with more context and depth than the typical news story. “We don’t cover issues that are deemed news for the A or B sections,” she said. ‘~nd there’s a concerted effort to not make it a repository for stories about women.” Chodan says having the section has sensitized others in the newsroom to women’s concerns.
Most importantly, WomanNews is satisfying its readers. “The best experience was the reaction I got from people I interviewed,” said Frances Bula of her stint as Woman News reporter. “There were professionals, businesswomen, immigrants, educators, a diverse range of women. They were excited about [WomanNews] and told me they read it every week.”
According to The Gazette’s research, 59 per cent of women who read WomanNews say it increases the value of the paper for them, and three-quarters say it’s useful in their lives. What they like most are health and lifestyle articles and news stories affecting women. Advertisers have reacted with much less enthusiasm. In some weeks, the section has had just one ad. This may be because they’ve committed themselves to other well-established sections in the newspaper where they’ve always bought ads. For now, though, the section will remain as long as it continues to satisfy its target readers.

At other newspapers, the process of balancing coverage has been neither smooth nor quick. Editors at The Vancouver Sun had a mandate to reserve page three of the first section for stories of interest to women. The plan lasted less than a year because of other changes to the newspaper, but there were problems with the approach. Patricia Graham, a senior editor at the paper, said some of the articles were too featurish, which broke the pace of the news section. And sometimes it had too many stories about serious issues, such as breast cancer and rape, on the same day. The approach now is to ask section editors daily whether they have stories of interest to women or multicultural communities.
“We worry sometimes whether we can move fast enough before we lose more readers,” said Graham. “We still haven’t come to grips with the content question. It’s not just what’s covered, but the angle. For instance, women are more concerned about sexual assault, while men are more interested in stories about false accusations. It affects coverage. “
At the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, the idea of a woman’s page was first mentioned at an editorial meeting in the fall of 1991. It was only considered seriously after a task force created to deal with the issue of women’s coverage recommended it as part of its report.
The idea wasn’t popular in the newsroom at first. The task force circulated a questionnaire among newsroom staff to ask what they thought the problem was with coverage. Some of the responses they got were “women are using the paper for their own agenda” and “there’s nothing wrong.”
With the support of senior editors, two pages called Access became part of the Saturday paper’s Prism section last September. Women’s issues editor Deanna Herman worked with the Prism editor to find space for Access. They moved some columns into the Sunday paper, and cut back on space for books, art and the cover story. To combat potential ghettoization, Herman attends news meetings and assigns stories to reporters in other sections.

Despite the initial problems, the pages are now accepted in the newsroom and women readers seem to like them. In contrast, a few months previously, The StarPhoenix’s auto section increased in size without the backlash or commotion surrounding the women’s page.
This sort of reaction happens because the problem is so deeply entrenched. A study by Gannett newspapers in the United States found that papers allocate beat reporters in favour of male interests. For instance, 19 per cent of reporters cover sports while only 8 per cent are assigned to family or lifestyle issues.
Yet 74 per cent of women say they read family or lifestyle sections frequently compared to 67 per cent of men who say they read sports just as often.
“If there were more women in higher positions, part of the problem would start to take care of itself,” said Hawke of Media Watch, “and they have to be in positions where they can make decisions about how information is presented.” In addition, an eight-month study of the readership gap by The Edmonton Journal said there should be more female reporters and columnists, more stories about women, more women experts quoted in stories and the creation of a special page to cover women in the workplace.

As editors rely more on the opinions of focus groups, and as society becomes more diverse with more people from different cultures, it’s difficult to foresee how newspapers will adapt.
“There’s an argument to be made that the newspapers of the future will be highly targeted,” said Nebenzahl of The Gazette. “In the past there was a captive market. It was easy to say, ‘Let’s give them blank section.’ It’s more difficult now. Resources are limited and you need to consider the market. But this has to blend with the fact that you’re still a newspaper.”
At the Tribune, Dishon now works full-time developing sections. Her latest creation was a section called KidNews which started last August, and she’s exploring the idea of a section for baby boomers of the Clinton generation. The Tribune is also looking at ways of unbundling the paper so that readers can get just the parts they want. At an extreme are papers like USA Today, which are highly market-driven. Although it may be criticized for its short, superficial reporting, USA Today is considered a leader among American papers for its coverage of women and minorities. Each section has stories which reflect the diversity of its readers. It also has a mandate to have a photo of a woman or member of a minority on page one, above the fold, every day.
Canadian newspapers are headed in different directions. Joanne Ramondt of the Calgary Herald is involved in a project to merge the city and life sections. Back in 1972, when she worked as a summer student at The London Free Press, female interns were obligated to spend a month working on the women’s pages. “We all hated it, and cheered when the section died,” she said. She sees the disadvantages of the new sections, but won’t completely reject the idea. “Now I’m coming full circle. I’m thinking that these sections may be good.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

sixteen + 11 =