The next generation of diversity

Why aren't we studying the digital pipeline?

This week the Women’s Media Center released its annual report on the gender and racial diversity of US media. Drawing together research by a variety of professional organizations and news outlets, it contains more than a few bleak statistics (90 percent of sports editors are white men; men were quoted nearly three times as much as women in frontpage New York Times stories). While the lack of diversity in cable news, newspaper A-sections, and on talk radio is appalling, it’s not shocking. What is surprising is that so few organizations are tracking the progress of women and other marginalized groups in digital media.

And make no mistake, the journalists of the future are all getting their start in digital. Despite many major media outlets paying lip service to the “changing landscape,” their online properties are still home to most of their low-prestige jobs. Young magazine writers cut their teeth with short Web articles before they have a prayer of being published in print. Interns compose tweets and find art for slideshows. Many of today’s widely read opinion writers got their start as bloggers—and maintain an online audience even as they expand to other platforms.

In a section devoted to the pipeline of up-and-coming journalists, the Women’s Media Center report references the 2012 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates survey of recent journalism school graduates. Far and away the most common entry-level jobs were those in digital media: 24 percent of men and 20 percent of women (and 25 percent of minority) grads went from j-school to online publishing.

As audience and revenue are increasingly found online, it’s safe to assume that some of these outlets will abandon their view of digital and social media as the bullpen rather than the big game. That only makes it more important to start tracking digital media in a systematic way now. But few people are paying attention to the digital byline breakdown. Last year, a major report by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and Nieman Journalism Lab spurred a backlash for its ignorance of important contributions to digital media made by women and people of color. This was an “oral history,” though, not a cold count of bylines or an attempt to objectively measure influence. Digital-media mavens Jeanne Brooks and Sabrina Hersi-Issa are in the process of compiling an alternative oral history that accounts for contributions made by women and people of color. But both of these projects, while valuable, are about learning from the past; I’m far more invested in the present and future, which means being concerned with hard numbers about whose voices are being heard in digital media.

Most reports take into account the demographics of the target audience when they evaluate whether media-makers are sufficiently diverse. And make no mistake: The audience online is diverse. A greater percentage of women than men use nearly every social media platform, according to Pew. (The exception is the male-dominated Reddit, and Twitter, which is used by 18 percent of men and 17 percent of women.) While the Women’s Media Center report cites these figures on female users and also references the low number of women who’ve chosen to pursue tech careers, there was apparently little research to cite on the race and gender of digital editorial gatekeepers.

Granted, the pace and amorphous nature of digital media is going to make such research difficult. But for those of us who’d rather look forward than back, this is a maddening gap in our knowledge, which limits our ability to agitate for better representation. Right now it’s easy to see which journalists are making the leap from low-paying digital gigs to full-time staff jobs to even more lucrative media opportunities—because there are only a few such examples. What’s harder to see is whether those examples are demographically representative of the pipeline, or whether digital-first outlets are replicating the diversity mistakes of their predecessors.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk