minority reports

Women were digital media pioneers, but there’s still a gender gap there

Women are both underrepresented and underappreciated in the journalism startup world
March 24, 2014

USA Today launched its first website just days before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and its staff helped create a new kind of crisis storytelling in the aftermath. Rapid updates, photos, and story indexes made the Web, for the first time in human history, a significant source of information for understanding national tragedy. Two years later, another major paper continued to shape our understanding of online news when a Web producer at Philly.com assembled the multimedia version of Black Hawk Down. On the West Coast, meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News unveiled Good Morning Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s, and it quickly became a popular proto-blog focused on the booming tech industry.

The journalists spearheading these projects had more in common than a knack for technical experimentation: All three were women. Lorraine Cichowski, now senior vice president of technology for the Associated Press, led USA Today‘s digital operations during what became known as the “watershed event for online news.” In Philadelphia, Jennifer Musser Metz crafted what media scholar C.W. Anderson called “one of the first newsroom projects to tap into the digital potential of the Internet.” And it was Patricia Sullivan, now a reporter at the Washington Post, who hand-coded hyperlinks into her column early each morning. These women and others–including Michelle Johnson at Boston.com, Retha Hill at WashingtonPost.com, and Emily Bell at TheGuardian.com–pioneered techniques familiar to any digital journalist, like rolling news updates, photo galleries, and timelines.

Alas, their efforts have not translated into gender parity in the digital media landscape. As Bell wrote for the Guardian last week (and then reiterated for CJR), the people labeled as rockstars on the frontiers of journalism are almost entirely men like Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, and Glenn Greenwald. How, Bell asks, can this kind of journalism be truly revolutionary if the key players all look like the newspaper barons of old?

The gender discrepancy Bell describes isn’t limited to these high-profile startups, according to my own research, which I’ll present in detail at the Society of Professional Journalists’ conference in Boston next month. Women in digital media, I learned, are both under represented and less likely to receive credit for their work. Bell’s observation that “the new micro-institutions of journalism already bear the hallmarks of the restrictive heritage they abandoned with such glee” echoes what I discovered during nearly two years of counting and interviewing women involved in the new media landscape. Despite early prominence in digital journalism, female leaders are the minority in virtually all its corners today, and the women who do launch innovative publications aren’t getting the same attention as men. That has implications both practical and rhetorical, making journalism’s future seem as homogeneous as its past.

The biggest startups I examined were even less likely to have female leaders than their legacy counterparts. In traditional newsrooms, women account for roughly one third of journalists, with a slightly lower percentage working in management roles. (See the Women’s Media Center for more detailed numbers.) Rates of female leadership in the digital news organizations I examined peaked at levels similar to the traditional media but tended to dip sharply, in some cases as low as 19 percent, in the larger, higher-profile organizations. This is frustrating given sustained efforts to diversify the media through training programs, scholarships–and lawsuits.

But there are many factors that continue to hold women back. In the decades since the dawn of digital news, when journalism was starting to hire and promote women and people of color, it was inheriting the lopsided demographics of computer science, startup culture, and the internet itself. We want tomorrow’s journalists to be entrepreneurial, but female entrepreneurs are often seen as secondary to their male peers. We praise big data and computational narratives, but women remain a minority in STEM programs. We say personal brand is vital, but women who assert themselves online are too often sexually harassed, ridiculed, and threatened. And our culture tends to dismiss the way women practice journalism, deeming it less credible–and less commercially viable–than the work of men.

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Many of the journalists I interviewed during my research described how it was fairly common in the 1990s for women to hold leadership roles in the digital arms of legacy news organizations, either because they viewed those departments as free of glass ceilings or because newspaper executives saw the Web as less important than print. Fast-forward 20 years, and that perception has flipped. We’re in the middle of journalistic rebirth, one fueled by massive technological disruption. Opportunity abounds for smart, savvy storytellers. But the frenzy around FiveThirtyEight, Vox, and similar projects implies that those opportunities are reserved for men. Those sites are thrilling and important, and it looks they are starting to make more diverse hires. But these guys are hardly the only players in the game.

During my research, I met dozens of women hustling for grants, launching publications, and rethinking the way journalism is practiced online. There’s Jeanne Pinder, founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts.com, Symbolia‘s Erin Polgreen, and Laura Amico, founder and editor of Homicide Watch. Kelly Virella will unveil The Urban Thinker, a longform digital magazine aimed at black audiences, later this year. Diane Alverio’s Latino News Network is gaining popularity in southern New England. And in virtually every state, women are launching local news websites they hope will succeed where legacy newspapers and, more recently, AOL’s Patch have failed.

Many of these women have won competitive grants, earned prestigious fellowships, and been honored with major journalism awards, yet the talk about the future of news is focused tightly on a small group of men. Modern news organizations–and the conversations about them–can’t afford to spend decades inching towards gender parity. Doing so risks repeating the mistakes of the past, when legacy newsrooms became so entrenched in their ways that they were unable to adapt quickly to social or technological change. And it risks once again marginalizing the contributions women are making to a pivotal moment in journalism’s history.

Meg Heckman is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University where she teaches in the Media Innovation graduate program. Find her on Twitter @meg_heckman.