Times Public Editor: Covering women’s sports with few women

Members of the World Cup-winning US women's team take part in a ticker tape parade with their trophy for the women's World Cup champions on July 10, 2019 in New York. Photo by Johannes Eisele /AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to the US Women’s national soccer team dominating and winning the World Cup, this summer has been one of the fleeting occasions when female athletes get top billing in the sporting world—and in the sports pages of The New York Times

Sports staffers at the paper have gone so far as to brag about their recent coverage of women’s sports, noting the Times’ “unprecedented commitment” to covering the Women’s World Cup and the fact that all three stories on the front page of a recent Sunday Sports section were about women. 

What was left unsaid is that the vast majority of that coverage was written by men. As one reader noted to me: “The NYT sports section on an average day is 100 percent male bylines. This is outrageous in 2019.”

A spot check found that on more days than not—32 out of the 60 editions I looked at—there were no women writing for the Times sports section*. During that period, women received just over nine percent of all the sports bylines, 45 out of 477. While sports writing has long been disproportionately male, the Times sports section now stands out for being exceedingly so. By comparison, over the same span, in the Business section, led by Ellen Pollock, 36 percent of the bylines were women.    

Presented with this data, Randy Archibold, the Times sports editor, said, “I take gender, racial, ethnicity, class — all sorts of diversity — very seriously. We could do better, but I also think we’re building one of the most diverse staffs in sports.” Archibold took over the Sports desk in January after serving as the section’s deputy editor for four years and is a 20-year veteran of the Times. “I think we’re moving in a better direction,” he said. 

Archibold argued that the numbers were not representative because of the vagaries of the sports calendar and who’s assigned to cover what and when. But if you compare the 2019 figures with the bylines published over the same span in 2014 and 2009—when women had 12 percent and 11 percent of the sports bylines, respectively—it’s clear that the already anemic female representation in the sports pages has declined.

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The questions these figures raise are what proportion of the sports desk staff are women and how that number compares to the past. But the Times made it abundantly clear that it did not want to share any data on how an individual newsroom department breaks down by gender. A spokesperson instead referred me to the paper’s annual Diversity and Inclusion Report, which showed that at the end of 2018, its newsroom and opinion staff as a whole was split 51-49 percent male-female. But it’s fair to say that Sports has not reached that kind of parity. In 2017, the last public editor at the Times, Liz Spayd (a former editor of CJR), singled out the sports desk as one of the departments where “men often outnumber women, in some cases by significant amounts.” 

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Jason Stallman, who was sports editor from 2013 to 2018 after joining the desk in 2003 and now is the editor and an executive producer of the Times new television show The Weekly, told me, “I’ve spent 14 of the past 16 years in Sports. I’m intimately familiar with the staff makeup during that time. I can assure you that the proportion of women on the staff has remained steady over that time.” Stallman did not provide data to back up that assertion, nor did he say which dates he was comparing. He added, “No doubt, sports journalism broadly and the Sports desk at the Times faces acute challenges when it comes to gender diversity. I do think women are well represented on the sports staff … And still, I think the desk is forever trying to do better in terms of female representation.

Naila-Jean Meyers, a senior editor at Sports who also covers tennis for the section, remembers that when she first joined the desk as a copy editor in 2005, she was struck by how many women she was working with. “There were about half a dozen female editors in sports. The lead NFL writer was a woman, the lead NBA writer was a woman, a top columnist was a woman. And a few more female editors and reporters were hired not long after me,” she told me. “I’d never seen a sports department that looked like that; I didn’t think a sports department could look like that. For a fairly young journalist at the time, it was inspiring to see. But most of the women in the department when I got here aren’t here anymore.” And now, she said, “there have certainly been moments in more recent years, when I would look around the room and wonder where all the women went.”

After poring over staff announcements and making lists of who works on the Times sports desk, two trends are apparent. Firstly, Times Sports has shrunk a great deal over the last decade. Secondly, as the section has contracted it lost a lot of female reporters while bringing on a number of male ones.

In all, I was able to make a list of two dozen men who are currently identified as full-time sports reporters or columnists (that’s not including freelance contributors or Times staffers in other departments who make an occasional contribution to sports). I was able to identify two full-time female sports reporters at the Times, Karen Crouse, the golf reporter who joined in 2005, and Juliet Macur, who was hired in 2003 and whose most recent work has primarily been investigative pieces. (You could argue that columnist Sarah Lyall, who was assigned to cover the World Cup, is a third, though she has a writer-at-large title and splits her time between multiple desks.) 

Meanwhile, the section has lost at least six female reporters over the last six years. Some departed the Times: Football reporter Judy Battista left in 2013 to work at NFL.com; Lynn Zinser, also a longtime NFL reporter, took a buyout in 2014 and now edits Climate Liability News; and Mary Pilon was laid off in that same wave of newsroom cutbacks. Others have moved to new departments within the Times in the usual newsroom ebb and flow: Rebecca Ruiz, who won a Polk Award for her 2016 reporting on the Russian doping scandal, is now a national investigative reporter; Katie Thomas switched to covering health care; and while Melissa Hoppert still occasionally writes on horse racing, her job title at the paper is a cross-department role as a senior editor for digital storytelling. 

Perhaps most telling, over the same period, Sports made announcements of at least eight men joining the desk as full-time reporters or columnists. The most recent female reporter hire on Sports I could identify was Pilon in 2011 when Joe Sexton was running the section.

While staff writers getting bylines tend to be the public face of the paper, covering the news requires lots of people—many of whom, such as editors, designers, and photo editors are rarely credited. Archibold pointed out that of the seven hiring decisions he’s made during his tenure so far, three have been women: Elena Bergeron, who just joined as an assistant editor from SB Nation, where she was editor-in-chief; Talya Minsberg, an assistant editor for strategy who joined from the Times social team; and Danielle Allentuck, a one-year reporting fellow who graduated from Ithaca College in May. 

It is not clear where that leaves the total composition of the sports staff because it is difficult, without the Times’s cooperation, to do a complete count of all the women who contribute to the coverage. But Archibold’s new hires join at least three other women on the editing staff: Meyers, who has been at the Times since 2005, senior editor Shauntel Lowe, who joined in 2017 from Bleacher Report to edit NBA and WNBA coverage, and staff editor Gwen Knapp who joined in 2014 according to her LinkedIn profile. (If I omitted anyone, I offer my apologies.) 

“Those actions since I arrived are more an indication of the direction than what happened three, five years ago,” Archibold told me. 

Achieving and maintaining diversity within departments, especially one that has long skewed male, requires active, persistent attention even under the best budgetary circumstances. But the experience of the sports desk shows that that kind of attention is even more important when headcount is shrinking. “You can’t always control when and how people leave, or when/how/if you can replace those people,” Meyers told me. “But if you take your eye off the ball, or think you’re doing OK because historically you’ve done OK, you might look around the room one day and realize your staff doesn’t look the way you want it to.” 

There is in fact a rich history of women in prominent sports roles at the Times. Le Anne Schreiber, who passed away in June, was the first woman to edit a major newspaper’s sports section, in 1978. Lawrie Mifflin, Kathleen McElroy, Sandy Rosenbush, and Sandy Keenan have all served as the section’s deputy editor. In the 1990s and 2000s, the section included prominent female sports columnists Claire Smith and Selena Roberts. 

When Lynn Zinser was hired to cover the New York Giants in 2003, it was no big deal that she was a woman on the sports desk; after all, every other reporter in the city covering the Giants beat at the time was a woman. “Wow,” she told me, “talk about not an issue.” But she also remembers that seeking out female candidates was always front of mind in hiring decisions. “The Times always fancied itself as giving women the chance to cover sports,” she said.

The Times wouldn’t say how much it’s reduced the headcount of the sports section in a shift of newsroom resources it says is designed to advance its subscription and audience development strategies. But to give a sense of the magnitude, in the 60-day span I examined, the desk published about half as many stories as it did in 2014. That overall contraction has also contributed to making women less visible: days when no women at all receive bylines in the paper are going to be more common when the section publishes five stories a day than when it published 15, as was fairly standard in 2009. 

The cutbacks have given rise to a do-more-with-less ethos of reducing coverage like game recaps which means fewer beat reporters—and publishing more features and investigations. “We’re doing less dutiful coverage,” Archibold told me. “There was a time when we had beat writers on every major team in the New York metro area.” Instead, he said, “We pick our shots, going for the best stories possible. When we get into the intersection of sports and business or sports and society, we’re hitting our stride.” 

While there is no reason that male reporters can’t or shouldn’t cover women’s sports—just as female reporters shouldn’t be restricted to only covering women’s sports—some of the biggest stories to come out of the sports world lately, especially those that touch on larger social issues, are about female athletes. And regardless of the desk in the newsroom, it hinders coverage if a staff can’t bring a full range of perspectives to an increasingly subjective process of deciding what’s news. 

For instance, the Times has been aggressively covering the US Women’s soccer team’s legal fight for pay equity. In March, soccer reporter Andrew Das broke the news about a new lawsuit filed by the team that the Times ran on the front page. It was also Das who wrote the paper’s first major story on the issue, back in April 2016, when the team filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But that was almost a year after a story headlined “The World Cup pay gap,” one of the first pieces detailing the team’s complaints, had been published on Politico.eu by Mary Pilon, who was at the time still collecting her Times severance after her layoff several months prior.

“The lack of female bylines in and beyond The New York Times sports pages is disappointing,” Pilon told me. “I believe deeply in this work and have made it a cornerstone of my freelance career and I will continue to do so.”

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* Editor’s note: This analysis looked at all bylines, excluding wire service pieces, in the daily print editions between May 10 and July 8, 2019, according to the Today’s Paper listing. Every byline was counted once; some stories had more than one byline.

Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at publiceditors@cjr.org. (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)

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Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.