A Woman's Place Is in the Paper

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 07, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN VTC

BOSTON — When you are through reading this column, turn back to Page One and count. Count the number of times men are referred to in the stories that lead the newspaper. Count the number of times women appear.

Then take last week's papers out of the pile in the corner of the kitchen. Check bylines and photos. How many boys, how many girls?

Now compare your tabulation with the fourth annual report just released by the Women, Men and Media Project at the University of Southern California. The folks there surveyed the front page and the local front page of 20 newspapers for the month of February. They came to the unsurprising and unhappy conclusion that women -- 52 percent of the population -- show up just 13 percent of the time in the prime news spots. Even the stories about breast implants quoted men more often than women.

Women's names appear on the stories more often than in the stories. Even so, two-thirds of the bylines on front pages were male and three-quarters of the opinions on op-ed pages were by men. Fewer than a third of the photographs on front pages feature women.

This small statistical reminder comes just in time for the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual convention in Washington this week. One of the less heralded facts of declining newspaper readership in the 1990s is the emergence of a gender gap among people under 35 years old. Young women are seven to nine points less likely to be daily newspaper readers than men.

It would nice to blame this on the infamous time crunch in young women's lives. But full-time working women are more loyal newspaper readers than women who are part-time workers or homemakers.

All women, however, are more likely than men to feel that the paper doesn't speak to them. Or about them. As Nancy Woodhull, a founding editor of USA Today who now runs her own consulting firm says, ''Women around the country really notice when the press doesn't report their existence. It's like walking into a room where nobody knows you're there. If you have choices, you don't go into that room any more.''

The search for a welcome sign to hang on the newspaper door has brought up the question of ''women's pages.'' Back in the 1960s, these pages were the ghetto to which women, children, food, home and family were restricted. In the crest of the women's movement many of us in the business embarked on a movement to integrate the whole paper.

What happened was a kind of premature equality. The old women's pages became more or less ''unisex.'' Lifestyle sections wrote about and to women and men. But the rest of the paper remained nearly as lopsided as ever. The result is a net loss in the news about women.

Now there is a lively debate about whether to bring back women's pages. Is that going backward or back to the future? Is that admitting defeat in the struggle to get women's concerns into the rest of the paper or is it some unabashed recognition that women retain separate interests?

Experiments abound -- from the Chicago Tribune to the Lexington Herald-Leader -- and so do opinions. Some women worry that a marketing move to target female readers will inevitably ''dumb down'' and talk down to them. Others believe these pages can create a strong forum for a woman's different voice.

As someone who has been around this argument for a couple of decades, I have no problem with experiments in re-creating a woman's ''place'' in the paper if -- here comes the big if -- the place doesn't become a ghetto again. And if it doesn't take the pressure off changing the rest of the paper.

Men and women are more alike in their news interests than they are different. Moreover, the surveys on ''difference'' that I have seen suggest that what women really want are stories that go deep, that focus on matters close to their lives, that are less about institutional politics than about how institutions affect people. They want to read about families, relationships, health, safety, jobs, learning, the environment. That's a pretty good guide for any gender and any editor's story list.

News decisions rest with the editors and the number of women editors is even smaller than the number of women on the front pages. The female membership of ASNE is at an all-time high: 9.7 percent.

So, if newspapers want to make women feel welcome, begin the way a reader begins. Start with Page One. And keep counting.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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