What Do Women Want in a Newspaper?

Certainly not the drivel 'targeted' at us. And if you think female editors would do better, think again.

By Shannon Rupp 8 Mar 2004 |
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TheTyee.caUNESCO might want to reconsider its annual Women Make the News campaign. The March 8 event is built on the notion that putting women in the power positions currently dominated by men, even for just a day, would improve content.Or as their mission statement phrases it: "For the media to accurately mirror our societies, to produce coverage that is complete and diverse, it is critical that the news reflect the world as seen through the eyes of women as well as men."Nice sentiment. But it reminds me of the argument suffragists made that giving women the vote would put an end to war and create a more compassionate government. I have two words for that: Maggie Thatcher.So before the UNESCO folks put too much stake in the notion of women as the saviours of newspapers they might want to have a look at Vancouver's two dailies where women hold the top job of editor-in-chief. The Vancouver Sun, a broadsheet, and the tabloid Province look much the same as their sister publications in the CanWest-Global chain. For that matter, they look much like most of North America's dailies.Good copy is 'virile'When it comes to the content designed to attract women -- from the celeb photos and gossip to the advertiser-driven sections that are short on information but long on enthusiasm for new homes, new fashions, and new cars -- it's fair to say that newspaper publishers have an undisguised contempt for the intellect of women readers. They treat them as nothing but consumers.Now that attitude can't be coming from women editors who, in order to have succeeded in the business, must be thinking about something other than shopping.But traditions die hard, and the newspaper industry's love-hate relationship with women has altered little since the birth of the modern, advertiser-supported daily in the 19th century. Journalists of the day despised women to such an extent that they actually wrote textbooks arguing that good copy was "virile" -- a quality women's writing lacked for obvious reasons -- and warning would-be scribes to avoid university because it could make a man's writing "womanish."But while they worried about a "feminine army" storming the newsroom barricades, publishers were slipping "sob sisters" through the back door, via the women's pages, because they found that advertisers wanted women readers, and for that they needed "women's news."So the society pages were born, containing gossip columns, arts and literature criticism, and food and fashion stories as a sop to the feminine audience. But editors ran them begrudgingly. And the emphasis was usually on women as consumers not citizens -- which, to be fair, they weren't since they couldn't vote.When the Province added women's news in 1898, it was the paper's ad manager who was quoted in the story celebrating this advance: "Woman is the pivot of trade turning," he enthused. Editorial was silent.It's not that much different today: women are still the pivot of trade turning and the copy intended for women treats them as compulsive shoppers. But when it comes to determining what women actually want, the newspaper marketers are having about as much success as Freud. Maybe because their ideas about women hail from the same era?A Koky theoryIn 2000, the Thomson Newspapers chain was positioning itself as an expert on how to attract women readers with its Successful Practices: Women, a 16-page tabloid it circulated through various editors and publishers conferences. It reminded managers of the significance of women readers -- they control 80 percent of household spending, and buy 65 percent of all cars; 53 percent of stocks, and 50 percent of computers. The tab offered some tips for producing papers with the kind of estrogen-appeal that would help deliver this market to advertisers.According to the folks at Thomson women "have a natural affinity for good design." "Koky" Dishon writes that, "By the time they're ready to buy that perfect black dress, they know very well where to wear it and that it stands out when the most expensive pearls one can afford or wangle are added, a la Channel (sic)."Apparently Koky, despite being a member of this fashion-savvy sex, isn't up on the subject herself. Still, she's keen on the metaphor. "Women, I have noticed, enter a newspaper, and immediately become aware of the whole. It may not be a conscious thought, but, deep down, the idea rules that the dress, the hat and the shoes must fit together."Since this was written in 2000, I'm not sure why Koky envisions women as fem-bots from the '50s. Who wears matching hats and shoes? For that matter, who wears hats except to keep out the cold? Oh, sure, there's the odd Annie Hall moment, but there's a reason "hat hair" is a derogatory term.Incidentally, what kind of self-respecting grown-up calls herself "Koky?"But I digress. Back to girl-getter tips.Satisfying a woman's needsIn the same Thomson report, Ruth Moore writes that a good way to attract women readers is by promoting the number of coupons the newspaper contains, and adding up their value. She also recommends listing advertisers by product; and listing the best TV shows for children.Can't you just see one of those grey-suited business execs from another era giving her a paternal pat her shoulder: "That's right Ruth: women are Stepford wives with credit cards and they never think about anything but consuming."Nary a word is mentioned about the quality of the writing, except to note that women want to see more stories that recognize young people who do "good things" -- a phrase that they ought to know has been unusable since Martha hijacked it a decade ago.One of the few guys to weigh-in, Boris Hrybinsky does note that that women seem to want pretty much the same thing as men -- timely, well-written stories -- but it's not long before he too, is launching into some bizarre advice."Women want their newspaper to truly understand their needs, wants and values," Hrybinsky writes.Huh? Did the research company confuse the newspaper survey with the what-women-want-in-a-mate questionnaire? As for meeting women's "needs,"what needs are they talking about?The research that led to these conclusions seems to have come from some mighty dubious sources: a couple of marketing surveys, and some Thomson employees phoning up some women in their Rolodexes. Yet the authors were on the conference circuit peddling these retro-images of women to every newspaper manager in North America. And if you look in whatever newspaper you're reading today (other than this one) you'll see signs of the influence of that research -- not to mention the decades of similarly suspect research on which it was built.That's because it's a rare paper in which journalists of either sex shape the news. Since the 1970s -- the era when women started abandoning newspapers in droves -- the industry has been depending on market research to save it. Papers are re-made according to whichever guru holds sway his year, and the results have been less than stellar: now it's not just women who are abandoning dailies, it's men too, and everyone under 30, and of course older readers with the newspaper habit are dying. All-in-all it's not a pretty picture.Where did She come from?But women, who are seen as society's compulsive consumers, are still the favoured prey, which is why readers are treated to so many flimsy snares -- passe fashion supplements, Fabulous Homes! sections, and misguided attempts at contemporary women's pages.Local scribes recall that in 2000, the Vancouver Sun developed a prototype for a new women's section called "She," that was obviously connected to the stereotypes about women that were making the rounds at the time. Shopping advice was, of course, at the core, but the launch included such scintillating features as a photo-spread of women whose butts looked bad in capri pants and advice on how to avoid this disaster. And management was apparently agitating for a "sexy" section, which prompted someone to suggest a consumer piece comparing vibrators -- apparentlyirony was taken literally. Either that, or they thought they had a handle on the mysterious "needs" that the Thomson writer mentioned.Some of the women journalists who were charged with executing this vision groused about it to colleagues. They didn't dare criticize it openly to the powerful female uber-editor who had translated the market research into this blueprint for "She". They put their doubts aside because, as one of them explained: "The Sun had done MUCH market research and it seemed to point toward a female section being a good thing."Uh-huh, did anyone actually check the quality of that research? Did anyone ask why women would want more of the kind of drivel that's already available in down-market women's magazines? Which, by the way, have better photos and don't leave ink on your hands.She died when the Hollinger papers were sold to CanWest-Global, but it's obvious that the thinking that sparked it is still circulating. The Sun's February 22 editorial cartoon featured a scene from the Garden of Eden with Eve protesting: "But Adam, this isn't paradise -- there are no shoe shops."That's about as funny as the alternative cutline I'm proposing: "But Adam, this isn't paradise -- there's no one to have an intelligent conversation with."You see: reverse sexism is never the answer, which is why I think UNESCO is on the wrong track. Putting more women in senior editorial positions doesn't necessarily improve the content of newspapers; but firing all those marketing wonks just might.Shannon Rupp lives in Vancouver and is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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