I got my first job as an editor because of the most stereotypical play from the “good ‘ol boys” playbook.
The corporate boss and I hit bladder overload at the same time and while we were at the sinks in the men’s room he asked me, “So Gallagher, what’s next for you?” I told him what job I wanted to do next and within two years, I had that job.
I always thought it was a funny story until about 10 years later when I told it to some of the newsroom leaders and saw the angst on the faces of the women in the room. One of them told me later how the story hurt all women in the newsroom because “the executive washroom” was one of the places they could never enter. I had, in fact, gotten a job through a connection that none of them would ever be able to make.
The archetypal story came back to me this spring when Jill Abramson was fired as editor of The New York Times. The real story of her dismissal lies layered beneath skins of gossip about pay and management approach. I suspect we’ll hear versions of the truth for some time. But the firing reminded me of the lesson I learned—women are the diversity group that the newspaper business forgot to include. The newspaper industry never truly learned to welcome women and their diverse strengths to the top echelons. This failure has been one of the keys to newspapers’ downfall in the past decades.
I came of age as an editor when the American Society of Newspaper Editors was pushing to diversify the ethnic mix of reporters and editors in its newsroom. I was one of those who joined the committees and we did a fine job of hiring and promoting journalists of different colors.
But I think that I—and indeed the entire newspaper industry—lost sight of the largest “minority” group in our workforce. Women. The diversity movement did not include gender.
My theory on this is that by the 1980s, there were a lot of women in our newsrooms and they did not all work on the Society pages as they had in decades gone by. They were hard news reporters and photographers and sports writers. But very few of them held the top jobs in the newsroom. I can remember many an American Press Institute seminar or company meeting where the men outnumbered the women five-, six- or seven-to-one. Editors meetings in my own company often included our one-and-only female editor. Colleagues from other companies told similar stories.
This was one of the biggest factors contributing to the decline of newspaper circulation and company profits. The first group to desert us as newspaper readers was not—as many believe—young people. It was women. Data shows female readership declining drastically starting in the 1970s and continuing unabated for 20 years. They grew busier as they juggled families and careers and had no time for newspapers. And when we lost women readers, we lost advertisers because, as any retailer knows, women make the buying decisions in most homes. The retailers found other advertising methods to reach the female decision-makers.
We might have slowed the decline and stayed relevant if women had been running our newsrooms instead of being run out of our newsrooms. If we had designed our newspapers to account for the changing lifestyles of American women and their declining leisure time, they might have still found us relevant.
This century represents a chance to make up for that mistake.
This is what I think smart news company leaders ought to be thinking about.
As newspapers morph into whatever they will become, they need the skills of female leaders. It is a large generalization to say that women are better listeners, but it is also largely true. Listening and communicating are critical in any industry undergoing massive change. Frankly, most women are better than most men at hearing and vetting ideas, having a longer conversation and building a consensus.
Technology is going to drive much of the newspaper industry future and when you get a group of men—especially techie men—together, they tend to fall in love with what’s under the hood. Again this is a generalization that is largely true, but women tend to focus on what the technology can do to improve their lives, give them more free time, and make their children safer. Newspaper companies need that. If you review the top websites and apps for women, each is either founded by or completely shaped by women.
The fastest developing nations throughout the world are the ones that are involving women more in their governments and in their businesses. This makes sense if you think about the strengths that each sex brings to the mix.
News organizations cannot forget women again if they want to succeed.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.