A Pioneering Generation Marked the Path for Women Journalists: Today, Women's Roles and Numbers Have Increased but Some Key Issues Remain Unresolved. (Women: United States).(Column)

By Bulkeley, Christy C. | Nieman Reports, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

A Pioneering Generation Marked the Path for Women Journalists: Today, Women's Roles and Numbers Have Increased but Some Key Issues Remain Unresolved. (Women: United States).(Column)


Bulkeley, Christy C., Nieman Reports


Forty years ago, give or take a few years, women journalists set out to enter what was, for them, a strange land--the land of "hard news," news beyond the women's sections of newspapers, the kitchen-home-family programs of television and radio. Some extraordinarily talented and dedicated women already worked in news; a few always had, here and there, around the country and even overseas. Some others who worked in women's and Sunday feature sections, and "soft news" public service television, who covered issues often ignored by city side, were also poised for moves into news reporting and management. But this was a time when the unusual would gradually start to become more usual.

In 1971, a landmark study of journalists found that an estimated 22 percent of daily newspaper journalists were women, and women comprised nearly 11 percent of television journalists. And, during the next decade, growth in news workforces was accompanied by an increase in the percentage of women journalists. By the next study in 1982, researchers David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit reported in the 1986 book, "The American Journalist," that more than 34 percent of the staff in daily newspapers were women and 33 percent in television, due in part to government licensing incentives. These percentages remained nearly static for the next 20 years, even though by the late 1970's--several years before the first Weaver-Wilhoit survey--women were the majority of journalism students and have been 60 percent or more of journalism students since the early 1980's.

On the job, progress for women during the 1980's and 1990's was measured in their advancement into management positions at newspapers and television. The 2001 annual survey of daily newspapers by The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), made just before the softening economy, estimated that women were 37 percent of the news staffs (for the second year) and 34 percent of "newsroom supervisors." The Radio-Television News Directors Association's (RTNDA) annual survey for 2000 reports that women are 40 percent of the news staffs and nearly 35 percent of television news management.

Beyond the news departments, a study for the Newspaper Association of America, the trade association for daily newspaper management, reported that women were 20 percent of top newspaper executives in 1998 (publisher, general manager, president, etc.), up from nine percent in 1990. RTNDA found that women were 14 percent of TV general managers in 2000, with "no consistent pattern based on market size, staff size, affiliation or region."

For more than 20 years, Vernon Stone, a journalism professor, has tracked the status of women in TV and radio. His analyses--available at www.missouri.edu/~jourvs--show women progressing from management in small and independent stations to larger group and network-owned stations. No one has tracked the numbers and positioning of women in newspapers as long or as consistently as Stone and RTNDA (which supported Stone's work and continued the annual surveys with other professors following his retirement). The newspaper story must be reconstructed from other sources including three comprehensive histories of women in the various journalism professions and a number of other research projects, most of which reported only some findings in terms of gender.

Women and Newspapers

The stories about women and newspaper journalism are more complex than a mere telling of the numbers suggests since they are, not surprisingly, connected to broad societal trends. The 1960's and 1970's were, in addition to the decades of increasing women's presence in news staffs, years of stunning news coverage of civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, resignations and all the related and mostly unprecedented works of the democracy--in short and in journalism terms, great news years.

These decades witnessed the emergence of the pioneering generation of women promoted into all areas of newspaper management--nearly three percent overall and more than five percent in news supervision by the mid-1970's.

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