What women want

Does it make a differenece if the editor is a woman? And does it make a difference if the readers are women?
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Women now form some 20 per cent of the editorial decision-makers in national newspapers.At present two Sunday papers are edited by women and over the last 10 years eight women have edited national Sunday papers (no woman has yet edited a daily broadsheet). Though this is not yet the critical mass that could radically change our newspaper culture, it is a far cry from the days, not too long ago, when women only rarely escaped from the women's pages.

But are women in power making a difference to newspaper content at the moment? And if so, how?

Sue Douglas, former editor of the Sunday Express, experienced male resistance to a new agenda:

"There has been a long regime of similar stories that form the staple fare for newspapers, and it is quite narrow. The whole of Fleet Street feeds from the same trough, and I think an imaginative editor should go and find a new trough. I hated splashing on the same story as everyone else. But sometimes I was under a lot of pressure late on a Saturday night to run with the latest news story. So sometimes I did feed from the same trough, but my instinct was not to."

Eve Pollard, the only woman to have edited two newspapers, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Express, had similar experiences.

"Now that I am away from newspapers, I can see them more as a reader than a journalist. I find very little in papers that actually talks about life the way it is. When I was an editor I did try to report on life the way it is. After I'd been on holiday, I'd see things differently and come back and, say, do more on family life, because most us live, work and die in families. But after a while I'd find myself listening to the views of the staff, who were mainly male, middle-aged and white, and far more concerned with what the other papers were doing."

But that is perhaps to overstate the negative. In recent years all papers have been changed - some call it "feminised", but a better word might be "humanised". And it is largely women who have made the difference. They have ensured that material of particular interest to women, which used to be ignored altogether or relegated to women's pages, is now spread throughout the paper. And stories that might once have been down-played are given greater prominence.

Rosie Boycott, editor of the Independent on Sunday, is in a position to make a difference, and she does. She says that she wants women to feel that the things that concern them are not trivial: "I try to get more topics of interest to women in the paper, issues to do with health, children, work. For instance, I pulled an anorexia story on to the front page because it interested me. I doubt if a man would do that."

Tessa Hilton, formerly an editor of the Sunday Mirror and now deputy editor of The Express, characterises the gender divide like this: "When people start talking about male journalism and female journalism, the male stuff is usually issue-based and the female stuff is people based.

"If a foreign news story is merely a straight news story, supplied by an agency such as Reuters, I will turn the page. I am not interested if it is not about people and their lives. I read Ann Leslie in the Daily Mail. She personalises stories, and is a powerful writer."

This conviction that stories must be made relevant to people is felt by many to be strongly represented by women; others think it is to do with the fact that male journalists, too, have been humanised.

The Guardian's news editor, Harriet Sherwood,for example: "Being a parent has quite an impact on your judgement of stories. You are more likely to be open to stories that relate to family life. Being a parent gives you a different perspective on life, but I don't think that is necessarily different for men and women."

If women have made a difference to news content, they have also made a difference to the way in which news is written. Amanda Platell, former acting editor of the Sunday Mirror, says: "Most women I have ever worked with tend to look at a story slightly differently. This is advantageous where you have to be looking for twists and turns in stories. I want to get to the heart of it. I want to see why the thing has happened, and what the relationships were that existed between people."

On the whole, women favour presenting stories in context rather than in single-incident isolation. They also favour explaining the consequences of events for individuals, so that the news appears relevant to their lives. In their hands, news therefore becomes more "humanised" and in some ways more feature-like in approach. This is important for newspapers in that it allows them to "add value" to stories that are also appearing on radio and television. This encourages women to move from features, where they are in a majority to news where they have been in the minority.

Features have seen the greatest change in the last 15 years. Women with magazine experience have been hired to inject into newspapers the formula that has been so successful in keeping the magazine market buoyant. This has resulted in a huge expansion of features to include the life-style material that appeals to advertisers. There has also been an expansion of human interest stories, tales of triumph over tragedy, and advice on relationships. Women commission and write much of this material. They generally see less of a divide between personal and professional life, and this is now reflected in newspapers.

Much of this trend has been of benefit. It helps newspapers to earn Arthur Miller's description of papers as "society talking to itself". It also helps readers to share an understanding of contemporary problems. But it has also led to an extraordinary increase in confessional journalism, in which the well known and unknown share their most intimate thoughts. We appear at times to have swapped an obsession with public affairs for an obsession with private concerns. And the drive for ever more intimate stories also encourages publication of the bizarre and the prurient. Perhaps once this fertile seam has been well mined we will return to an age when reticence is acceptable: not pre-Sixties repression, but reticence.

To date it is understandable that the changes ascribed to women are limited. In order to speed the change more women should reflect on the way they have absorbed male news values, and learn to rely once more on their instincts. In the future, then, we may see more coverage of what Mary Ann Sieghart of The Times calls "success stories": articles that explain the way to live now, and the sort of people we are. "Papers are obsessed with events rather than processes, and I think that might be a male thing. I'd do more about the way things work and don't work, and less about who held a press conference yesterday."

The writer is senior lecturer in journalism at City University, London. Her book, `Chaps of both Sexes?', is published by Women in Journalism in association with the BT Forum. For copies of the full report, call Freefone 0800 800 926.

Moving closer: women and men on the news

The chart on the right which summaries the findings of the recent MORI poll on readers' preferences has a clear message. Both sexes are interested in "news" but women are much more concerned with the issues that affect their lives and families.

So, missing from the women's top ten but present in the men's are parliamentary news and news about the economy. Perhaps because economic news tends to relate to the country rather than the reader and parliamentary news is a turn-off for many women because too much of it centres, rather like sports coverage, on who is "winning" and "losing". Women prefer to understand how policies affect their lives.

The biggest disparity after parliamentary news is royalty: 27 per cent of women, compared to 10 per cent of men, read royal news

The only previous comparable research was a 1983 MORI poll of the readership of mid and upmarket Sunday newspapers and that shows how much tastes have changed and converged.

Leisure activities were read by more women than men in 1983 and are now read by more men, and the same is true for environment and conservation. As for fashion, in 1983 44 per cent more women than men said they were very interested; now the gap is 27 per cent; likewise with education - in 1983 23 per cent more women than men said they were very interested; now it is 10 per cent, and with food: 42 per cent more women than men said they were very interested, now it is 30 per cent.

And in return, women are becoming more interested in sport: men were ahead by 43 per cent; now the gap is only 35 per cent. As for motoring articles; they were for men then, and they still are.