While re-heating some leftovers for lunch, I picked through the Sunday New York Times & Plain Dealer for sections to read once said leftovers were ready. I fingered through the PD’s sections, looking to 1) find the Forum section and 2) see the top row of who are the six or seven column writers to be featured in that section today. (That last phrase there, by the way, is a perfect example as to why this blog is called Writes Like She Talks.)
Hmm – no top row. I smiled and thought, that is smart, because that top row is so often 100% or nearly 100% men. We all know I watch these things. This is not news.
I unfurled the section.
That row of columnist names – five male. And the “Columnists Symposium” – three men too.
Eight men, zero women.
Okay – well, there are eight FORUM pages on Sunday. Inside, I found one column with a shared byline – a woman and a man. (At least they’re both local.)
Eight pages of editorials and columns. 16 individual pieces of writing – (I’m excluding the three editorials by the paper’s editorial board). And none of those 16 written solely by a woman. Not one.
Before any reader gets all, “You don’t think men can write about women? or for women?” or “It’s all about quality and not quantity” (thereby implying we don’t have enough quality females to be in the FORUM section) or “Well what about that River Smith ( a guy) or Shannon Burns (also a guy) or Erez Garnai (guy)?”: This is not about that. This is also not a ding on the quality or legitimacy of the journalists, writers or columnists, regular or guest, who are featured, or the content that they’ve written.
This is about having the individuals whose voices and views our paper of record publishes, reflect the diversity within our communities. As a recap of where to start with that: the 2013 Census figures say that 52.4% of Cuyahoga County’s population is female, and 35.4% of the County’s population is non-white.
For those still wondering why having diversity reflected in a forum section matters, the Op-Ed Project offers this analogy:
…if I were in the finance world, I might say that we have a portfolio called Public Knowledge, and we are surveying the landscape, looking for undiscovered assets for that portfolio – all the brains out there that we aren’t hearing from. Women’s ideas are one of those undiscovered, or undercapitalized assets. But there are other voices – under-represented or unheard voices and brains of all kinds – that we could and should invest in as well.
We – our leaders and the public – are not getting the information and ideas we need to make the best decisions. Our world conversation is currently an echo chamber that reproduces the same narrow range of (85% male) voices over and over. Even worse among academics: a May 2008 Rutgers University study found that 97% of op-eds by scholars in the Wall Street Journal are written by men. What is the cost to society when so many of our best minds and best ideas are left out? What could we accomplish if together we invested in our missing brain power?
Whether or not you’re persuaded, we should realize that the Plain Dealer isn’t on its own in this problem, and this post isn’t about vilifying anyone at the PD. I have developed friendships as well as many solid, welcome professional relationships with people I respect at the PD, who often at least act as though they respect me too. I know that they don’t think I’m full of it – but that doesn’t mean that this is not a sore spot. We just need to keep working to relieve and eradicate that soreness. My hope is to leverage our familiarity with each other to accomplish that.
(For those inclined to say, “Oy! Why didn’t she just email or call – why’d she have to blog about it”? Because what’s the point of earning a platform if you do not use it for positive change? This issue is, unfortunately, ancient, and I believe blogging about it will both help raise awareness as well as corral support for taking the steps needed to affect change. Emails, calls, meet-ups, collaborating and strategizing will follow.)
Just how much company does the PD have? Take your pick of resources below to understand just how bad the gender (and racial) divide is in the media world.
From the Columbia Journalism Review from mid-2012, “It’s 2012 already: why is opinion writing still mostly male?”:
Every editor I talked with told me diversity matters, the question of how to achieve diversity and what that really means on op-ed pages remains an open question.
Editors told me that though they hope for a gender- and ethnically-balanced page, most said that achieving this is secondary to having an original, provocative and topically-diverse page. Almost all the editors I spoke with bristled at the notion of any sort of diversity ‘quota,’ or the sort of rigid prescription for the op-ed pages like that once applied to USA Today’s front page (For many years, the paper mandated the mention of at least one woman and one person of color above the paper’s fold; and indeed, USA Today has long led newspapers in diversity statistics.)
From just three months ago in the New York Times’ own Sunday Review section, “The Media Has a Woman Problem.”
From the Women’s Media Center, annual reports, including The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2014. What’s most excellent about the WMC report is how full of charts, graphs, numbers and specifics its 82 page report is. Your eyes will only glaze over as you realize how imbalanced so many metrics remain.
From Gawker.com in December 2013, “What’s Wrong With America’s Newspaper Opinion Columnists in One Chart”:
But we think it’s pretty clear: Newspaper columnists are, statistically speaking, old dudes. This is unsurprising, since columns are usually bestowed on the tried, true, and grizzled. But if you’re staffing your back pages with almost all veterans, you’re missing out on a wide swath of important perspectives—like, for example, “The internet is a useful tool” and “I am not made uncomfortable by interracial relationships.”
Moving from raising awareness to developing solutions and implementing those solutions, here are simple starter steps:
1. Submit columns for publication, and encourage others to submit pieces to the paper for publication. There’s debate about the extent to which submission demographics should drive or even relate to the published byline demographics. VIDA, which keeps track of bylines in literary publications and book reviews, has this to say:
I’m an editor myself, and I know we’re anything but passive. I’ve worked with a lot of literary journals over the past decade, large outfits and small indies, poetry publications and mixed genre mags. I’ve never worked for one that published solely from the slush pile. Some publications have staff writers, and all publications solicit. Of course, solicitations have their own numbers trouble. Editors anecdotally note that men are more likely than women to respond to solicitations, and some say this ties their hands with regard to the publication ratios. Here’s an easy fix for that pickle: we editors might increase the number of women we solicit. For every ten men, solicit twenty women, and we’d find our books balancing. Historically, an editor’s job has been to actively engage writers, to search out the new, bring the under-acknowledged into the light, remind us of those talented souls who’ve fallen off the radar, and discover the next big thing. It’s one of the perks, it’s fun.
However, let’s take a two-pronged approach here: we can of course submit more, but we can also press editors to diversify the potential authors from whom they solicit columns.
2. Find, support or create op-ed writing workshops. The defunct Poets & Writers League of Greater Cleveland had a great one years ago, and the New York-based The Op-Ed Project is outstanding. I’ll be following up with Katie Orenstein of the latter in regard to what we might be able to do here, now.
- Give those achievers an op-ed training as part of the accolade.
- Transmit their names to every editor in town.
- Follow up to be sure those editors added the names to their solicitation lists (which you can suggest they create if they don’t have one).
Another great list: 25 Influential African-American Women (December 2013)
4. Cull names from alumni and current Cleveland Leadership Center participants.
In a county of over 1 million people, and a multi-county region many times that size, we have countless places from which we can find potential opinionators who can write a column worth reading and publishing.
Bottom line: I’m friendly fire. As a community that will be increasingly under microscopes, brought in by people outside, unfamiliar with and not necessarily well-inclined toward our home base, we have got to do better. And we are thoroughly capable of doing better. The national outlets that want to keep up narratives that get clicks? Do we anticipate them having any desire to see us do better than 16 columns by 16 men, one who shared the byline with a woman?
I don’t think so either. So let’s do this.
BONUS for reading to the end: Go learn about how to submit an opinion piece to the Plain Dealer here and then write and submit one. Or at least practice writing and eventually submitting one. Check out the Op-Ed Project tips here.