Numbers Game

The Digital Revolution: A Bluff Package for Diversity in Journalism

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New media startups promise an exit from the journalism crisis through the digital door. Online publications like ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight from Nate Silver (formerly of The New York Times), the explanatory from Ezra Klein (formerly of The Washington Post) or First Look from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald (formerly of The Guardian) mark a new trend in journalism startups.

For the first time in years, investors’ money is back in media town. These are exciting times for journalism, and there are exciting new career options for journalists—as long as they are male. Because what the brave new world of digital journalism lacks is women.

Just when FiveThirtyEight was about to kick off, Silver told Bill Simmons on the B.S. Report, “We’re going to be hopefully hiring a number of other smart people to write and edit and make beautiful visualizations and graphics.” Looking at his team now, it seems as if he found very few smart females. Six out of 19 people who work for FiveThirtyEight are women.

Other ventures suffer from similar problems. was co-founded by Melissa Bell, but her vital work as a back-end publishing expert goes largely unnoticed, as the male founder is usually the one associated with the publication’s name. Likewise, other data-driven explanatory news sites, from Buzzfeed to Quartz, are led by men. One of the other few female leaders in the industry is technology journalist Kara Swisher, founder and top editor at Re/code. Unsurprisingly, her publication is also the only one with a staff gender ratio of 50-50.

Kara Swisher, founder of Re/code.

flickr / loiclemeur under Creative Commons

Kara Swisher, founder of Re/code.

It’s a men’s world

Do we have to “blame the techies,” as Nikki Usher writes in The Washington Post, for the lack of women in top positions in digital journalism? Surely the skills required of digital journalists, from interactive storytelling to data literacy, are partly responsible for the gender gap in digital newsrooms. The ones being hired are programmers, computer scientists and developers, jobs in which women are traditionally underrepresented.

Victoria Turk, editor and writer for Motherboard, the technology offshoot of Vice Media, believes that to lift more women into new-media ventures and tech journalism, you need to go back to the roots. “Having fewer women in tech-related journalism is linked to the broader problem of fewer women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects and fields of employment,” she says. “More needs to be done to get women into these fields. They need role models further on. But that’s a vicious cycle, because without girls in these fields you are not going to have these role models.”

Buzzfeed's chief data scientist, Ky Harlin explains the science behind their viral success.

flickr / NYCMediaLab under Creative Commons

Buzzfeed’s chief data scientist, Ky Harlin explains the science behind their viral success.

Aliza Sherman, a Web pioneer and founder of the first woman-owned Internet company, Cybergrrl, is someone who overcame these obstacles early in her career. Cybergrrl was founded in 1995, so Sherman has a more historic outlook on the issue. “There is much less of a glass ceiling in tech journalism today than five to 10 years ago. Many women have made a name for themselves at major tech and business publications over the years,” she says, from Lisa Napoli (New York Times, NPR, Marketplace) to Kara Swisher (Wall Street Journal, All Things Digital, Re/code) to Liz Gannes (Red Herring, GigaOM).

But the mere presence of women in digital newsrooms is not sufficient. It’s also necessary to value the work they’re doing to redefine journalism on the local and national levels, as researcher Meg Heckman concludes in her thesis on female leadership on the new journalism ecology.

Invest in women

One of the reasons why women are particularly underrepresented as startup leaders is that they are less likely to get funded. Only 2 percent of venture capital in the U.S. goes to female entrepreneurs. “I know women who have seen dude-run startups offering very similar products successfully close rounds of funding with no troubles,” says Erin Polgreen, founder of Symbolia, a tablet magazine that uses the graphic-novel format to tell journalistic stories, in an interview with Slate. For Polgreen, the first ones to fund her were programs aimed at women entrepreneurs, such as the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Women Entrepreneurs in Digital News and J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs.

The importance of such programs cannot be underestimated. Sherman points out that “any woman has the equal opportunity to start a tech business or to embark on a career in tech and new media.” But what women lack, besides funding, is “a large and strong professional network and a number of powerful mentors who … have clout and will sponsor them at high levels,” she says.

Especially when it comes to sponsorship, the “old boy network” plays as much of a crucial role in new-media startups as in traditional newspapers. This makes the so-called digital revolution in journalism a bluff package in terms of diversity: hierarchies and power structures stayed the same but got a fancier wrapping.

Invest in education

Education might be a solution, in both the short and long term, to increase gender parity in new media and tech journalism. As Turk said, it is vital to spark girls’ interest in technology from a very early age. In some European countries, such as England, coding and programming have become a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. This is a first step forward, as most women who are now editors and leaders in the industry fell in love with technology when they were young girls. “I was interested in technology already when I was a child, and so in journalism I fell back to that,” says Turk about her job at Motherboard.

Female journalists also have to educate themselves and create stronger support networks. Sherman is a strong advocate of such self-empowerment. “When I founded Webgrrls [her second women-led tech startup], I couldn’t find any other women doing what I was doing. I put out an online call to women who had websites and formed Webgrrls International, so women who knew about the Internet could help those who did not to learn about the Web and benefit from technology.”

In Germany, the female journalists union Journalistinnenbund is doing exactly the same. In the aftermath of its annual conference “Doing Gender 2.0” in 2013, it initiated various women-only training sessions in cybersecurity and digital journalism.

But both education and tools of self-empowerment will fail if male managers don’t encourage more women in their newsrooms to specialize in technology or entrust them with more technical subjects. The example of Jill Abramson, who was fired as executive editor of The New York Times in May, shows how important female leadership is for female empowerment in traditional newsrooms—and how tragic its loss is. Women’s absence from new-media startups ultimately results in a failure to provide a complete picture of the world.

This is bad news for business, too. “Modern news organizations cannot afford to spend decades inching toward gender parity. Those that do risk repeating the mistakes of the past, when legacy newsrooms became so entrenched in their routines that they were unable to adapt quickly to social or technological change,” writes Heckman. New media and tech journalism will have to come to the understanding that the new journalism needs to embrace not only the digital changes of the 21st century but also the social ones.

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