GETTING “ON FRONT” IS unofficially the highest accolade at most newspapers and generally one of the surest ways for a reporter to garner respect and gain promotion. Editors use front-page hits to gauge a reporter’s ability to handle highprofile beats and important stories, experience that in turn increases their byline play on the front page. But while skill partly determines how often a reporter’s stories get front-page play, a recent study suggests that gender can also be a factor.
The study was conducted by Ryerson’s journalism chair, John Miller. He looked at front-page stories in nine Canadian newspapers for six randomly chosen days in 1993 (five in the case of The Whitehorse Star, because it only publishes Monday to Friday). Every byline was identified as male or female and each story was placed in one of 14 news categories, as was done in a similar American survey in 1992. What Miller found was that two-thirds of the stories that made page one were written by men-a number that roughly corresponds to the proportion of male editorial staffers, which is currently about 65 per cent nationally. However, there was considerable variation from paper to paper, and often the women were relegated to softer pieces. More than half of 5 the 212 front-page stories were about 0 crime, economics, and government.
Three times out of four, these top newstories were written by men. Women wrote mostly on less “important” topics, such as leisure activities, accidents, and social issues. Not a single story about agriculture and transportation, or science and technology was written by a woman, and of the eight health and medicine stories, only one was written by a woman. (Interestingly, women wrote five of the 14 stories on war and the military.)
The smallest-circulation paper in the study, The Whitehorse Star, which sells roughly 3,000 papers daily, had a front page that was 93 per cent written by women. Of course, three of the paper’s four reporters are women and managing editor Jackie Pierce owns 25 per cent of the paper as well. At Le Devoir, one of only eight dailies in Canada with a female publisher, fully half of all front-page stories by staff were the work of women.
The Windsor Star’s record was by far the worst: zero per cent, despite editor Jim Bruce’s guess that “we probably didn’t show that badly.” The other papers’ results ranged from a high of 3 7 per cent (The Montreal Gazette) to a low of 19 per cent (The Globe and Mail), with the remaining numbers as follows: the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 31 per cent; The Toronto Star, 26 per cent; the Calgary Herald, 25 per cent; The Vancouver Sun, 20 per cent.
Windsor Newspaper Guild president Gail Robertson was understandably appalled by the Star’s record: “Zero per cent over six days is a frightening look at where we’re headed,” she says. And the Globe’s foreign editor, Ann Rauhala, reacted to her own paper’s poor showing by saying, “If the story is told by 81 per cent white men then the picture is distorted.” However, Globe managing editor John Cruickshank dismisses Miller’s study as meaningless. “I’ve never thought of the front page in gender terms,” he says, “only as stories.” Besides, he adds, Globe writers are encouraged to get their stories on other prominent pages like Middle Kingdom or page one of Report on Business. “Other papers give their best people front because they don’t have anything else,” Cruickshank says. But Colin MacKenzie, the Globe’s deputy managing editor, contradicts Cruickshank: “Everyone cares if you get on the front. It means what you did that day was one of the top six stories.” He’s not the only one to disagree with his boss. Social trends reporter Alanna Mitchell says, “The raison d’etre of writing for a paper is to get on the front page.”
Jim Bruce points out that one reason women are badly represented on The Windsor Star’s front page is because there are too few in the newsroom overall: they make up only 27 per cent of the staff. A number of the other papers surveyed have a disproportionately low number of female staff as well: at Le Devoir, 27 per cent of the editorial staff are women (which makes its front-page results all the more notable), and the Gazette and the Chronicle-Herald have 29 and 32 per cent respectively. The number of female reporters in the country has been 35 per cent at least since the recession started, with its resulting hiring freezes and “restructuring.” Union leaders say job cuts hurt women more than men because women, being more recent hires, are usually the first to go in layoffs. “As I look around the newsroom, I see a sea of white male faces,” says The Windsor Star’s Gail Robertson. “And they’re not going to replenish all the women who left-who were hired during the good times because they can’t hire right now.” But are budgetary constraints just an excuse to divert attention from the glass ceiling that has long limited women’s prospects in the newsroom?
Margaret Philp, the Globe’s social policy reporter, points out that beat assignment and story placement are key to women getting stories on front. “Many of the influential or high-profile positions are held by men and that’s why they’re on the front page,” she says. “Rather than blatant sexism going on, it’s a case of who’s got what job.” Philp and others also point to the preponderance of men in management, a factor they say can lead to male managers assigning men to the big stories that are sure to get a front-page spot. MacKenzie is frank about the power structure: “Managers in newsrooms tend to be male, and they make decisions of who goes where.” Rauhala agrees: “Jobs seen as high status are still going disproportionately to men.”
This reality is particularly evident at The Windsor Star, where the big beats labour, environment, and police-are all held by men. The newest and highest profile, the casino beat, was recently given to a man. Moreover, all assignment editors at the Star are male and only one woman is in management. Her position? Assistant managing editor on the night desk.
Anne Jarvis, the Star’s education reporter, finds the situation dispiriting. “I have felt at various times throughout the three years I’ve been here that I don’t know how far my career can go here simply because I am a woman,” she says, “and I’m not the first to feel that.” Media Watch president Shari Graydon, a Vancouver communications consultant, believes the newsroom environment “is still quite hostile towards women.” George Pollard, a sociology professor at Carleton University who has been researching media employment trends in Canada for 14 years, agrees. He notes that for decades women have outnumbered men three-to-one at J-schools, but this hasn’t translated into similar numbers at newspapers. According to his research, “between 40 and 60 per cent of women never have any intention of going into daily news.” He blames “the rough-and-tumble, male dominated newsroom environment.” For the women who are at newspapers, the fact remains they may still be relegated to lower-profile beats. As a result, their stories are less likely to get the same major playas their male colleagues’. Philp cites the example of the Globe’s Patliament Hill bureau. “We’re the self-dubbed ‘National Newspaper’ and we have only one female [Susan Delacourt] out of nine writing from Ottawa.” Philp thinks there’s one other reason for women’s stories getting less front-page space: “The newspaper business is one of self-promotion, shameless self-promotion, and to make a sweeping generalization, men are better at that.”