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The sad state of journalism

I followed a link from a Jay Rosen tweet to this article in The Awl about the 2012 American Society of Magazine Editor (ASME) awards. This year, there were 25 awards and all 25 of them went to male magazine writers. There were *some* female nominees but they were vastly outnumbered by male nominees and there’s a good reason for that. Female writers don’t get the spotlight on prestigious magazines and they don’t get the plum assignments for long form journalism:

ASME doesn’t make its submissions public. They did, however, provide a glimpse into some data on what was submitted in the category of Profile Writing, one of the contested categories. Of the 86 submissions, 59 were written or co-written by men—which means 68.6 percent of submitted stories had a male author. (Thirty-six were written or co-written by women.) There was also a big imbalance in subject matter—the number of articles about men outnumbered those with female subjects by nearly a 2:1 ratio.

And for the nominations, of all given to individuals (not magazines), there were only 12 women writers out of 49 stories nominated. (One piece did not have a byline.)

One plausible explanation for this lopsidedness is that there are fewer women writing long-form journalism in general, particularly at those publications that tend to get nominated for National Magazine Awards. At the New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic and The Atlantic, for instance, less than thirty percent of the stories published in 2011 were written by women, according to this year’s VIDA Count, which did a gender breakdown of bylines in each magazine.

“The thing about the National Magazine awards is that the byline gap’s symptomatic of the overall problem in assigning to women,” said Ann Friedman, the executive editor of GOOD magazine. “It just sort of nicely forces a conversation that we should be having anyway.”

Magazines with mostly male editors often have more male writers in their networks, a factor that influences how many editors assign pieces. And women who write long-form pieces for the most prestigious magazines can have a hard time getting editors to connect with certain topics.

“I think that on an idea level, being a woman does work against you,” said Vanessa Grigoriadis, a National Magazine Award winner. “Because what you’re interested in is not what your editors are necessarily interested in. Right? They’re baby boomers living in Manhattan. They’re interested in something different.”

The above excerpt comes pretty close to the truth, I think. There are additional theories that what women write about in women’s magazines isn’t generally of interest to the general public, and women’s magazines don’t write long form journalism. These both ring true to me. I’m not interested in reading “ladies” topics. One of the articles that was slighted was about why more women are choosing to remain single. I think I might have even read that one but it didn’t leave a deep impression on me. I think the editors that cited this are looking at the problem with the wrong perspective. If they want to reward some women for writing topics of interest to women in a ragmag like Cosmo or Glamour, it’s easy enough to create a category for this. My fear is that as soon as its created, some editor will recommend a male writer to write for it.

I think there is a basic misunderstanding about what women want to write about. I doubt that women who want to write for well known journals are planning to write about things that only appeal to women, like some slightly more serious version of Carrie Bradshaw articles. It’s a little offensive to me to even suggest that. Women who read The Atlantic are reading it for the same reasons that male readers do.

No, what I want to read are articles on current issues of a broad general nature that are written by women. For example, Rachel Maddow’s book, Drift, could have made several great long form pieces. The same goes for Karen Ho’s book on Wall Street culture. That book beats anything I have read that was written by a male on the subject. It would make an excellent series of long form articles. Michelle Goldberg at Salon has written some award worthy articles on the dominionist movement in the US. How those articles got overlooked by ASME is a mystery to me.

Women are quite capable of writing substantial, analytical articles on current issues. That’s what I like to read. I want them to be able to compete in the same marketplace as their male colleagues and they CAN do it. I want them to get the respect they deserve for tackling tough topics with insight and brilliance and in a style that is interesting to read. So why aren’t there more female nominees?

My theory is that when push comes to shove, editors who have power and influence do not mentor women. Karen Ho, the anthropologist might have something to say about this. It may be due to the infiltration or extension of the ‘culture of smartness’. Take The Atlantic, for example. As the article above noted, less than 30% of the articles in The Atlantic are written by women. And how the hell did Matt Yglesias get a spot at Slate writing about the Mommy Wars? Jeez, it’s almost like he’s phoning it in. Why isn’t Melissa McKewn writing more biting commentary at Slate about what it’s like to be a feminist in this political environment? Was it his Ivy League degree? Connections? Sometimes, I get the feeling that journals are running a welfare program for males of a certain socioeconomic group. ‘Front Office’ positions are frequently occupied by males with pedigree or connections. How about Ezra Klein? Matt Taibbi? Ta-Nehesi Coates? Kevin Drum? These are the next generation of writers who are being mentored to be the opinion makers of the future and there are very few women among them. Women don’t get regular gigs at magazines. Maybe that’s why so many of them end up writing books. If they don’t publish in book format, the body of their work never sees the light of day.

And think of all of the really superb female bloggers who don’t get the opportunities that Kevin Drum or Ezra Klein have had dropped into their laps. Why is Digby only now getting to write occasionally for Al Jazeera? And in 2008, the best political blogger in long form was a mysterious woman from San Diego named Anglachel. Her posts on the Obama phenomenon and analysis of the history of the Democratic party were sheer genius. This was a female blogger whose mind was like a well tuned performance engine. She was very well informed and had a level of expertise in political science that easily bested most A list male bloggers. Her privacy might have had something to do with her not making the big time but how many people knew she even existed? How many people were too busy praising the milquetoast drivel of Kevin Drum? Good female commentary can bring a unique quality to journalism. The best female bloggers see an issue from a more holistic point of view. They make connections men tend to overlook and their posts are rich in metaphor.

Getting nominated for an ASME is directly proportional to getting the opportunity to write long form journalism at a magazine. If women are never considered as potential employees and protégées, they’ll never get those opportunities. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking why no one will read what women will write. Maybe we should be asking why they don’t get the assignments that would showcase their talents as writers, not just women writers.

They’re out there if only editors would bother to find them.

28 Responses

  1. My dad has been a-man-possessed since he read this story in Atlantic Monthly, “God Help You. You’re on Dialysis.” by, Robin Fields.

    This story, about the 10s of thousands being poorly treated on dialysis and dying every year is a wrenching heartbreak.

    AND. Written (although in 2010) by a woman.

    So there’s another woman out there writing serious investigative stuff.

  2. riverdaughter…

    you make good points. having been a freelance journalist for, oh, 25 years, i can understand and appreciate what you are saying. fact is,
    you should have a bigger audience! but as to your comments about ezra klein, matt taibbi etc, it is true that ezra klein on his own would be unheard and unheard of (he is a poster boy of conventional wisdom). however, matt taibbi is clever, serious and generally on the right side of things. just finished his book “griftopia”. it will set your hair on fire.

    keep up the good work…

    • Thanks, Bernard. Having this blog and the friends I have made here has kept me sane over the past year. So, I can’t complain. 😉

      I realize that Matt Taibbi is a good writer and I enjoy reading his pieces in The Rolling Stone. However, I have to wonder if even Matt Taibbi would have made the big time if he hadn’t been a legacy. My point is that good writing ability and a keen analytical mind crosses many gender and socioeconomic boundaries. But women, even in Matt Taibbi’s social sphere are not mentored to have a place of distinction in paid journalism. Think about it. Where is the next Maureen Dowd who worked her way up from her working class roots? The numbers are vanishingly small. It’s bad enough that working class guys get the shaft. It is that much tougher on women.
      I predict that David Atkins will get a regular paying gig at a journal before Digby does. That’s a tragedy.

  3. What I want to read is the story which engrosses me so that I have no idea what gender that author is.

    • What I want to read are opinion columns and news reporting that aren’t the equivalent of yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater so you can report on the stampede deaths the next day. You know something backed up by facts and not fever dreams.

    • Exactly. It can be done.

      • So it seems to me that the lack of women getting those awards just stems back to good old latent “old boys club sexism”. They hire and promote the people who look like them. They read and reward the people who look like them. And I think we have to be aware of the fact that to your typical white guy, a black or Latino or Asian man looks like them much more than any woman ever could. A man with totally opposing view points on EVERYTHING looks more like them than any woman ever could.
        I don’t know then, what do we do? Can we make a point of seeking out great female writers and praising them, making sure their publishers know how valuable they are?
        RD, I feel like we need a whole new woman’s movement but no one realizes it. The official dregs of the 2nd wave are useless even as we rank and file 2nd wavers get more and more disgusted. The 3rd wave is clueless about how they have been had. Women who say “I am not a feminist, we don’t need feminism anymore. I am a humanist.” make me want to yell at them and sit them in the corner with a dunce cap.

        Let’s have another woman’s movement. We are the greatest force for change that there is.

  4. Riverdaughter, you know that I’ve been prodding you to write a book. On any topic.

    You’re right, but there are bright spots. Olbermann is out; Maddow is in. That’s something I never expected. Nobody on the left is more respected than Naomi Klein. Barbara Ehrenreich has done amazing work. I’m ahead of most people when it comes to sniffing out the details of covert stuff, but Marcy Wheeler is about a million lightyears ahead of me. If the CIA were a laudable organization, I’d say that she should be running it.

    I hate to say it, but Arianna — whom I HATE — is considered THE role model when it comes to new media.

    There’s no need to snipe at Taibbi. He is the position he is in because he does his homework and he explains incredibly complex financial flim-flammery in terms that anyone can understand.

    You know where women are REALLY getting the short end? Hollywood.

    • What exactly are people missing when I refer to Taibbi??
      Taibbi is a good writer. No one is denying it. But the fact that he has a job at Rolling Stone probably doesn’t have much to do with his writing ability as he just happens to have a father who is a TV journalist. There are thousands of Matts and Madeleines out there who have talent to match or exceed Taibbi’s. He is where he is because he had access and his work was able to make it past the socioeconomic obstacles that everyone else has to negotiate. The chances that he would be recognized as a good writer worthy of writing for Rolling Stone were greatly enhanced by his father’s high profile.
      Now, you have to ask yourself, why is it we don’t see as many females taking advantage of their connections in the same way when it comes to a job in journalism. What does Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley’s daughter do for a living? There are exceptions, of course. Mika Bryshinski comes to mind, briefly, but this reinforces my point. Your parents’ professions can open doors for you. You just have to wonder why so many woman are choosing not to get jobs in magazine journalism if connections were an entree point. Or is there some other selection process in place?
      You know, in many symphony orchestras, auditions are conducted behind screens. Since the method was adopted, the number of women getting positions in orchestras has jumped dramatically. Maybe the same thing is happening here. Editors just don’t believe women make good magazine writers.

      • People go in to the family business. Sometimes they deserve the jobs they get, sometimes not. But sometimes inherited talent is part of the equation, so the hand up is less upsetting.

        • Once again, with feeling:I’M NOT UPSET THAT MATT TAIBBI HAS A JOB AT ROLLING STONE!!
          I’m upset that you have to either be male or have family connections to get your work to be considered. Does that make sense? Please raise your hand if that does not make sense, because I am very concerned that so many people are missing the point here.

      • “There are thousands of Matts and Madeleines out there who have talent to match or exceed Taibbi’s.”

        I just don’t agree. I think his is a rare talent.

        As you know, I’ve said the same thing about YOU many times. So I hope I won’t be accused of taking sex into account.

        You’re right about symphony orchestras, but can we really “screen” writers in that fashion? I mean, consider this rather overblown Romney/Rosen brouhaha. If you were a magazine editor and someone submitted a byline-free piece on that topic, wouldn’t you want to know if the perspective on offer was male or female?

        That said, I have to admit that screens have really helped in the world of the symphony. You probably know the story about Herbert von Karajan, who (in his latter years) promoted a female player even though all the other players said she wasn’t good enough. People said the old man was smitten. Maybe he was, and maybe he was being objective. You may also have heard the tales about Sergiu Celibidache — a true mad genius of a conductor, who treated all female players abominably. I love his Bruckner recordings, but the stories one hears about him make me cringe.

        Conducting, alas, is one art that cannot take place behind a screen. Maybe that explains why there are still very few female conductors. We have an excellent one here in Balmer — Marin Alsop, a protege of Leonard Bernstein.

        Sorry if I drifted. I run into few people who know good music.

        • I disagree with your premise that there aren’t thousands of struggling writers who can match Taibbi. As long as this is the system we’re in, I’m glad Taibbi is writing where we can actually see him. But the country is becoming increasingly stratified and if you don’t start out at the top, your chances of getting there is very small. This country has over 300,000,000 people. There are many thousands of talented writers who are banging away in other jobs because they know they’ll never make it. Some of those people blog. But seriously, Joe, even if I were as good as you seem to think (and I could really use an editor), it’s not as if the world is beating a path to my door or offering to hook me up with people who will pay me for this. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I know no one in the journalism industry and I have no pedigree from a journalism school (this might actually be a plus). Do you see the problem? Surely you do.
          BTW, the truth has a well known genderless bias.

          • It has been said that you get gigs based on your secondary friends. Not the people closest to you, but THEIR friends. Their world is your world.

            I keep making this point to my ladyfriend, who was graduated with high honors in Art History. She is now working in a low-paying job that is unrelated to her degree and way beneath her talents. (Forgive me if that assessment sounds snobbish.) I continually advise her to cultivate relationships with people other than her co-workers. Frankly, she has to get to know people who can open doors.

            That strategy takes effort. It’s calculated. It’s almost Machiavellian. It takes all the fun out of our social relations.

            But such is the way our bad world works.

          • You know, since no-one but you is likely to read this comment, perhaps this is a good place to be candid. You’re right: The world is not going to beat a path to your door. That’s a given. It’s true for anyone not named Hilton or Kardashian.

            As for where to begin — well, I’ve suggested a book.

            You have enormous advantages that you don’t appreciate. That’s why it bugs me to see you complain that the game is rigged against women (even if there is a lot of truth in what you say).

            Professional writing, these days, is a multi-media affair — it really helps if you can get in front of a camera or a mic. Because I’m lens-shatteringly ugly, I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Lectures are out of the question, as are any interviews involving cameras. Radio…? Well, maybe. I’ve done radio. Wasn’t good at it, but it’s still possible.

            A while back, I said that I’d give a lot to be as handsome a representative of my gender as you are of yours. That wasn’t intended as flattery; it’s a coldly objective statement of fact. People aren’t going to laugh at you if you get up in front of a lecture hall — and trust me: It is REALLY easy to get on the lecture circuit. So that’s a tremendous “leg up” right there.

            Your background as a scientist gives you phenomenal credibility. (Nobody wants to hear what an artist has to say, even when the topic is art.) You could write about pretty much ANY scientific matter — global warming, for example — and people would pay attention. When writing for laypeople, you do not have to stay within your discipline.

            You’re middle class. You have a daughter. You have a normal life. And you probably get along with people a lot better than I do.

            You may not think that those things confer great advantages, but they do. A writer sells his or her personality and experiences, and the average reader cannot easily identify with oddballs or outsiders. The writing world is FILLED with oddballs and outsiders, so that factor alone works in your favor.

            Please don’t think that I’m saying these words because I want to be in your good graces. I have no friends these days and I want none, and I know that what I’m saying here will only make you angry. But I do know talent when I see it. For chrissakes, if Maureen freakin’ Dowd can be having an impact on the national dialogue…!

            I’m not saying that there is no bias against female political writers. I’m not saying that there is no glass ceiling. But I’ve yet to see you even try to get within bumping distance. And that’s a shame, because I’ve always thought that you had the potential not just to bump but to shatter.

            Incidentally, you are hardly the only writer who has appeared here who has displayed that kind of potential. The same could be said of the other one with your initials.

            You’re probably pissed off now. I’ll go away.

  5. Maybe it doesn’t exactly apply here(?), but in so many other situations, what (in Danish) is called ‘The Rip, Rap, Rup Effect’ comes into play. Meaning, you chose, promote – and often only recognize! – someone who looks like yourself.

    Somehow though, I rarely see this manifest itself among women. Go figure.

    • *Exactly* Thank you!
      And these days, there are no such things as open positions. You need to find someone to mentor you or introduce you to the people who can hire you. It’s all networking. If you have access to a network, your chances of getting a job or getting the job that will allow you to showcase your best work, is much easier.

    • My theory (and maybe somebody else noticed this too but I don’t have time to look for it today):

      Men and women are both socialized to see “men” or “boys” as key characters. Rarely are “normal” girls or women the key players in books, movies or in real life – not the kind regular women can identify with. We are socialized to percieve men as more talented and contributing more for doing less.

      Even at home, maybe the husband does the dishes while the wife does everything else. The husband is given praise for small effort while woman’s huge effort is ignored. Kids see this everywhere they go and then they grow up.

      Promoting people like yourself *appears* to happen but I wonder if what really is happening is more like promoting men because they fit our socialized perception of what a key player or talented person looks like. Socially, men’s contributions are given more praise for smaller efforts and THEY don’t know it. They believe that the praise is appropriate for the effort they expended because it is how we train them.

      It just happens (by this same system) that mostly white men are doing the promoting and they are choosing mostly white men – but they are really responding to the socialized perception that the key players or most talented people *look* like that. That is why “minorities”, including women, follow the same pattern as the white men when choosing who to promote.

      See obama’s staff for an example – he didn’t pick people who look like himself, he picked people we are all socialized to identify with.

      • RD – I completely agree. Matt Tabbi is a good writer but he is on a crowded field that doesn’t have tallent as the key entrance criteria (as far as I can tell!). I also think you are right that the blogger boyz are next in line because they are developing connections.

        I see Digby’s work scrutinized more often than the others on the little blogs I read. It may just be what I read – but it seems like other bloggers tolerate less stupid from her than the others.

        All those other bloggers were chickenshit or sold out, but she is the one who everyone remembers and she holds her own special place in infamy. I think it is related to the bit about men getting too much credit for the dishes… The flip side of that is that they get very little blame for being wrong or saying stupid things.

      • That’s a really good point about our socialized perception of gender. It’s as if men are always somehow the “default” gender, the gender that first comes to mind. E.g. try mentioning the success of a person in a non gender specific occupation without mentioning the gender of said person and I’m pretty sure most people – probably myself included, sorry to say – will unconsciously imagine it’s a man.

        And so true about men doing housework. What really, really annoyes me is when women praise their husbands for being “very helpful with the daily chores around the house.” It’s as if they don’t expect their spouses to share that responsibility. I can’t imagine a man ever saying – at least not without ironi – the exact same thing about his wife.

        • Too funny! I’m sure the praise is the only way to keep them “helping”.

          I teasingly tell my husband that he looks “hot” or “sexy” when he is doing the dishes (or really pretty much any housework).

  6. Riverdaughter
    I have a tale that might or might not be a propos of this discussion. Or perhaps it is through the looking glass. Some years ago I applied (out of the blue) to an international magazine for a writing gig. They liked my work and kept me busy with numerous assignments for a pretty long time. The twist in this tale is that years before, I stole (I use that word loosely) my editors girlfriend from him. I believe he never knew that I was that guy. I never said a word to him about it. But I have often wondered if he had made the connection would he have stopped giving me those good assignments. Or did my work simply speak for itself. Might this tale be an example of anti-connections??
    On the other hand, I have known fellow journalists, who were 1st class schmoozers (as well as pretty fair writers). They continually managed to fail upwards. Every job they were fired from ultimately resulted in a better job. It’s a puzzlement.
    You are not really wrong in your assessment but I am not sure it is a universal rule.
    Again, keep up the good work…

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