Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 10.48.39 AM.png

Vivian Smith’s “Outsiders Still” a hard look at Canadian newspapers’ gender problem

Women, Smith writes, are still outsiders in the newspaper business, loving their jobs even as they think about moving on. Vivian Smith, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love—and Leave—Their Newspaper Careers (University of Toronto Press). Paperback, $24.95 By Catherine McKercher All things being equal, women should be running the newspaper business by now. Since the…

Women, Smith writes, are still outsiders in the newspaper business, loving their jobs even as they think about moving on.

Vivian Smith, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Loveand LeaveTheir Newspaper Careers (University of Toronto Press). Paperback, $24.95

By Catherine McKercher

All things being equal, women should be running the newspaper business by now.

Since the 1970s, women have outnumbered men in Canada’s journalism schools, often by large margins. This should have led to a flood of women into the news business and up through the ranks. Women managers would have become the norm, replacing the “old boys” who used to run things. The women hired in the 1970s would be retiring now, clearing the way for a younger wave of women senior managers, who in turn would be mentoring a new generation of women reporters.

But of course, all things are not equal. Especially for women.

As Vivian Smith notes in her new book, women account for only about one third of editorial workers in Canadian newspapers. Only four of the country’s top 25 papers had women editors-in-chief in 2014. Women, Smith writes, are still outsiders in the newspaper business, loving their jobs even as they think about moving on. Her book explores, in depth and with fascinating personal anecdotes, who these women are and what motivates them to stay in the news business, or to leave it. 

Smith has first-hand knowledge of the issues she tackles. A 1977 Western journalism grad, she spent 14 years rising through the ranks at The Globe and Mail, eventually becoming national beats editor and a member of the management committee. The end of her Globe career began, she writes, with her first child. She traded the long hours and stress of management for a less prestigious reporting job. When her husband was named the Globe’s Victoria bureau chief, she asked to work part-time. Management said no. So Smith took a buyout, moved to the west coast with her family and became a freelancer, “paid peanuts and irregularly, with no benefits or vacation pay.”

The two-dozen women Smith interviewed in depth for her book—which is based on her dissertation at University of Victoria—were still in the newspaper business, working at a handful of English-language outlets across the country. Five of them have since left. A final interview subject had already left before Smith interviewed her and heads a university journalism program. 

Smith groups her interview subjects by age into three themed chapters: senior women with decades of experience who generally feel lucky to have had the careers they had; mid-career women, many struggling with the competing demands of career and children, who feel stuck in an industry in turmoil; and newcomers who fear that the jobs they worked so hard to get will vanish before they have a chance to pursue them. Once the structure is set, she lets the women talk. 

Their stories are the heart of the book, and many are gems. There’s the reviewer who misses a deadline because her newborn is screaming to be fed. Happily, her editor is the baby’s godfather. There’s the editor who recalls bawling her eyes out as a young reporter while interviewing the mother of a raped and murdered child. When a male colleague questions her objectivity she replies: “Well, do you want me to take the side of the friggin’ rapist?” There’s the mid-career black reporter—the only non-white woman among Smith’s group—who is finding her voice as a columnist. 

And there’s the young reporter wrestling with the meaning of feminism. “I remember in high school somebody called me a feminist once and I was vaguely insulted and wondered why. It’s good to be a feminist.” Though each generation faces its own challenges, Smith finds that the decision over whether—or when—to have children is a pivotal factor in the career trajectories of all, and all three groups recognized it. The men in the newsroom, on the other hand, weren’t seen to think about parenthood as an issue. 

You can’t help but like these women and admire their commitment to journalism. They believe it’s up to them to figure out how to have a rich and full life beyond the newsroom. They solve problems rather than complain about them. With one exception, they speak frankly and on the record about the hurdles they’ve faced in their work—many of them related to the troubled state of the business itself not just gender. And they believe journalism is worth doing, not because of ego or a desire for power but because it makes a difference in people’s lives. 

I came away from the book feeling that Canadian newspapers are richer for having these women in the business. That feeling is reinforced in a later chapter, where Smith brings her interview subjects together in focus groups that cut across the generations. These conversations are sometimes heated, but the respect the women show for each other and the care with which they listen is remarkable. 

Smith’s book gives us a deep slice of the professional life of women journalists. It is also, however, a narrow slice. Individuals’ stories need context. Without it they are trees, not forest.

Smith focuses exclusively on newspapers, a product of the 19th century with an entrenched macho culture. However, the latest report from the U.S. Women’s Media Center finds that gender inequality defines all media, not just newspapers. It shows up in evening broadcast news, where women anchors and correspondents are on camera 32 per cent of the time compared to 68 per cent for men; in print, where women account for 37 per cent of stories in the top 10 newspapers; on the wires, where women provide 38 per cent of content; and in online media. A study of four online news sites found that women wrote 42 per cent of the context, compared to 58 per cent for men. Women exceeded parity at only one outlet, the Huffington Post

Granted, these are U.S. data. But Canadian women TV journalists, like Americans, routinely have their standups “videobombed” by young men shouting an obscene phrase referred to in polite company as FHRITP. Canadian studies have shown that the one area of journalism where women predominate is freelancing—which is also the poorest-paid and most precarious of all. And while our national public broadcaster should be a model of gender equality, CBC managers sat on their hands when Jian Ghomeshi said, during a staff meeting, that he wanted to “hate fuck” a woman colleague. 

Clearly, there are larger forces at work. But instead of thinking more broadly about causes and explanations, Smith keeps her focus on the newspaper business. Given that her goal is to tell the stories of newspaper-women, that’s understandable. Less understandable, though, is that she does not engage at all with the men who run the newspapers—the people who make the decisions about hiring, firing and promotions, who could make policies that would be more family friendly, who could prioritize hiring to generate diversity of all sorts, or promote mentorship even as newsrooms shrink. These are the very people who should be addressing the issues Smith’s book raises. But she gives them a pass.

Smith’s book should be a must read for everyone with an interest in working in Canadian journalism. I know women will read it—and I expect they will enjoy it and relate to the stories it contains as much as I did. The larger question is whether it will empower media women—and men—to demand better.

[[{“fid”:”4462″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 100px; height: 109px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]Catherine McKercher is emeritus professor of journalism at Carleton University.

Illustration photo by Turinboy, via Flickr.