As the newspaper world scrambles to figure out why New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson was forced out this week, her ouster has drawn attention to another mystery: Why are there so few women running America's largest newspapers?
With Abramson's departure, only two of the top 25 circulation daily papers in the U.S. -- as listed by the Alliance for Audited Media -- have women as their top editors. Newsday's Debbie Henley and the Houston Chronicle's Nancy Barnes are the exception rather than the rule.
And with Abramson gone, replaced by Dean Baquet -- the paper's first African-American executive editor -- none of the top 10 daily papers have a woman at the helm. That's unusual since at least half of those papers have seen female newsroom leadership in recent decades.
Along with the Times, the New York Daily News, New York Post, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today were led by women during the past 15 years.
Among the remaining top 25 daily papers, at least eight had women as the top newsroom bosses during the same time span. Today, only two, Barnes and Henley.
“There was this time where there were quite a few of us. It was a nice list,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, who was editor of the Chicago Tribune for seven years before resigning in 2007 and being replaced by a man, Gerould Kern. “One by one, all for varying reasons, most of that group just dissipated. I can't tell you what all of that means, each story is very different. The sum of it is a fairly depressing lack of female leadership in major newsrooms.”
Susan Goldberg, a former top editor at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the San Jose Mercury News, said, “it's terrible that half of the jobs aren't filled by women. There certainly are tons of qualified women who are ready and able to lead newsrooms, whether those are print or online newsrooms.”
Goldberg, who recently became the first female editor-in-chief of National Geographic magazine, said things were on the rise for women editors, but the trend has reversed. “We made progress for a while, then it seemed to plateau,” she said. “Then the [financial] upheaval in the industry came and that may be part of it. There have not been the line of women to replace the ones who left. I'm sorry to see that there hasn't been a deeper bench of women who can step into these roles when they are vacated.”
Melanie Sill, former editor of The Sacramento (CA.) Bee and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., called the trend “definitely something to be concerned about.”
“It is something that I have wondered about,” added Sill, now executive editor of Southern California Public Radio. “It is part of a larger reverse trend in diversity in news in general. We've lost some ground in terms of ethnic and gender diversity.”
Several editors pointed out that the Associated Press, arguably the largest news organization in the world, is headed by a woman, executive editor Kathleen Carroll.
Still, the disparity at newspapers is drawing concerns.
“Sure, we're all excited and proud about Kathleen Carroll, but we shouldn't have to be pointing to a small handful of [women editors],” said Amanda Bennett, who has served as top editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader, both of which have men in her former posts. “When we have to name on one hand the number of them you would have thought we would be way past that.”
According to the American Society of News Editors' annual Newsroom Census, women comprised just 36 percent of newsroom staffs, a ratio virtually unchanged in the past 15 years. A slightly lower percentage of newspaper supervisor positions are held by women.
Reporters of color have faired worse, making up just under 13 percent of newsrooms according to ASNE, which notes a steady rate dating back to at least 2006. Only 10 percent of supervisors are racial minorities.
In fact, lost in the turmoil surrounding the Times' firing of their first female executive editor is that they chose to replace her with their first African-American one. Baquet, who ran the Los Angeles Times in 2005 and 2006, joins Greg Moore of The Denver Post and Davan Maharaj of the Los Angeles Times as the only top editors of color at the nation's 25 largest papers.
Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. said in announcing Abramson's dismissal that the change was due to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” No further specifics have been detailed by the paper's management, though the Times has reported that she had been “accused by some of divisiveness” and had a tense relationship with Baquet, who was the Times' managing editor before succeeding her.
According to The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, a possible “last straw” occurred a few weeks ago when Abramson “decided to hire a lawyer to complain that her salary was not equal to that of her predecessor, Bill Keller.” Sulzberger has denied the claim, stating that Abraham's pay was “comparable to that of earlier executive editors.”
But even prior to her ouster, criticisms of Abramson's management of the Times -- where she was the first female executive editor -- were viewed through a gendered lens. Criticisms of Abramson as bossy and pushy were themselves critiqued by commentators who said such claims would never by leveled at a man.
“It is certainly true that many of the things that have been said about gender expectations in news leadership are found in other business also, the challenge of being tough and effective while not being seen as pushy or overly assertive,” Sill said, adding that Abramson had promoted several woman to higher positions within the newspaper. “In the discussion about Jill Abramson I think are many echoes of experiences that women in other fields have had.”
Bennett echoed that view.
“When Jill took over, there was this narrative about the bright new day for women editors, but look what happened behind her,” she said. “They focus on the woman leaders' flaws in a way they don't focus on the men leaders. Women editors are flawed, men editors are flawed. Is there no one who is not flawed?”
She added that there is a definite problem with fewer women in the top positions, but says it is not a lack of talent.
“I do not believe for one nano-second that a shortage of qualified women caused that circumstance,” Bennett stressed. “There is the whole glass ceiling question.” When asked if women had more demands with family and children, she said, “Don't give me the work-family bullshit.”
Lipinski also showed surprise the trend was reversing.
“I think it is very hard to generalize, but there was this time, a period of time, where it seemed like having a firm number of women in the highest positions had become the new normal, and now we're back to the old normal,” she said. “We have to take a harder and much more honest look at this and say 'is there a set of biases that is creating this?' Biases in our expectations of leaders and what we demand from them and how we are promoting people.”
Nancy Barnes, former editor of The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis who joined the Houston Chronicle last fall, said, “It is surprising that an industry that espouses diversity has such a difficulty maintaining it.”
But she disagreed with Bennett's view, saying it may be more difficult for women to work their way up to be considered for top editor jobs because they want to raise a family and be with them.
“I think coming up was harder for me, because as I was coming up through the ranks, I had three kids and it can be very brutal,” said Barnes. “You are never off. I take phone calls and emails all weekend long and it is very demanding. Not everybody wants to deal with that. I think when they get to the level where they can compete for the top job, they are given consideration. I think some weed themselves out before they get there.”
She also stressed that newspapers should make it easier for women with families to succeed.
“One of the solutions is to make it a little bit easier for women to stay in the newsroom when they have a family,” Barnes said. “You have to be a little bit more flexible with them, help them come up through the ranks.”
Sill noted that some women may simply want to go into newer media outlets: “I'm struck by how much commentary is coming from accomplished women who are in web start-ups, digital publications and things that they have launched themselves. That may be where women are going instead of trying to go into entrenched bureaucracies.”
Added Goldberg: “I don't think women face unique challenges heading newsrooms, women leaders face unique challenges that men don't face in any industry. Our society doesn't treat men and women equally.”