Over 20 years ago, Kathy Best, a young reporter in Washington, D.C., walked into a bar and saw something that surprised her — a table of reporters — all women.
“It was a revelation,” Best said. At her previous job as a political reporter in Springfield, Illinois, she had been one of only three women in a 20-person state press corps. Covering politics, she experienced sexism from legislators and fielded questions about her sex life from other reporters. But that night in Washington, Best found a new source of support.
“Each of those women taught me something, and that pattern has continued — and accelerated, since I’ve started to learn more about digital storytelling,” she said. “I have learned something important from almost every woman journalist I worked with.”
Best would go on to hold many editorial positions at nationally renowned newspapers, become the first female editor of The Seattle Times and lead her team to three Pulitzer Prizes; two for breaking news and one for investigative reporting. In June, she was named editor of two newspapers in Montana, the Missoulian and the Ravalli Republic.
Best is one of several influential female editors who were hired to top editorial positions in the West during the past two years. The others include Lee Ann Colacioppo, the first female editor in The Denver Post’s 124-year history; Jennifer Napier-Pearce as the second female editor of the 145-year-old Salt Lake Tribune, and Rhonda Prast, another first-time female editor for the 152-year-old Idaho Statesman.
How do these hires reflect the status of women in a profession dominated by men? In a 2016 survey of 737 news organizations by the American Society of News Editors, 77 percent reported having at least one woman in a top-three position, up from 63 percent in 2014. However, advances are uneven across the country and the West. A Montana government website query of roughly 50 newspapers found only 12 (or 24 percent) with a woman in an upper-tier editorial rank. And the number of women in journalism, in general, is decreasing as newspapers across the country downsize.
According to the ASNE survey, women currently make up only one-third of newspaper employees in the U.S.
While the increase in recent hires of female editors in the West is an accomplishment, it is most likely an example of a few hardworking, lifetime journalists and not a trend, said Scott Reinardy, media expert and author of “Journalism’s Lost Generation: The Un-Doing of U.S. Newspaper Newsrooms.” Through surveying thousands and interviewing hundreds on newsroom morale over the last decade, Reinardy found that women are leaving journalism at a faster rate than men. Women generally exit journalism from middle management positions when they are forced to make work-life compromises, often involving child care. Since most journalism jobs require 40-plus hours a week, and now, the additional burden to post on social media, time demands can be too great.
This all adds up to fewer women in the pool when top editorial positions become available, which, in turn, cascades to reduce diversity in news coverage, Reinardy said. “Women are more likely to cover education, religion and social topics in newspapers. As more women leave the industry, we see a lack in coverage on those topics as well as a lack of representation for half of the population.”
Online news is one sector that seems to have achieved gender parity. Around 50 percent of online news employees are women, according to ASNE’s report. Reinardy said this is probably because a young demographic is working in digital media. Schedule flexibility may also play a role in how many women hold managerial and editorial positions in this area. For example, if digital journalists can work from home, they might have higher job satisfaction.
Best agrees flexibility is important. “The most successful women tend to be those with partners who share family responsibilities equally and who have bosses at work who value their contribution enough to accommodate, through flexible hours or schedules, the need for balance,” she said.
The Missoulian’s new editor thinks systematic changes will need to be made to increase the number of women working in journalism. “There are still too few women working as top leaders at large metro newspapers or other news organizations,” she said. “I had hoped that the rise of digital news would change that, but so far it has not.”
Both Best and Napier-Pearce agree that one way for young women journalists to succeed and move through the ranks is to seek advice from other professionals. It is just as important for established professionals to mentor the up-and-coming.
“Always strive for excellence, ask for constructive feedback and just be yourself. And when you make it, pay it forward by giving young women in your sphere of influence support and advice,” Napier-Pearce said.
Likewise, Best stressed that doing great work is not enough when you are a female journalist. “You need to let people know your goals and seek help from the people you respect to achieve them,” she said. “Talk to women leaders you respect to learn about what makes them successful. Every woman I have ever reached out to has been generous with her time. I should have done that sooner and more often.”
While women in the West are making headway one editorial position at a time, there is still much to be done to achieve gender equity. The recognition that women have something unique to provide may help pave the way. “If news organizations want to accurately reflect their communities, then they need to accurately reflect the sensibilities of more than half of their readers,” Best said. “I have great respect for my male colleagues, but I see the world differently than they do because I am a woman. Reflecting that sensibility in our coverage makes it fuller, richer and I believe, better.”
Tess Haas is a recent graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism. This summer she traveled to Berlin to cover stories about the Syrian refugee crisis and served as an editorial intern for the Missoula Independent.