New model journalism, old model sexism – do we need a new e-feminism?

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Over the two and a half years I’ve been researching emerging forms of media for New Model Journalism and the NUJ conference which preceded it, a question has been slowly pushing itself to the forefront of my mind. It feels a bit like that story about the emperor having no clothes, but no one being prepared to say so, and it’s certainly too early for any data on the subject. But finally, I’ve got to the point where I can no longer stop myself from asking …

Where are all the women?

This question crystalised in my head, I had a rummage around the New Model Journalism archives, which are replete with case studies of impressive start-ups and reports of exciting new digi-developments. And there, my hunch was confirmed. From the founders of pay-what-you-want sports mag the Blizzard to the inventor of innovative advertising system Addiply, the population of pioneers is overwhelmingly male.

The process of deciding on the speakers for the conference on new ways to make journalism pay, I recalled, told a similar tale. It wasn’t that the organising committee unwittingly invited panels almost entirely composed of men; we noticed quite quickly that the lack of female speakers and scratched our collective head, but failed to come up with anything approaching a gender balance. Finally, we settled for a single woman speaker, resolving to break up the monotony with a few female chairs.

That single speaker was Angie Sammons, editor of Liverpool Confidential, a news and reviews website that has thrived since it started five years ago. During that time, Sammons has earned what she describes as a ‘good living’ from the site, and is as passionate as ever about ensuring a future platform for news about the city she loves. But she admits that, as a woman, the networking side of the job has been challenging.

‘I know that if I was a bloke I’d be perceived very differently,’ she says. ‘Websites are very blokey by their very nature, and it’s quite difficult, on a social level, to be that blokey. I’ve certainly ‘”manned up” since I’ve been doing this.’

‘As to women in this game, it’s the same old rule with just a different kind of ball,’ she continues. ‘The rule being “best batted by men”, and the ball is just digital media, rather than traditional media.’

Her experience chimes with that of Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, a longtime researcher into media and gender issues. ‘I don’t know of any data on this, but it’s classic stuff,’ she says. ‘Newsrooms are fiercely macho environments. They’re squeezing out an enormous amount of intelligence and communicative understanding that is critical to the digital age.’

Danuta Kean, books editor for the women’s writing magazine Mslexia, agrees. ‘In the creative writing industries, men do seem to get an easier time. The voices of men are taken more seriously, and it’s a question of women having to break into a boys’ club.’

‘People see the digital world as a shiny new world,’ she adds. ‘It isn’t. It’s the same old world. Why should we be surprised if we see the same sexism in the digital world?’

And, if current trends are examined further, it looks as if things will only get worse. According to Sammons, women in regional journalism are failing to acquire the skills necessary to participate in the digital revolution, and are getting left behind. ‘Most of the women I know in journalism don’t interact with the internet,’ she says. ‘And I don’t think it’s going to change.’

Meanwhile, says Fenton, the crisis afflicting the media industry is affecting women, who tend to work more on a freelance or part-time basis, particularly adversely. ‘When any crisis strikes, equality goes out of the door,’ she says. ‘The fragility of the business model is worse for women.’

At the same time, she adds, the 24/7 demands of the digital age mean that, for staffers on newspapers, it’s the women who are increasingly doing the online work. ‘They are very conscientious, and it’s communicative work,’ she says. ‘Women are better at that. I think they’re being exploited, because it’s so round-the-clock.’

‘As a result, they’re getting more kudos. But we know that, as time goes on, work is seen as less valuable because women are doing it. That’s a standard pattern that’s happened throughout the technical transformation of the working environment – think typewriters. Women end up doing the busy stuff, and men take the leadership roles and the kudos.’

‘That’s a pattern that’s difficult to break, because it’s patriarchy,’ she concludes, depressingly.

So is the digital revolution generating the need for a new e-feminism? If so, it’s too early to say what form it might take. No one I spoke to had any strong ideas about possible remedies; it seems that we’re still at the very early stages of diagnosing the problem.

(I am confident that two leading female players in the new media world – feminist blogger Laurie Penny and Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ’s first woman general secretary, could shed further light on this regressive trend, but neither have responded to interview requests. Laurie and Michelle, I’ll be keeping a watching brief on this area, and would still love to hear from you.)

In the meantime, dear reader, I’ll leave you with a provocative hypothesis from Danuta Kean that there’s something about the digital world, with its new forms of communication via forums and social media, that fosters a New Sexism.

‘It’s not a two-way conversation. You’re inside your head, and not empathising with another person,’ she says. ‘It’s quite a narcissistic medium, and maybe that suits men better.’