A Girl Reads the New York Times: Why Are All the Front-Page Articles By Men?

In her charming and informative New York Times front-page obituary for Pauline Phillips (aka Dear Abby) last Friday, Margalit Fox states matter-of-factly about Phillips’ career that, “nearly 60 years ago, seeking something more meaningful than mah-jongg, [Phillips] transformed herself into the syndicated columnist…” 

The implication is that for a California housewife of that era, few professional careers were an option. From the bylines on the front page of the same edition of the New York Times (January 18) one could almost conclude that little has changed six decades later. In a total of six articles appearing on A-1 that day, only one – the Phillips obit – is written by a woman. The other five articles are each written by not one but two men, giving the sense that the editors have concluded a buddy system is best, in journalism as in grade school.

A week later in the Times we learned that the big news from the Sundance film festival is that “for the first time women accounted for half of the directors in the American dramatic competition section...” (p. C1). We also learned that the Justice Commissioner for the European Union is “leading a campaign for legally binding measures to promote gender equality in the top ranks of the European business world” (p. B6).

What does it say, then, that in 2013 the front page of the paper of record last Friday featured the writing of 11 men (Adam Nossiter co-authored two of the articles) and one woman? What should we make of the fact that the men were writing about the Algerian hostage standoff, the New York City mayoral race, the feud between the Bloomberg administration and the teachers’ union, and lithium batteries that cause fires on airplanes, while the lone woman got below-the-fold space for a tribute to an advice columnist? Maybe it was only a one-day phenomenon -- some weird alignment of the planetary system at the Times.

But the front page of the paper last Thursday was also like a man-cave, with a boy/girl ratio of 8-to-2. The buddy system was in effect again, although two female reporters managed singlehandedly to write their own pieces (!), both of which could be deemed hard news. Jessica Silver-Greenberg’s coverage of banking and finance has been featured on A-1 consistently over the past month or two, and is notable as much for the high quality of her coverage as for the almost unique gender of the byline. Denise Grady was given a column on the front page, but was relegated to talking about a topic the author herself characterizes as “unpleasant” – fecal transplants (hard news, I suppose – I’m holding back here).

The day before, Wednesday, January 16, featured my favorite story, whose byline reads like a joke told in response to the prompt: How many Michaels does it take to report on Obama’s proposal for gun policy reform? The answer, evidently, is three (Michael Cooper, Michael Luo and Michael D. Shear share the byline): one, I suppose to report, one to write, and one to…I’ll let you finish the joke as you see fit. 

That day, Anemona Hartocollis actually managed to get her name above the fold (perhaps pulled up there by her coauthor, Benedict Carey, writing on mental illness), and Mary Pilon appeared below the fold on disabled athletes. That yielded an 8-to-2 ratio of boys to girls again (counting all three Michaels), with both international articles being written exclusively by male couples, and an article by John Eligon on…don’t laugh…the shortage of women in Williston, N.D., accompanied by a picture of two men dancing alone (wonder if they were named Michael?).

The management of the Times, as detailed on the masthead, might as well be from the era when Pauline Phillips morphed into Dear Abby so that she could give up mah-jongg. Jill Abramson’s name (thankfully) sits almost anachronistically atop the names of three male managing editors and one male deputy managing editor. The balance gets better going down the masthead, but the corporate officer list is truly prehistoric, featuring a list of eight men with fancy titles, followed by two women, one of whom gets to be the secretary, the other the treasurer – yes, I know that means they’re officers, and that these are ostensibly positions of esteem, but all the boys get words like “senior” and “chief” with their names, and the girls get ambiguous titles that somehow imply they’re doing the heavy lifting but will never be senior or chief anything.

I run a small media organization – a book publishing house. We have a staff of 23, including eight men and 15 women. Our management team includes three women and one man (can someone please bring me some binders full of men?).  For the past 20 years The New Press has run an internship program that has launched over 500 young people, mostly of color, into careers in the media and non-profit spheres, and we think every day about what we can do to bring different, underrepresented voices into the public conversation. Diversity can be accomplished, but probably not by three guys named Mike.

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