Like old media, new media has its glass ceilings. But women are consistently shattering barriers to their advancement in one sector of new media. It’s happening in the digital space that’s too new and freewheeling to have a corporate, gender-based pecking order – community news.
Of the 12 top revenue-producing community news sites, eight have a female editor-publisher-owner, based primarily on my calculations from the authoritative Michele’s List – compiled by journalist and community news researcher Michele McLellan – as well as my own research. There is just one site in the list’s top revenue bracket of $501,000-$1 million — St. Louis Beacon — and it is headed by two women: Editor and co-founder Margie Freivogel and General Manager Nicole Holloway.
Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab and a longtime champion of women in old and new media, also relayed to me some telling numbers: “Women-led projects comprised 50% of our 55 New Voices projects, which were all hyperlocal. … The two big local/statewide mergers in the past year were driven by women: Laura Frank merging I-News into Rocky Mountain PBS and Margie Freivogel of St. Louis Beacon about to complete her deal with St. Louis Public Radio.”
Another number: Six women editors-publishers now sit on the 13-member board of the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, the major association representing “indies.”
Women-run indie ares in the vanguard of a brace of recent expansions by one-offs. I’ve recently written about three: Hulafrog in suburban New Jersey, where founders Sherry Lombardi and Kerry Bowbliss have built 28 sites devoted to events for children and plan to expand to 100 more communities next year; Brentword Communications in suburban Nashville, Tenn., where founders Kelly Gilfillan and Susan Leathers have built four sites; and Corner News Media in Brooklyn, where founder Liena Zagare has also built out four sites and is eying further expansion in the borough.
Crucially, none of these women had to make their case in corporate board rooms, which are overwhelmingly male-dominated. These women just rolled up their entrepreneurial sleeves and went to work. But their success wasn’t, and isn’t, guaranteed. The odds against the small businesses owner – male or female – being successful are considerably longer than a blackjack player’s chances in Las Vegas. So what do women bring to the community news space to produce so many winners?
Here’s what Schaffer, a Pulitzer Prize winner from her earlier days as a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, told me:
“I think women media entrepreneurs – as Sheryl Sandberg put it in recalling her childhood backyard play time – bring more of a web-like, ‘jungle-gym’ view of community news opportunities to their enterprises vs. a more linear, ladder view of what defines “news” – in the description of Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher – that more traditional news orgs, usually run by men, have subscribed to.
“I think women like their journalism to help solve community problems, be a little more catalytic.
“I think women are more comfortable addressing social issues — race, poverty, health.”
I also asked a man, Chris Grotke, co-founder of 11-year-old i-Brattleboro in Vermont, for his take on what women bring to community news that’s special — and specifically his life and publishing partner, Lise LePage:
“Lise brings a levelheadedness to the operation when I’m freaking out. Very occasionally a story/comments will become heated, and spiral out of control. I’m usually good to a point, but need her to help me with perspective and soothing of site users if it goes too far.
“Lise also has better gut instincts than I do for people in general. I tend to want to give people the benefit of the doubt, or grant them a bit of slack. Lise can be tougher sooner, and she’s almost always right.”
Tracy Record, editor and co-publisher of the West Seattle Blog, one of the top revenue producers among hyperlocals, also went out of her way to praise her partner: “This would be impossible without my co-publisher and longtime husband Patrick Sand. He doesn’t do the online yapping that I tend to do in comments. He does the hard work, all the community relations work on the ground in our community, AND serves as chief photographer. Currently (as I write), he is out on our windiest point covering a capsized boat in a gale that came out of nowhere.”
While Schaffer is pleased about women’s significant progress in the hyperlocal space, and their spottier successes elsewhere in new media, she emphasizes:
“There is no question that women face more hurdles, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than male v. female.
“On the asset side: I think women are more creative, more nimble at pivoting, guaranteed to deliver.
“On the liability side: I think women are less self-promotional, less plugged into networks that can help open doors for them and tend to ask for less money, so they make do with less.
“I think women’s brains are operating on so many circuits that, while they know perfectly where they are going, program officers at foundations, who are often male, can’t even follow their thinking.”
But an editor-publisher whose brain is firing away on all those circuits may be just what a community website and its audience need.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that will rate communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability. He will present the site’s new demo on Charleston, S.C., at the DIG SOUTH 2014 interactive festival in Charleston on April 9-13, 2014.