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Gender and media viability: making a business case for diversity (Part One)

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International Women’s Day seems like a fitting time to discuss the relationship between gender and media business performance. MDIF’s 25 years of experience in supporting independent media shows us that a women-focused approach in areas such as content strategy, audience engagement, revenue management, and product design can pay dividends for media business development. This two-part series explores different aspects of gender inequality through examples of news innovators from around the world who are paving the way for more inclusive media (Part One), and looks at how female-focus can help news organizations build different revenue streams (Part Two).

Women as a primary audience

Women are less likely than men to say they are interested in news, reportedly have fewer media subscriptions and allegedly churn more frequently than men. One highly cited reason for this apparent disengagement is the fact that women and their unique perspectives are missing from media coverage. In fact, women represent only 25% of people seen, heard or read about in news coverage, and are less likely to think they are covered fairly in the media. 91% of women also feel misunderstood by marketers, despite being responsible for the majority of purchases within households and representing a growth market twice as big as China and India combined.

This grim reality provides an opportunity for the growing number of media companies which primarily serve women. Making up half of the world’s population, women and girls are an important, yet often underserved, demographic offering a potential market for audience growth and a valuable consumer group for businesses and brands which want to market to them.

For example, in South Africa, online platform gsport4girls is the only 24/7 provider of women’s sports coverage in the country, seeking to address the gender gap in sports media. In Indonesia, feminist publication offers alternative perspectives, particularly on gender equality and the rights of women and minorities. In India, SHEROES, a women’s community platform, gives access to information, expert advice, a counselling chat helpline and social commerce opportunities. All three outlets target women and adolescent girls in particular and create an open space for underrepresented topics and voices.

Serving the female audience

A women-centric approach applies beyond niche publishers, with many traditional legacy and online media, both mainstream and specialized, launching editorial products and initiatives that put women and their needs at the center. For instance, in the Philippines, podcast production company PumaPodcast runs “Go Hard Girls”, the first podcast dedicated to the stories of Filipina athletes. In India, Gram Vaani, a community media organization, created “Meri Awaz Meri Pehchan” (“My Voice My Identity”), a voice-based media platform for women in rural India. In Poland, Agora’s Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily newspaper and news portal, turned “Wysokie Obcasy” (“High Heels”), its Saturday supplement for women, into a standalone monthly magazine and website for women.

There has also been a growing effort to produce more diverse content that better reflects society and ensures better representation of women in the news. Aimed at achieving a fair balance of male and female voices, the BBC 50:50 Equality Project has spread to 690 teams taking part internally and 121 partner organizations across 26 countries. Meanwhile in Poland, Agora spearheaded an initiative called NewsMavens, giving voice to women editors to create a daily news roundup about what’s most important in Europe from a woman’s perspective. In South Africa, QuoteThisWoman+ (QW+) built a database of female experts in different fields that gives mainstream media easy access to women specialists to interview and quote. A similar directory focused on Latin American women experts in different fields was created by Ecuador’s digital news site GK.

Diversity within newsrooms and leadership

Yet gender considerations in media go far beyond women-focused publications and products, in particular in regard to gender equality in the media workforce. Even though four out of five media leaders think they are doing a good job with gender diversity, the news media industry is still male-dominated and there’s still a long way to go to achieve equality.

According to research, women constitute 36% of all reporters, 27% of the top management and 41% of the newsgathering, editing and writing senior professionals. Among MDIF clients, that number stands at 45% for all female workers, 45% for management and 35% for female newsroom leadership. In our 25 years of operation, we have worked with numerous women-owned and women-run news businesses, including, among many, Kosovo’s leading independent broadcaster RTV21, Peru’s regional news outlet El Búho and Media Alternativa’s TV channel in Moldova TV8.

Inclusivity within an organizational structure can boost innovation and team performance as well as improve decision-making and employee satisfaction. There are also reports that diversity and inclusion in the workplace could make businesses more profitable. Within the media industry, diversity holds even more promise for performance and operations. Balanced newsrooms can help build audience trust and improve the journalistic product by making it more inclusive.

Gender-based harassment

It’s impossible to talk about women in news without addressing gender-based violence. On average, 40% of women media professionals report experiencing sexual harassment of some kind in the workplace. The problem is particularly prevalent online, with 73% of women journalists said to face online violence in the course of their work. But in addition to the personal and professional impact on the individual media workers, online violence can also damage an outlet’s online communities, and thus significantly impact its audience engagement strategies.

An example is Philippine news site Rappler, which initially embraced social media, but later saw it weaponised, with its female staff and management hit the hardest. An analysis of 9,433 comments posted on the professional Facebook page of Maria Ressa, its founder and CEO, revealed that for every supportive comment, there were about 14 comments attacking her. As attacks grew, Rappler made significant changes to its audience-led business model, refocusing its audience engagement efforts away from social media. The outlet innovates around community building, including through its new platform Lighthouse, its civic engagement arm MovePH and activism campaigns, such as #HoldtheLine or offline events and their webinar series. Those actions create safer and more meaningful opportunities for direct engagement with audiences, but also support the company’s revenue stream from its membership program.

As these case study examples of news innovators from around the world suggest, there are a number of promising routes for paving the way for more inclusive media that also make business sense. Focus on female audiences, diverse content and safety and quality in the workplace are among the ways media can commit to women empowerment and lead an organisational push that goes beyond International Women’s Day.

Magdalena Skrzypek
Impact and Communications Manager, Media Development Investment Fund

Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) is a not-for-profit investment fund for independent media based in New York, United States, providing affordable debt and equity financing, supported by business and management support and advisory services. It invests in independent media around the world to help them build robust businesses, safeguard their editorial independence and reduce harm caused by the challenges facing media industry globally so that they can provide the news, information and debate that people need to build free, thriving societies. With more than $122 million assets under management, since 1996 MDIF has invested almost $270 million in 138 independent media businesses in 45 countries.

This feature is published jointly on both the website of Media Development Investment Fund and WNIP