HuffPost EIC: Women and media - are we listening to our audience?
A view from Polly Curtis

HuffPost EIC: Women and media - are we listening to our audience?

As news audiences demand greater authenticity and diversity, they are forcing publishers to be better.

Our editorial team’s discussion about International Women’s Day 2018 felt different to any other year. In news terms, such events can feel almost routine in the planning diary, but this year, after such a momentous time for gender politics, it felt important to stop and take stock. 

From the Weinstein scandal to two cabinet resignations over allegations of inappropriate behaviour, a tidal wave has passed across industries and society leaving women questioning their past treatment and men questioning their past behaviour. At the same time, we’re about to hit the deadline for larger companies to reveal their gender pay gap, with that row ripping most publicly through the BBC.

The question we as a team ended up asking was this: after the media storm, what’s changed? Have the recriminations and soul-searching changed the way we behave in workplaces and in wider society? Today we will examine these questions by publishing a video talking to the women who say #metoo changed their lives. We’ll be asking our readers - women and men - to give their views through the day in an open discussion about the future of gender politics.

These are the discussions that come out of a diverse newsroom. On first glance, you might think that the way men and the way women consume news is no different - news is news. But I don’t think that’s true. The closer the newsroom is in make-up and outlook to its audience, the better it can serve them. We are currently sitting in the front row of a dynamic evolution in the way women not only consume news, but produce it, and I believe the media industry is improving as a result.

In some areas, female audiences are outgrowing male audiences when it comes to news consumption. HuffPost, a global provider of news, commentary, politics, entertainment and lifestyle journalism, has seen an increase in its female audience to 62%, and we’re not alone. The Daily Mail currently has a 52.5 percent female audience while the BBC has seen a steady growth of female users with its iPlayer from 44 percent in 2010 to 51 percent last year

In newsrooms, representation is improving, albeit slowly. On the other side of the lens women are still underrepresented, though there are signs of this improving - across the five broadcasters women now account for 48 percent of employees (versus 51 percent of the wider UK population).

At HuffPost UK, the newsroom is now 56% women. New senior hires, from my appointment last year, to bringing in Jess Brammar as head of news from the BBC and Vicky Frost as executive editor, lifestyle, from the Guardian, shows what can be achieved when big media players listen to their audience and address the gender imbalance. HuffPost internationally is now led by women: Lydia Polgreen is editor-in-chief and Louise Roug, international director 

Fostering a newsroom that reflects our readership ensures our journalism speaks to readers in a more meaningful way. Gender is crucially important in this, but there are many types of diversity that would enable many more newsrooms to better serve their audience and reflect the multitude of lives and cultures in our society today. Our audience growth strategy is about getting closer to our audience, including by hiring reporters in cities where we are not currently cutting through.  

This is not just a nice thing to have, or a box to tick; it’s critical to the success of our journalism and our business. Our audience holds us to account for every story we break, every report we publish, and every video we put on social. They will see any holes in our logic, any contradictions in our story-telling and any facts we fail to check. This scrutiny comes from our readers’ lived experiences. To have an authentic voice - the most important asset we can cultivate to engage our audience’s trust - we need to share their instincts. That authenticity cannot be manufactured or second-guessed. It has to be lived.

For a large part of my career gender was not an issue. As I rose through the ranks as a reporter, I told younger journalists seeking advice that it was all much more meritocratic than people said: good stories rise to the top and you will be rewarded on the basis of your talent. I think what I’ve learnt in more recent years about the gender pay gap and the dynamic in some workplaces shows that I was lucky, and things are more complicated. 

Newsrooms have evolved so much since I started as a reporter 17 years ago. We have different technologies, different ways of telling our stories and understanding our audiences, and we do look different and we are more diverse. Our audiences demand authenticity, and to achieve it we need to move ever closer to them. They are forcing us to be better. Publishers who do not rise to this challenge will be left behind.

Polly Curtis is editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK