The woman belongs to the Community Assistance League of Sandpoint. She is a member of a group of involved, bright, caring women who do great work in the community. The woman sounded apologetic when she explained why she had canceled her subscription to The Spokesman-Review.
“I’d be in a terrific mood when I’d get the paper in the morning and then I’d start to read and I’d feel myself slink lower and lower with all the terrible news.”
The message was hard to listen to, but essential to hear. This woman was one of more than 1,000 Inland Northwest women who told us what turned them off about our newspaper, and the media in general, and what we might do to improve.
For most of 1997, women from The Spokesman-Review newsroom listened to women in our community. We gave talks to women’s groups on topics of their choosing in exchange for feedback. We spoke to 27 women’s groups of all kinds, reaching 575 women. About 200 of those women filled out surveys for us.
Next, in our “WomenSpeak” project, we gave out $15 grocery gift certificates to groups of women who met and and answered a few questions for us, such as “What is important to you?” and “If you don’t read the newspaper, what are the reasons why?” About 100 groups, consisting of four to 15 women, participated in WomenSpeak.
The research was part of The Women’s Project, a two-year effort by the newspaper to better know and understand the women in the Inland Northwest. And better reflect their needs, wants and desires in the pages of this newspaper.
Why do we care? A 1996 readership survey demonstrated we were losing women readers. It’s a national trend, but that didn’t make it any better. It’s bad business to lose any readers, male or female. But in the newsroom, we worried beyond the bottom line. If women were turning us off, we were losing their interaction with us.
Those women who don’t read us aren’t writing letters to the editor or writing Your Turns. They aren’t calling us with story ideas. They aren’t congratulating us on stories well-done or criticizing stories that make them angry. We are losing their voices.
Many themes emerged from this women’s research, including:
* Women are harder than ever to categorize. Women are leading amazingly diverse lives in the 1990s, which should surprise no one. So pleasing all these women in one product, the newspaper, is impossible. Still, we hope to try.
* Women are into connections. They want to read how they are connected, or can better connect, with themselves, their partners, their families, their workplace, their church, their community and to the past.
* Women want some hope that there is balance in the world.
Women don’t want to be shielded from what we call “hard news,” but they want it balanced with news about solutions to problems and stories that give them hope.
One woman said: “I do enjoy news, but I’d also like some lighter reading, stories about people who are making a difference for the betterment of our community and the world we share.” Another woman simply said: “Give us something to hope for.”
We took these themes and looked at some new ways to ponder stories, story ideas, and most importantly, story placement on the front page. The newspaper’s front page is like a window display in a department store. It conveys the philosophy of the store and what might be inside. These new ways of looking at stories include:
* Crisis du jour.
Women said the relentless reporting about problems turned them off from the front page of the newspaper. They used this analogy: Think of a person in your life who complains all the time, who seems to have one crisis after another and never celebrates when the crisis is finally over. This person loses credibility and you turn him or her off.
When our front page and the front pages to our Region and Idaho Handle sections are filled with “crisis du jour” stories, and no stories that talk about resolutions to problems or hope for the future, we lose their interest.
* Suicide briefs.
One woman said she reads the briefs international, national and regional and sees earthquakes, bus accidents in foreign lands, murders, stabbings and rapes. She asks herself: “Why should I live? Why not kill myself?” Her sentiment was echoed by hundreds of women who asked that we balance the briefs with solutions briefs or briefs about events in the community in which they can get involved.
* Personal front pages.
Women asked us over and over why our front pages didn’t seem to reflect the issues they truly cared about. So I asked the women to write headlines that would appear on their own “personal front pages.”
They had some universal worries on those personal pages, such as the environment and schools. But they also had these questions: “What will I make for dinner? Why do my teens make me crazy? What will I do for my aging mother? Why I am so tired?”
Now, we look for stories that might be appropriate for both our front page and stories that might show up on personal front pages. Two recent example: Zinc is thought to be a powerful cold fighter. Airlines are cracking down on excess carry-on luggage.
* The Calendar of Life
What is going on in the calendar we all live by? Our individual calendars will be determined by where we are in life. A young family’s calendar will be tied to the school years and sports activities, perhaps. An older person’s calendar to climate, volunteer work and travel. Keeping in mind these Calendar of Life events can generate both news stories and stories for the front pages.
* Where’s Walda?
Women said they sometimes feel invisible on our front pages. So we are much more aware of whether women are pictured on our front pages every day. And if women writers are also represented on that page.
* Community and life reality
The women were adamant that they didn’t want to be shielded from the reality of what’s going on in the community and the world. They just want it balanced with stories that offer hope, solutions and surprise.
So what have we done so far with this information?
We added a “women’s representative” to the 4:30 afternoon news meetings to be the voice of the women we talked with in our community. What appears on the front page is decided at that meeting.
In addition, two other changes are in place. We received so much positive feedback from the talks we gave that we now have a newsroom speakers bureau. Weekend editor Susan English is in charge of matching speaking needs in the community with reporters and editors from the newsroom.
Also, on Sunday’s Women & Men page, women columnists from the newsroom, and freelance writer Kathleen Corkery Spencer, weigh in on “Real Time” issues affecting women.
We feel as though we have many articles and features in place in the newspaper to respond to the needs of women in our community, and so the second half of the women’s project will focus on getting the word out.
We’d like to thank the 1,000-plus women of the Inland Northwest who took the time and energy to give us important feedback on how we might improve. And please keep in touch. Change is our only constant around here anymore. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn
MEMO: You can chat with Rebecca Nappi online Monday about this article, and about women’s images in the news, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Please visit www.spokane.net/chat to share questions and ideas.