There are too few women media entrepreneurs but that is about to change, write Nadine Hoffman and Paula Fray.
Women’s representation in news media – a lowly 22% for top management across the continent – is exacerbated by even lower numbers of women owning media outlets.
While the number of South African women media owners in community media is encouraging, they often need external support to break through early trials. Even then, sustainability is a challenge.
Traditional media is a difficult market to enter. The initial costs are high, time to turnaround profits is often long, and traditional gender roles make it difficult for women to stake their claims.
But the media landscape is changing. Around the world, it’s an exhilarating moment for digital news entrepreneurs. Journalism startups are proliferating. They are filling underserved niches, experimenting with innovative models of storytelling and transforming the way we consume and interact with information. Digital news audiences shot up 23% in the last year, according to a 2014 World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) survey.
WAN-IFRA’s ‘Trends in Newsrooms’ report notes that mobile devices are about to overtake desktop computers as the main way the digital world accesses news.
The rising availability and falling costs of smartphones promise greater access to news in Africa. Rhodes University’s Professor Harry Dugmore says, “Because most people who are online are online on their mobile phones, in almost every African country, it makes sense for news organisations to think ‘small screen’ and ‘mobile’ in everything they do.”
The global trend to mobile – with Africa leading the charge – offers much more than the promise of democratisation of news access. For women who are on the margins of media ownership – and often management as well – it offers the possibility of entry to the market.
The reduced cost of such products, the reality of start-up access and the scope for broader markets should make online media products an attractive proposition. But two challenges remain. Women, who are traditionally risk-averse, struggle to get access to finance. Secondly, women continue to be stereotyped as technophobic. In some cases they doubt their own technical abilities, despite overwhelming evidence that they are as capable as men in navigating new technology online.
In the United States, major players like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Vox Media are bankrolling robust online news ventures. In Germany and the Netherlands, two news sites raised over $1 million (R10.6m) each in crowdfunding campaigns. And the African News Innovation Challenge is giving away $1 million to support digital news innovation, backed by big donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But many of these start-ups remain overwhelmingly male. The headline of Emily Bell’s recent Guardian editorial sums it up well: “Journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men”. Gender equity in the news media has proven an elusive goal, both online and offline.
The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), an organisation based in Washington DC that promotes gender equity in the news media, believes that investing in the future of news means investing in women media entrepreneurs.
Since 2011, the IWMF has run a programme providing seed funding and coaching to US-based women launching news startups. The programme has achieved remarkable success in creating ventures that deliver news in new ways.
Take Erin Polgreen, whose tablet magazine, Symbolia, merges top-notch reporting with comics. Or Lara Setrakian, whose startup, News Deeply, redefines the user experience of complex global issues. Polgreen and Setrakian are just two of the many amazing women journalist-entrepreneurs, whose digital startups deserve Vox-level plaudits.
Overwhelmingly, though, investor funding for digital news startups flow to male-dominated enterprises. To change the ownership gender ratio, several key ingredients are needed.
First, we need funders to evaluate their decision-making processes and networks to assure they are including a broad range of entrepreneurs and finding the best new ideas. Second, we need platforms for such entrepreneurs to share and exchange ideas in a dynamic learning process that can encourage and support innovation. Finally, the sustainability of any such venture needs the creation of a culture of risk – an understanding that the failure is not a disqualification for future success.
If we truly want to build a digital news ecosystem that is inclusive and representative of the societies in which we live, women’s equal participation matters. Promoting women’s ownership of online news startups matters. The world of online news can deliver on the promise of gender equity, but only if we identify and proactively work to dismantle the barriers that still hold women back. n
Nadine Hoffman is programme director at the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Paula Fray is managing director of frayintermedia. The IWMF is seeking support to expand its work in sub-Saharan Africa in the field of women’s digital news entrepreneurship.
This story was first published in the August issue of The Media magazine.