Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Meryl Aldridge (2001) 'The Paradigm Contingent Career? Women in Regional Newspaper Journalism'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

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Received: 7/9/2001      Accepted: 14/11/2001      Published: 30/11/01


Current commentary on non-manual employment suggests that we are moving into an era of 'contingent careers' where current performance is the only valid criterion for reward and advancement. New-style jobs may be intensive and insecure, it is argued, but they are also less freighted with gender-based assumptions. Newspaper journalism, with its lack of bureaucratic organization, varied tasks, tradition of high employee mobility, and deep-seated belief in meritocracy would seem to fit well within this model. Interviews with women working in the UK regional press indicate, however, that the occupation is less egalitarian that many in the industry believe. Newspaper organisations and status hierarchies continue to be built around 'hard news', despite the commercial importance of other elements of content. Consequently management experience in newsgathering is a key stage in promotion, but this work as currently structured is incompatible with primary domestic responsibility for dependants. Even those without such concerns, or with limited ambitions, find the intensified work rÈgime in today's regional press hard to sustain. Considering why these working practices have remained largely unchallenged, the paper identifies five contributing factors. The epistemological individualism characteristic of women and well as men in journalism, a culture of vocation, the construction of editorial power as charismatic rather than bureaucratic, the commonsense populist style of most regional papers and, not least, journalists' own entrenched belief in the contingent nature of their employment combine to make the profession particularly resistant to acknowledging structural barriers to advancement.

Careers; Journalism; News Media; Newspapers; Women and Employment

Newspaper Journalism - a Tradition of Contingency

The social scientific debate over women's prospects in non-manual employment has often been, explicitly or implicitly, an interrogation of the concept of 'career'. Economists Chiplin and Sloane (1976) , in one of the earliest studies, drew attention to the way in which good job prospects rested on being a 'continuous careerist', in most occupations socially constructed as male. More recent studies reflect a very different organizational environment and a transformed world of work. Crompton and Harris (1998a, 1998b) and Halford et al. (1997) describe how retail banking, the epitome of work that is solid, pedestrian and utterly secure, has been feminized and intensified. Wajcman (1998) illuminates the apparently contrasting world of leading edge technology, life in the computer firm 'Chip' where bureaucratic-style hierarchies of 'office' are anathema. Despite this, for many years success and expansion allowed employees the expectation of promotion and life-long employment.

For many workers this kind of fundamental restructuring produced an organizational structure more akin to the cross- section of a ship, complete with clerical steerage (see Halford et al.1997 pp 114 and 116) instead of the traditional pyramid. The loci of serious decision-making remain as far away as ever. Nevertheless, work formerly done by men has become available to women under conditions of reasonable employment security and flexibility. Ladders may have shortened but the concept of career remains. Pursuing such a career may well allow or require moving from one employer to another but it depends on the existence of hierarchical organizations in which there are posts and job-specifications independent of their incumbents: 'a structure of ranks and grades, defining by level who can do what and who can get what' (Kanter 1992 p. 306). As Kanter points out, this configuration has been typical in 'corpocratic' commercial and industrial firms as well as in classic public sector bureaucracies. In such an environment claims to current status and future promotion will rest on a combination of ability, formal qualifications and previous posts held.

Changing economic circumstances have rapidly destroyed these certainties. Now the emphasis is on product, rather than process, whether the organization is making computers or administering claims for asylum. The new style typically involves fewer organizational levels (delayering), looser or non-existent job- descriptions (flexibility), and the abolition of rewards based on age, length of service, or collective agreements (performativity). Now 'everyone is a contingent worker ... workers need to regard themselves as people whose value to the organization must be demonstrated in each successive situation they find themselves in' (Bridges 1996 p.2; emphasis in the original). Explaining how to make the best of this, Bridges continues: 'workers need to develop ... a way of managing their own careers that is more like that of an external vendor than that of a traditional employee' (Bridges 1996 p. 52). As Kanter sums it up: 'If security no longer comes from being employed, then, it must come from being employable (Kanter 1992 p. 321; emphasis in original).

If Kanter and Bridges are uncomfortable with many aspects of this new employment landscape, Sennett (1999) is unremittingly hostile. His excoriating critique of The Corrosion of Character is organized round two male benchmark biographies, however. Even when long-term secure employment was an unremarkable expectation it usually relied upon some combination of advanced qualification (whether vocational or academic), strong union organization, and an unbroken employment record. All of these were - and are - more easily achieved by men in their typicality than women in their typicality. It follows, then, that however unattractive some of the faces of the 'new radical individualization' of careers (Wajcman 1998 p.163) one consequence should be the lowering of institutional barriers to women's advancement.

New-style performance-driven organizations are characterized by Halford et al. (Halford 1997 p. 264) as 'based round values of competitiveness, specialist skills, dedication and "getting things done"'. This description captures the structure and culture of the editorial departments of newspapers (as opposed to their finance and marketing departments or the printing plant) very well. Competition and dedication, in particular, are prominent both in newspaper journalism's occupational ideology and daily experience (Aldridge 1998; Morrison and Tumber 1988; Tunstall 1996). Charismatic authority, although often used brutally and arbitrarily, is celebrated. The generality of employees have long accepted the contemporary self-identity of 'Me Inc.' (Wajcman 1998p.163), seeming to think of themselves as more like mediaeval journeymen, and with good reason: some older workers still possess their apprentice's indentures.

In other ways, too, contingency is inscribed in newspaper careers, apparently eliminating many of the disadvantages which old-style hierarchical structures imposed on women. 'Journalism' covers not one type of work but several; a high level of mobility between jobs and employers is normal; and the media industries are diverse and rapidly expanding. There is a tradition of moving between employee and self-employed status - even of combining the two. Evetts' (1992) argument that 'career' has an important subjective and agentic dimension is vividly demonstrated: epistemological individualism, 'self-madeness' and a preoccupation with autonomy are core elements of occupational ideology (Aldridge,1998; Tunstall 1996).

So here we have, first, a fluid and performative occupational environment. Second, women now form a majority on journalism training courses (WiJ 1998). Last, change in the composition of the workforce is rapid. Not only do people change jobs frequently but many key posts in both national and regional papers are held by people in their late 20s or early 30s. Taking these factors together, one might expect that the proportion of women in senior posts would have rapidly increased, even over the short term. Not so: 'Why aren't more women editing regional dailies?' asks Reeves (2000); 'The seven current editors represent less than ten per cent of the total of daily regional editors'. As one of the seven observes 'there is a shortage of women available at executive level'.

This surprise and disappointment appears to be shared by the pressure group Women in Journalism.[1] Their initial campaigns (Christmas/ WiJ 1997; WiJ 1998, Wij 1999) were based on a strategy of assisted evolution: hasten the achievement of a critical mass of women in decision-making roles (Christmas/ WiJ 1997 p. 2) and look forward to demography seeing off the most recalcitrant male colleagues. Tactics thus centred on attitude change by encouraging young women to aim high and persuading male newspaper executives that, as the female audience becomes more crucial, women journalists would be needed to connect with them.

More recently, however, WiJ (2001) has turned its attention to the material conditions of employment, thus underscoring the central contention of this paper. Precisely because journalists know their skills to be portable, expect to be judged on their most recent output rather than on their employment history, and work in an fast-moving environment, systemic regularities like typical career trajectories are only reluctantly recognized. Yet when, for example, women journalists make the kind of trade- offs discussed below and captured by Crompton and Harris (1998b) as'satisficing', a single job choice may foreclose their options permanently.

Public or private, bureaucracies are defined by their structure. Radical organizational change thus entails altering that structure. In retail banking ( Crompton and Harris 1998a, (1998b; Halford et al.1997) and at 'Chip' (Wajcman 1998) the outcome was a reconfiguration and limited erosion of male dominance. But if the structure and its embedded gender order is not properly acknowledged, it cannot be challenged. Using the regional press[2] as illustration, I shall argue that newspaper journalism's rhetoric of performativity and willing embrace of contingency obscures - has even perpetuated - employment practices in which entrenched attitudes, cherished occupational values and rigid patterns of working are as powerful a brake on advancement as in any old- style corporation.

Getting into the Newspapers: Interviewing Journalists

Making contact with journalists is much more difficult than one might expect. The Newspaper Society < > does not provide detailed workforce statistics. Ten years ago approaching the National Union of Journalists would have been an obvious tactic because membership was almost universal. Now only a minority of newspaper journalists belong. Newspapers tend to be secretive and commercially hypersensitive. Time-pressure is a defining characteristic: even senior staff operate on a very short diary. Then, when a contact name is obtained, letters are not answered and phone calls not returned.

I finally assembled a group of women newspaper journalists willing to be interviewed through a combination of 'snowball sampling', approaches through intermediaries (for example a local news agency), letters circulated by co-operative editors, and direct requests. Approaches to potential interviewees were based on a number of key variables: type of newspaper, as morning daily, evening daily and weekly newspapers have very different work régimes and standing in the status/career order; seniority from trainee reporter to editor; type of work including general reporting, specialist news reporting, feature writing, management; and type of ownership, including independent and part of a group. The outcome was a set of 27 respondents, including two who were selected because they had left direct newspaper employment. Among the final group of interviewees, the whole age range, all types of work and every kind of local/regional paper is represented. (See tables) When I reached the stage of interviewing that suggested that 'saturation' (Burgess, 1984 p.56) was near I realized that I had not interviewed anyone holding the crucial gatekeeping rôle of news editor. A number of remedial tactics failed, confirming what I had picked up from general observation and passing remarks: hardly any women hold this job, seen as uniquely demanding and with a high rate of 'burn out'.

Table 1: Qualifications and Age; n=27

20-29 30-3940- 4950- 59TOTAL
No vocational qualifications00123
Indentures/post-entry qualifications04318
Pre-entry qualification13105
Degree + pre-entry training41005
Degree + post-entry training 23106

Table 2: Post Held and Type of Newspaper; n = 24.5*

Daily PaperWeekly paperTOTAL
MorningEveningCityMedium townSmall town
Reporter Junior00002 2
Senior /Specialist2.52.50005
Sub- editor1200.503.5
Feature writer1400.516.5
ManagerSection Head02.50002.5
Deputy Head010102
TOTAL*4.51 24.5

Notes on Tables 1 and 2

The total in Table 2 excludes two respondents not who did not work directly for newspapers and counts one who is a permanent freelance as 0.5. Those women who had two responsibilities eg: reporter/feature writer are distributed 50:50 between categories.

All the women were white European. Anecdotal evidence (see the observation about labour force data above) and recent industry-led training initiatives suggest that other ethnic groups are severely under-represented among regional journalists. Respondents were not asked about their family of origin.

The research was carried out between August 1997 and October 1998, mostly in the East and West Midlands but also in the South West of England and Yorkshire. Interviewing followed a focused format ie: a schedule of questions which I followed closely but which allowed respondents to say as much or as little as they chose. The interviews lasted between 45 and 90 minutes and were taped and then transcribed; I also took longhand notes. (Both technologies were naturally the subject of wry amusement.) Data analysis has been by manual analysis of basic variables and readily classified 'factual' issues together with immersion in the transcripts to identify expected and unexpected themes.

For a variety of reasons most of those women who agreed to be interviewed needed to be reassured that they would remain anonymous. I have thus been able to describe the newspapers concerned only in very general terms. In a small number of cases I have also had to withhold details about respondents to avoid the risk of 'jigsaw identification'.

The Heart and Soul of the Enterprise: Breaking Hard News

Producing a newspaper was always a punishing routine. On an evening paper those organizing and collecting news typically start at 07.00 or 07.30. Morning papers work into the evening; sub- editing them can continue until midnight. Nor are weekly papers exempt from unsocial hours. A regional Sunday paper could require staff to work a twelve-hour day on Saturdays. Small weekly papers impose an uneven and stressful cycle of work that cannot easily be smoothed out. Press day will probably be at the latter end of the week, typically preceded by flat-out working for all staff. Such papers retain their audience by combining classic 'news' (the bypass campaign, the big fire) with extensive coverage of routine local activities. Volunteer correspondents often supply the latter, but it still has to be typed in and subedited. The number of staff doing this can be vanishingly small: in one paper I visited two trainees in their early 20s were responsible for all this material generated by a small county town. If the paper retains a commitment to reporting local politics there will also be lengthy evening meetings to attend and write up.

Even the casual reader will, however, notice that many pages of UK newspapers, whether national or regional/local, daily or weekly, are not allocated to 'news'. On the news pages, only part will be 'hard news', that is accounts of events or issues with a public impact reported within a discourse of 'fact'. Still less space will be taken up by 'breaking news': events occurring unpredicted close to the deadline for printing. Much contemporary newspaper content is, instead, background articles, features and comment. Features can be news-related. For example: conjoined twins are born in the local paper's area, so someone is assigned to produce a piece on the causes and frequency of such births, the babies' chances of survival etc. Although news-related features (like background material) obviously must be written to strict deadlines, the time available is longer than for straight news reporting. Other features are often consumption- (and hence advertising) related. Articles on home decoration, food and motoring are in this category, as are film, theatre, music and book reviews. Producing this material is a more predictable process with longer lead times still.

Given this actuality, and that it is advertising rather sales of copies which forms the core revenue for most UK newspapers, one might logically conclude that today both the status order and their daily routines would centre on the non-news content. Not so: news, particularly 'hard news', and its production remains privileged both materially and symbolically (Aldridge 2001). It occupies the first pages of what, given proliferating sections and supplements, is now called the 'main' paper. The spatial logic of the office will pivot around the newsroom with the newsdesk at its heart, presided over by the news editor, the highest- status section head. (When I visited newspapers I was usually asked whether I wanted to see the newsroom; I always did.) The 'newsday' will be governed by a series of conferences of editor and senior staff at which all the editorial content of the paper will be determined, both news and non-news. Driving the temporal logic of these events is the possibility of late-breaking news (Ericson et al. 1987 ch. 4; Keeble 2001 p. 6). As Tuchman (1978) classically pointed out, the kind of ' "what a story"' that requires rethinking the news pages, still less remaking them last- minute, is actually very rare. A contact remarked to me that the Nottingham Evening Post often has no 'live pages'. These are pages actually produced on the day of publication. Corporate financial logic means that the paper is now printed 15 miles away, on the presses of the Derby Telegraph, resulting in a very small window to collect, process and print today's news today, and then distribute the papers - an entirely typical contemporary arrangement.

Thus the traditional rhythms and mechanisms of collecting and processing hard news continue to rule daily life. Working in features, despite their prominence in the product, is to be on an organizational branch-line. Hard news tends to be produced predominantly by, for and about men. Features and 'soft news' usually position women as addressee because of their imputed identification with the private realm of family and emotional work and their very real responsibility for domestic consumption. Essentialist explanatory frames are also central to newspaper operating ideology. Accordingly, women are thought to be better at understanding the female reader. (See for example van Zoonen 1998 p.36.) They are, therefore, to be found writing features. I shall argue that this has a crucial impact upon the relative prospects of women and men.

Occupational myths of drama and urgency abound in all news media (Aldridge 1998; Ericson et al. 1987; Jameson 1990; Tuchman 1978) but the pressure of work is real enough. In newspapers, however, it is now generated less by external events than by internal commercial considerations: in all sectors of the market bigger papers are being produced by fewer people (Bevins 1990; Cohen 1998; Toynbee 1996). Since the mid- 1990s regional newspaper titles have been changing hands rapidly as conglomerates try to achieve economies of scale in printing, distribution and advertising revenues (Franklin and Murphy, 1998; Tunstall 1996; Press Gazette passim[3] ). Labour is a large component of costs and thus an obvious target for savings. 'Flexibility' of all kinds has been imposed, notably multi-skilling (for example the folding of sub-editing into page design), longer hours, complex shift patterns settled no more than a couple of weeks in advance, pressures to work through meals and beyond the stated finishing time and - particularly outside the national press - severely depressed pay rates.

Editor as Minotaur: Entrepreneur, Patron and Bully

Occupying the editor's chair in a contemporary UK newspaper is an increasingly pressured, complex responsibility. Ostensibly the priority is creative - a well-designed, well-written newspaper full of interesting, relevant, accurate and up-to-date material - yet the editor is also responsible for the financial viability of the paper. Corporate ownership has brought a much greater emphasis on rates of return, aggressive marketing, and a new preoccupation with the demographics and preferences of the imputed readership. Tunstall (1996) calls this trend the rise of the 'entrepreneurial editor'. Being an editor has not, though, been discursively recast as being just like the chief executive of WidgetCo. A key component of journalism's occupational mythology is the Great Editor: a successful newspaper will axiomatically be the outcome of a personal vision. (See, for example, British Journalism Review passim.) This concept of the editor as charismatic leader has a material foundation in that he (typically) will have overall control of content and of staffing. Patronage is completely institutionalized. 'When a national newspaper proprietor brings on board a new editor there are certain unbreakable rules to be observed. First give an exceedingly large salary to the new boy (knock off 20 per cent for girls) ... Prepare for a redesign. Sign up the new editor's stooges. And draw up P45s for the old editor's cronies' (Leader, Press Gazette 10 July 1998). The same rules apply in the regions.

Union de-recognition and the replacement of national bargaining by individual contracts further tightened editors' control over employees' prospects. One respondent, at her first newspaper, decided to risk asking for a rise after she qualified:
'and I knew he was vicious ... and he turned round and said why do you deserve more money? And I told him why I thought I deserved more money. And he said I'm going to call the news editor in here and if she says you're worth it you get a rise, and if she says you're not you get the sack. Do you accept that?' (journalist, 36, now in media relations). (She got the rise.)

Bullying behaviour like this was, until very recently, regarded as a normal manifestation of editorial charisma. Tales of such 'characters' abound in the trade press and in (auto)biography where myths are rehearsed and cultural 'scripts' reinforced. Glover's (2000) collection, originally titled Secrets of the Press, captures this perfectly. It even has a chapter ( Fay 2000) on the sacking ritual referred to above.

The Benefits of Structurelessness

Pressure, short time horizons, idiosyncratic managerial control and intense competitiveness are all endemic in newspaper journalism, but this lack of formal protocols and policies has another, more positive, face. Although all entrants must complete national qualifications, and an increasing proportion are graduates (Delano and Henningham, 1995, and see Table 1), entry remains determinedly multi- portal, no doubt sustained by the entrenched belief that a good journalist can only be improved - but never created - by training (Cole, 1998). Preliminary training can be undertaken pre-entry or post-entry at further education (FE) college; these courses are open to non- graduates and graduates. There is also a small number of recognized postgraduate qualifying courses and some industry-run post-entry schemes. While my younger respondents were more likely to be graduates, very few had come through a pre-entry postgraduate scheme. All three editors (aged between 30 and 41) were non-graduates. The oldest interviewee, who had no vocational qualifications, had become a staffer within the last 10 years through the editorial discretion which also allowed 'Sharen Green, 51, newly qualified senior reporter' (Press Gazette, 25 July 1997) her chance. Of course the exception tests the rule. The norm is to enter local journalism in your early 20s or before, not least because the task of general reporter is organizationally constructed on the basis of abundant energy and limited non-work responsibilities. Respondents in their 30s referred to it wistfully as a 'young person's game'.

Even the power of the omnipotent editor is partly offset by high levels of job mobility. At the start of their career, my respondents expected to move on every couple of years; a few weeks or months in a post was not uncommon. Given the diversity of work, both sideways and upward transfer within a paper is a possibility, while the conglomeration of titles within regions may provide opportunities. But the same process also means that there are fewer newspapers. This, together with 'editionizing' - where a locality is served by a version of a paper rather a discrete publication - has reduced the availability of senior posts, notably that of editor.

To say, however, that ladders and well- marked paths are an inadequate model of careers in regional journalism is not to imply that there is no well-understood status hierarchy and typical trajectory to its upper reaches. For regional newspapers the progression is simple: free weekly; small town weekly; large town weekly; small evening daily; large evening daily; regional morning daily. A hierarchy of editors is entailed. (See Christmas/WiJ 1997 p. 47 for implicit confirmation.)

How, though, does one become an editor? Here, as in the structure of newspapers themselves, described above, news is privileged. Given the pattern of vocational qualifications, almost every journalist will have been involved in newsgathering as a general reporter. The standard expectation for holder of the editor's chair both nationally and locally seems to be experience of sub-editing and of the newsdesk in a management rôle. Editors, in other words, tend to come from the 'production side' - actually assembling the paper in its final form - (Porter 2000 p. 35) rather than through feature writing, or even from senior posts related to non-news content. This, as we shall see, is crucial for women's opportunities in reality, as opposed to the ideology of open opportunity.

Regional Newspapers: Not a Woman's Place or a Place for Women?

Two dimensions of respondents' current employment were discussed during the interviews with women journalists: the practical routines and the workplace culture.

Having a Life outside Work

When asked 'Is balancing work and home life ever a problem?', those who said it was not fell into two quite distinct categories: a younger group who were all aged 30 or under, and an older group aged in their 40s and 50s. (Significantly one woman 'in her 40s' had lied about her age when she got her job.) Most of the younger group specified that having no children determined their response.

The older group included my oldest respondent who at 'over 55' had only joined the newspaper as a staffer in 1990. 'I couldn't have done this job when my children were little. I wouldn't have entertained the idea of doing it because my children were the most important thing in my life' (feature writer, 'over 55', small town weekly). The priority of motherhood was the explicit reason that the other women in this group gave: they had deliberately ordered their lives to put career below family considerations. 'And yes, the balancing act has probably been the single major factor in any decisions that I've ever made about what I am doing and where I am going to work ... looking after a family has to take precedence' (sub-editor/section editor, 40, small town weekly). 'Well yes it was [a problem]. I sort of gave up basically I suppose' (feature writer, 'in 40s', city evening paper). At the same time, all seemed closely engaged with their work, which suggests that they saw these choices - at least when they made them - as 'satisficing' (Crompton and Harris, 1998b).

Two thirds of the respondents said that the work/home interface was difficult. To my surprise this included several women who did not have children needing care and supervision. One dimension, mentioned particularly - but not only - by older respondents was the sheer intensity of the work, which meant that energy for doing domestic work, let alone personal relationships or a social life was affected. 'If I have to go straight there I'm just totally stressed and grumpy and if I get just a few notes wrong then I'm even worse ... it's a pretty highly charged, stressful job' a 25-year old reporter on a city morning paper said about her attempts to get to a choir practice.

For some respondents it was the unrelenting sense of personal responsibility that created tensions. One woman had given up the editorship of a free newspaper because 'I loved it and then I realized that it was taking over my life ... I was just going home and being obsessive about it to the kids because you were in charge of everybody' (reporter, 47, city morning paper).

A majority of respondents complained about working hours - 'horrendous' according to the editor of a small town weekly - several in more than one respect. One aspect of the problem was early starts. 'I had to be in the office for quarter past six every morning and if I was ever so, ever so lucky I was away just after seven o'clock at night ... and I look back on it now and I don't know how I did it, oh it was exhausting, it was a real grind' (senior manager, 35, city evening paper) said about her time as the news editor of another city evening paper.

A second issue was the distribution of the hours, for instance having to work on Saturday to produce a Sunday paper. This, despite the conventional wisdom in the industry that Sunday papers, whether national or regional, cannot hope to compete with daily papers, let alone broadcasting, for 'breaking' news. Their strength must be in 'background', features, comment and 'lifestyle' material. The first women editors of national newspapers were all in the Sunday sector (Aldridge 1998; Christmas/WiJ 1997) and several came from a magazine background precisely for this reason. Shift patterns were also an irritant, contriving to combine lack of regularity with lack of flexibility.

Pressures from irregular hours merged into those from long hours, the subject of most comment. According to a sub-editor (aged 38) working on a city evening paper: 'I've got some friends coming to supper on Wednesday and I've put "not late shift Wednesday" so I get quarter to seven in the morning ... so it's going to be a hellishly long day'. Long and unpredictable hours used to be concentrated at the two extremes of the hierarchy: editor (a minority and optional status) and junior reporter (a transient stage and status). No longer: two respondents in their 40s told me that they had been working on features, only to have a new editor abolish the features department and require everyone to act as general reporters. The youngest woman I interviewed, a reporter aged 22, talked about the difficulty of working for a local weekly, commuting and running a home.

What of part-time working, the standard lubricant for women's creaking overloaded lives? Several respondents remarked that both reporting and, especially, sub-editing could be done on a part-time basis but that managements were unwilling to respond: 'potentially the hours could be much more flexible ... but that's just not encouraged' (section head, 36, on city daily with progressive CEO). One explanation must be that 'shifting'[4] is so well established. Employers thus get the desired supply of flexible labour with few employment costs. There is, though, another explanation: the continuing preponderance of men in newspapers, both numerically at senior levels and culturally everywhere.

A Masculinist Workplace Culture?

In the semiotics of popular culture, print 'journos' are men, imagery eagerly reinforced by the trade itself. Even in the centre-left Guardian the well- known cartoonist, Steve Bell, used the visual shorthand of mac and trilby hat - only to replace the male with an extravagant female in the 'killer bimbo of Fleet Street' style (Dougary 1994). And until recently a weekly round-up section called 'The Editor' had, as a logo, a manikin with eyeshade, bow tie and braces.

The logo

When asked about 'macho values' in contemporary journalism, most respondents interpreted the issue as one of discrimination/equal opportunities linked with the style and culture of the workplace. Comments on the product were usually placed within the Great Editor frame, explaining the newspaper's style and priorities in personal terms: 'sometimes you feel like you are producing the editor's comic' (reporter, 25, city morning paper). Some respondents widened their analysis to include organizational sites like the editorial conference or copytasting (the preliminary selection of stories to go into the paper) which 'is done by middle- aged males ... and they tend to dismiss what they call "softer" stories'(section editor, 36, city evening paper). A few articulated the link between the corporate rationale of the newspaper, its working practices and the likelihood that men would fill posts. Any transition towards better opportunities for women was, however, cast in terms of a changing occupational culture and improved attitudes on the part of key players - crucially of course, editors. Following logically from this, many respondents assumed that more women in key positions would alter both output and organization, very much the position initially taken by Women in Journalism.

Among those who saw the issue as problematic but complex was a sub-editor who said '... there has always been a fair proportion of women wherever I have been, so it's difficult to see it as being a male preserve ...certainly at the [name of paper] all the positions of authority are held by men' (sub-editor/page planner, 35, city evening paper). She went on to describe Kanter's (1993) concept of 'homosocial selection' in action: 'it's not as if they don't have women working there, they do, but ... I think they just feel more comfortable with keeping it all in the club so to speak'. Some respondents were unequivocal: 'I think it is a male-dominated world ... I think it has got a little bit better, but I think it will take years ... but you're never taken quite so seriously I think' (assistant section head, 32, city evening paper). This respondent developed her reply by commenting that the long hours associated with senior positions come into direct conflict with parenting responsibilities but 'men seem to be able to forget about the kids and leave it all to the wives'. Another woman explicitly referred to the reflexive relationship between producer and product: '... they don't even pretend to be an equal opportunities employer ... they cling to this 1950s view of the world where women stayed at home and brought up Janet and John and Dad went out to work ... I think that is a problem with regional journalism ... we have features like "Has the price of your Sunday roast gone up?" Well, how many people really have a joint on Sunday? Nobody my age' (senior reporter, 25, city evening paper).

Moreover, the profoundly non-rational- legal relations of employment allow plenty of scope for outright prejudice: 'Women are deliberately not appointed to positions because of their sex, like lobby correspondents ... the deputy editor of [major city daily] said to me that he didn't believe that women could do that kind of quite heavyweight political reporting as well as men' (senior reporter, 25, city evening paper).

Resistance to the recruitment of women, let alone to their holding senior posts in newspapers may even be increasing. Pay levels in regional newspapers have deteriorated sharply. One respondent told me that her some of her male colleagues saw this as a trend to 'component wages', directly attributable to the increased employment of women. She also sensed a growing willingness to express overt hostility to working mothers. Presumably the implication is that women with children should take a 'career break'.

Surviving, Celebrating Contingency and Satisficing

The editorial and production side of a newspaper is typically a flat, but very wide-based, pyramid both in status and age. Several women remarked that the mid-30s is a major and difficult choice point. By that stage journalists have typically progressed from general reporting into specialist reporting, sub-editing or feature writing. Promotion into junior management posts can come early. Two of my respondents, aged 26 and 32, were deputy news editors. A simple progression would be news editor and then editor, both of which are highly problematic in terms of working conditions, quite apart from the limited supply of editor posts. Where does a section head like features editor or woman's editor move to? One answer is to the same post in a larger newspaper. Given the ecology of the contemporary regional press this is likely to mean commuting or moving home. Many respondents regarded this as too high a price to pay in terms of relationships and having 'a life' as well as work. One response to this is withdrawal. It is believed that many leave the profession for less stimulating but more secure, better paid and more controllable hours in related work like media relations. There are, though, no systematic labour force data to confirm this.

Manifestly, with two exceptions, my respondents were stayers rather than leavers. For most their career strategy seemed to be a positive orientation to contingency. Half had either entered the profession by chance or made the choice during their undergraduate studies. The other half all talked of going straight from school into work or training. Respondents in this latter group were the most likely to invoke a vocational frame: a couple mentioned university places abandoned; several had wanted to be a journalist since their early teens.

If career planning were customary in newspaper work one would expect members of this latter 'vocational' group to say that they had pursued a thought- through personal project. It did not appear to be so: only two said that they had currently had a plan. Several of the 'vocationals' said that they no longer had a career plan, including one of the editors. There may also be some variability with increasing age, as the exigencies of the work are better understood: within the whole group of respondents the oldest woman who talked of having a career plan was aged 31.

This pattern of response suggests that the contingent nature of newspaper careers is incorporated into its practitioners' expectations to the extent that non- planning is part of the 'plan'. This 'non-planning' could be characterized very positively: '... the boredom switch comes on and I need something different ... I don't necessarily plan long-term, I only plan to move forward really' was how a woman, aged 36, and working in media relations (but who had also been in general reporting, specialist reporting and local radio) described her approach. Other women suggested that a combination of parenting and women's endemic lack of self-esteem prevented their planning a career: 'I rather underestimated the fact that once you've got the foot in the door ... it's very much up to you what you make of it but I just didn't have the self- confidence to do it and then of course I had children very young as well' (sub-editor, 38, city evening paper).

Conversely, this respondent also illustrated how adaptable newspaper work can be if you have no immediate aspirations to a senior or high-prestige job. Immediately after the birth of her first child she started freelance shifts as a reporter. Unusually for a freelance she was then trained as a sub-editor. Given the demand for this skill she was able to work where and when she chose. When a short spell on the news desk proved too unpredictable she returned to subbing '... probably the best job in newspapers in terms of your start and finish times which are as near to fixed as you'll ever get them'. As we have seen, however, there are still variable shift patterns to deal with, while morning dailies require evening-to-night work.

Despite the structural, cultural and attitudinal obstacles recounted above, newspaper journalism is a portable skill: there are many more ways to sell your labour than in banking. In this sense women journalists can behave like the doctors in Crompton's study, many of whom had opted for general practice (as opposed to higher prestige hospital-based work) because of its adaptability to non-work responsibilities. Crompton and Harris (1998b), drawing on Chavetz and Hagan (1996) describe this kind of career planning as ' satisficing'. Speaking of her decision to step off an upward trajectory one said 'I mean there was no pressure on me to come back to the home base but ... we've just got one daughter ... and I just felt that I was missing so much purely from my point of view ...'(senior manager, 35, city evening paper) on giving up a deputy editor post in which she was being 'groomed for editor'.

Crompton and Harris' (1998b) discussion concentrates on satisficing as a behavioural strategy, for instance choosing to work part-time. If the concept is enlarged to include subjectivity it is clear that a number of my respondents had reached some kind of existential settlement by focusing their 'satisfactions' on the private and everyday rather than the public and formal. Answers to the question 'How would you define success?' supported this interpretation. Reaching self-set goals, 'balance', 'happiness' or a sense of personal achievement in work were used as definitions twice as often as more public marks of recognition like pay, holding a senior post, being recognized outside work by readers, or even praise from fellow professionals.

A further confirmation came in response to 'What are the best aspects of the job?' The theme of 'meeting people' emerged twice as often as any other, and even those women who talked about 'informing the public' did not mean an abstract public realm but 'people' in the concrete sense: my youngest respondent recounted her pleasure at walking down the street and seeing people read her words in the paper. A number of respondents argued that this sense of local newspapers' direct responsiveness and responsibility to the readership is morally preferable to the national press treatment of their readers as a lumpen market sector. These sentiments align closely with contemporary editorial wisdom in the regional press, which I would call 'reflexive populism'. As local government autonomy has diminished and a globalizing economy shifts the locus of economic decision away from the locality, the typical voice of the local paper has moved from authoritative to demotic; its positioning from opinion former to advocate (Press Gazette passim). The successful paper, it is now asserted, will speak for its readers rather than to them.

Conclusion: Blinded by Faith and Hope?

In newspapers, it is constantly affirmed, you are only as good as your most recent work, yet this logic of performativity is not followed through. To reach a position of influence you do not only need to demonstrate current skills and abilities but specific past experience, crucially a senior post related to breaking hard news. Full-time jobs in core news-related functions are almost impossible to combine with primary responsibility for dependants: ' the whole of our newsroom [women] who have children and are still newsgatherers ...I can't think of any ...' (senior reporter, 25, city evening paper). It is precisely this which has become a major target of Women in Journalism's activity: 'Women in Journalism is planning to "name and shame" on its website companies that do not offer family-friendly policies in the workplace' (Press Gazette 29 June 2001). When my respondents talked about their own lives and prospects, or recounted the difficulties of women colleagues, the constantly recurring theme was the hours of work - not just long, but unsocial, or unpredictable, or all three - characteristic of a ruthlessly profit-driven enterprise framed around the 'newsday'.

In the contemporary UK, however, newspapers are built on a platform of non-news - and this is even more the case in the regional press. Why, then, is this material reality not reflected in restructured working practices, job prospects and status hierarchies? Five factors, I would argue, have combined to prevent this realignment.

The first is the tenacious occupational faith in meritocracy and individual responsibility. Individualism dominates newspaper journalism and, though the 'self-made' person may be an important icon (Aldridge 1998), they are not a myth, thanks to multi-portal access to qualification. Daily reinforcement of this mind-set is provided through the discursive construction of news. The customary methodological individualism has now been further concentrated by the adoption of personalization as the dominant interpretive frame in all news media (Engel 1996; Farndon, 1996; Franklin 1997). (To say nothing of the political individualism of much of the UK press.)

Second, the widespread belief that journalism is not simply another knowledge industry job but a vocation works against challenging material conditions. As we have seen, part-time working hardly exists and making a move into aspects of newspaper work with longer lead times (like features) is seen as turning away from the main career track. Like doctors, journalists are expected never to be off duty. Career breaks are risky: they are likely to be interpreted as indicative of not being a serious professional.

Thirdly, the social construction of the editor as possessed of charismatic authority, particularly when fertilized with beliefs about vocation and thus total commitment, serves to obscure the underlying regularities and constraints of the workplace. As this semi-sacred figure is expected to operate by patronage, including when hiring and firing, the management cadre is enabled to reproduce itself unashamedly.

Given, fourthly, the operating principle of reflexive populism referred to above, being seen to be attuned to local opinion and sentiment is vital. In a compulsively communicative occupation, this commonsense populist world view will be reproduced in the daily life of the organization. Vividly illustrated by the Sunday joint example above, reflexive populism is likely to condemn any critique of women's structural disadvantage as redundant, old-style feminism. Moreover 'ordinary folk' can be invoked to justify and perpetuate a highly conventional gender division of labour both in the newspaper office and in its pages: sport by and for the lads; human interest by and for the girls.

If women are to have real access to influential posts in newspapers, individual attitude change is necessary. It is not, however, sufficient, as Women in Journalism are now recognizing. But even attitudes will be hard to shift because, as we have seen, a crucial part of the endemic occupational blindness to structural inequality is, by a final irony, that journalists themselves believe that journalism is indeed a contingent career. If contingency means that it is unusually mobile, flexible, particularistic and dependent upon the lucky break, they are right. But, like many other occupational fields where experience and organizational loyalty are now being junked in the name of performativity, the underlying reality is that particular forms of social capital are required for advancement. Structural change will be needed for women to accumulate that capital.


1Women in Journalism <> was set up by a group of senior national newspaper journalists, inspired by a meeting in late 1993. Initially announced in spring 1994, it was finally launched in summer 1995. It now holds semi-public events and produces research to raise awareness of women's employment issues. WiJ's membership is mostly among journalists in the newspaper and periodical press, rather than broadcasting or other electronic media.

2The generic term used by their trade association, The Newspaper Society , for papers that are not aimed at a national audience is 'regional', although only some cover a region in the everyday sense. In England and Wales this group includes both morning and evening dailies, for instance the Eastern Daily Press (morning; Norwich) or the Manchester Evening News and a small (but growing) number of Sunday papers, like Wales on Sunday. The 'local' press consists, first, of daily newspapers - now all evenings - which have a more geographically limited audience, although it may be large and served by a number of localized editions, for example the Leicester Mercury. There is also, second, a flourishing weekly press, serving medium and small free-standing towns and their hinterland, for instance the Brecon and Radnor Express and the Mansfield Chad. (These categories apply differently to Scotland, Northern Ireland and London.) The Newspaper Society's website provides a detailed breakdown of the regional market. I did not include free newspapers as most have very little editorial content.

3Press Gazette is a weekly trade paper for journalists. Most of the content relates to newspapers and periodicals, rather than broadcast media. Apart from providing news of events in a rapidly changing industrial environment, it is a key source of trade talk and insight into occupational values

4It is normal practice for staffers on one paper to work casual shifts on another, either in reporting or subediting. Proving their credentials by 'shifting'4 is one route by which regional journalists obtain posts on national newspapers.

URLs of Newspapers mentioned in the Text

Nottingham Evening Post <>

Derby [Evening]Telegraph <>

Eastern Daily Press <>

Manchester Evening News <>

Wales on Sunday <>

Leicester Mercury < uk>

Brecon and Radnor Express [no website]

Mansfield Chad <>


Alan Aldridge, Tim Strangleman, the anonymous reviewers and, particularly, Gerry Hanlon all made helpful comments which contributed constructively to the development of this paper. The Guardian 's permission to reproduce the logo from 'The Editor' section of the newspaper is gratefully acknowledged.


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