Meg Heckman

Women working in office.

Software seeks to measure women’s participation in journalism

Measuring women’s participation in journalism once meant sitting down with a stack of newspapers and counting bylines by hand. That’s no longer the case, thanks to computer programs that use big data to examine gender biases in sourcing, story placement and even retweets.

The results so far are grim, with women remaining chronically underrepresented in many aspects of news. But the creators of the new tools hope the information they collect will help journalists assess their habits, and perhaps change them.

Each piece of software works a bit differently, but the basic concepts are similar: Computers comb through online articles and compare the names of authors and sources with databases that determine if those names are likely male or female. The results aren’t perfect, but they can reveal broad patterns.

“They might not be as accurate as thousands of people looking over articles by hand over a period of five years, but they can give you a rough check before you hit that publish button,” said Nathan Matias, a graduate student at MIT’s Media Lab and Center for Civic Media.

Tracking gender at the Boston Globe and New York Times

Matias is collaborating with an open-Web consulting company on the Open Gender Tracker Project, which he hopes will be used to measure gender balance in traditional journalism, citizen media and advocacy organizations. Matias decided to examine gender after reading an article in the Guardian about the lack of female commentators on British TV.

“I  was personally shocked by how little of a voice women had in UK news,” he said.

The Gender Tracker team has already tested its software at The Boston Globe and with the citizen media network Global Voices, where they discovered some surprising results. Women wrote just over half the posts on Global Voices, a difference from traditional news organizations where female authors are usually in the minority.

Matais is looking for other organizations — newsrooms, blog networks and advocacy organizations — that want to examine gender in the content they produce.

Andrew Briggs, meanwhile, has focused his computer-powered counting on a single news organization: The New York Times. Briggs, a recent graduate of Northwestern University, launched earlier this summer. The website uses scraping software to provide a running gender count of bylines that appear on the homepage of (In July Jezebel looked at Briggs’s efforts and examined a study unveiled on Poynter about a lack of female sources at the Times.)

The daily results — which show male authors tend to dominate — are interesting, but Briggs says the real benefits have yet to emerge. He’s looking for trends in the data, and hopes his efforts will come to the attention of newsroom leaders at the Times.

“The New York Times has both Margaret Sullivan and Jill Abramson, who are very capable, very intelligent and very aware that there’s this disparity,” Briggs said. “I think it would be nice to see [this software] used by them to kind of close the gap.”

Gathering data is just the start

What about gender biases beyond news organizations? How does social media affect the reach of women’s voices? That’s one of the questions that inspired Twee-Q, which launched in Sweden last year.

Visitors to Twee-Q’s website can enter a Twitter handle and find out the gender breakdown of retweets from that account. In my case, the results were eye-opening. I spend a lot of time thinking about gender, and follow plenty of smart women on Twitter — but that doesn’t mean I’m amplifying what they say. According to Twee-Q, the people I’ve retweeted lately are 64 percent male.

Twee-Q also maintains a tally of results that show men are more likely to have their comments retweeted despite the fact that the majority of Twitter users are women.

Gathering this kind of data is just the start for journalists committed to greater diversity, said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute who specializes in ethics. Newsroom managers must use these new tools as platforms for deep analysis of institutional biases.

McBride finds the gender gap in front-page bylines especially troubling because of what it says about broader newsroom inequalities.

“That’s just evidence of a system that clearly is not giving women the same opportunities that are given to men, and that has huge implications,” she said. “We know that leaders in newsrooms are chosen from people who are good at doing very specific things.”

Are women fully considered for the beats that traditionally lead to promotions, big projects and prominent story placement? Are they included in important meetings? Do they feel empowered to speak up?

“What [the data] can’t tell you is why,” she said. “What are the small, systematic decisions you’re making every day?”

While it’s important to create a culture in which women with small children can excel, McBride said news organizations should also reconsider the role of older women. Women in their 40s and 50s are likely past the most time-consuming period of child-rearing, but may not be perceived as good candidates for promotion because they took less-prestigious beats when their children were young. Many of these women, though, may still have the skills to lead.

“If you can bring more women into leadership, you can affect all of these smaller decisions,” McBride said. Read more


5 questions to ask when deciding whether to use Drupal or WordPress

The Concord Monitor and the Bangor Daily News have a lot in common. Both are daily papers serving small cities in rural New England. Both want to continue traditions of high-quality local news in a digital world. And both recently built websites using open-source code.

The difference rests in the systems we chose. The Monitor, where I work as Web editor, has been running on Drupal for two years. The Daily News finished relaunching its site on WordPress this summer. Neither newsroom has any regrets, but there are big differences between the two platforms, as Allan Hoffman illustrated in his recent post about switching his blog from Drupal to WordPress.

Benefits and drawbacks of using Drupal, WordPress

After reading Hoffman’s piece and the comments that followed, I reached out to my counterpart, Daily News Web Editor William Davis, to find out what those differences mean in our newsrooms.

Davis and I both described systems that are adaptable and that have allowed us to change the way we deliver information online.

In his case, WordPress has helped streamline workflow by acting as an intermediary between Google Docs and the newsroom’s layout software. (Click here to read more and see a demo of the process.) “We wanted to make sure we could stay on the leading edge of things,” Davis said, “and WordPress so far has really allowed us to do that.”

Davis says WordPress lets him easily adjust photo caption displays and other details that go a long way toward making a site looking polished and unique. Using WordPress, he created a plugin to help the sports department handle scores, and he made custom post types that help organize user submissions, photos and other content.

Davis initially struggled with some of the WordPress plugins. “You have to be careful with how you use them,” he said. “Early on, we got locked in to a couple.” Plugins, by the way, are bits of code developers use to make WordPress sites do certain things without changing the platform’s core. On his development blog, Davis discusses the evolution of a particularly crucial plugin — one that allows a smooth interface between Google Docs and WordPress.

The programmers I work with admit that Drupal takes a little more effort than WordPress, but they say it gives them more flexibility and freedom than any other system out there. WordPress, meanwhile, is clean and quick, and Davis says its simplicity hasn’t been lost as users have developed it for more complex applications.

“It’s much easier to build with than any other CMS in my opinion,” Davis said over the phone.

At the Monitor, Drupal has helped us redefine the way we break news and tell stories online. Drupal is content agnostic, which means we can create pages where hierarchy is based on the importance of information, not the tool that generated it. During Hurricane Irene, for instance, we used a special key word to weave together tweets, individual photos, video and text into a single, rolling stream.

Our site’s design is based on a series of flexible templates that allow those of us with limited programming skills to lay out pages by dragging and dropping blocks that contain lists of content or code. That means we can keep the site looking fresh without involving our developers.

The system isn’t without challenges. The Drupal community has forced me to re-imagine the structure of information, but it has also given me more than a few headaches. There are so many variables that it’s difficult to compare notes with other editors because no one’s system looks the same.

Figuring out whether to use Drupal or WordPress

So which system is better?


The question of WordPress versus Drupal isn’t Coke/Pepsi, boxers/briefs, Red Sox/Yankees. It’s about understanding the needs of your organization.

It also helps to have some background knowledge.

WordPress and Drupal are open-source products, which means the code they’re built with is publicly available. There are no fees, but users enter a sort of social compact to share developments with the group. This means thousands of smart programmers riff off each other’s work to solve problems and find new ways to do things online.

Drupal got its start in 2000 at the University of Antwerp, where it was used as a message board before being morphed into a broader system the following year. (You can read more about its history, its mission and its evolution here.) It’s unclear how many sites are using Drupal, but one estimate put the number around 7 million. One of the most well-known Drupal sites is

WordPress was launched in 2003 as a blogging platform and was quickly embraced because of its simplicity. Its popularity has grown rapidly and, according to a recent survey, 22 out of every 100 new domains in the United States run on WordPress.

When deciding which system to use, consider these questions:

1.) Are you sure (really sure) you want to build your own website? Open-source is fantastic, but it’s also a lot of work. User communities are helpful, but it can be a challenge to solve technical issues on deadline. Are you willing to write your own training manual? Spend time going to training conferences in person or online?

2.) Can you benefit from some of your colleagues’ skills? Forget the computer for a moment and consider your co-workers. Is someone in your newsroom already a whiz with a particular CMS? Davis came to the Daily News with extensive experience converting college papers to WordPress. We first experimented with Drupal for a community blogging platform and then stuck with it partly because one of our sister papers was using it to power its website.

3.) How much time do you have? WordPress is probably faster to launch, especially if your project is simple. The Daily News spent nine months developing its website and converting to Google Docs. It took us a little over a year to launch our core site on Drupal, and we didn’t touch our other editorial systems.

4.) Do you like the community? Both Drupal and WordPress fans would tell you that their system has superior documentation and support. Take some time to cruise around message boards, read instructions and ask questions. Can you find what you need?

5.) How difficult will it be to integrate WordPress or Drupal with your other systems? Are there existing plugins for your preferred ad service, calendar database and search engine? Or will you have to create them from scratch?

The most important thing to remember is that Drupal and WordPress are constantly evolving, and that’s a good thing given the state of online journalism.

Yes, Davis and I use — and advocate for — different flavors of code. But our missions are the same: meet our deadlines, serve our communities and push the boundaries of digital storytelling every chance we get.

Tell us in the comments section whether you prefer Drupal or WordPress and why. ( uses both WordPress and Drupal.) Read more


Girl versus virus: The 4 things I learned about journalism when I became the story

Nearly two years ago, my boss suggested that I turn myself into a story.

I was halfway through a grueling round of experimental treatment for hepatitis C, a potentially-fatal liver disease I contracted as an infant. My experience had all the trappings of compelling journalism. There was a simple central tension — girl versus virus — and a simple, central question: Will she be cured? Plus, HCV is a sweeping, under-reported epidemic with the potential to cost billions of dollars and millions of lives.

The journalist in me knew all this was newsworthy, but it was Concord Monitor Editor Felice Belman who urged me to use myself as a source.

Over lunch one day, she sketched out her idea: a heavily researched, first-person narrative told in short, serial installments. The piece would explore the epidemic, the idea of medical research on humans and the reasons why so few people know about a virus that affects four times as many Americans as AIDS.

It was an ambitious project for many reasons. For starters, I felt awful. Antiviral medication can cause brutal side effects, and keeping up with my normal workload was already a struggle. Plus, the Monitor’s newsroom is small, and the demands on our time seem to grow every day.

The research and writing took months longer than expected, but we finished the project, called “My Epidemic,” last December. Each day for a week, we published a new chapter in print and online, and used social media to promote the series and to invite feedback.

The result was a profound reminder of the power of storytelling and an illustration of the potential for new media to allow our stories to live on.

Lesson 1: Share your story in a way that works for both print and online.

Yes, journalism has changed, but narrative is still effective, especially if it’s structured to work in print and online. We picked a serial format for reasons both practical and organic. The ups and downs and cliffhangers inherent in serial narratives mimic the reality of living with a chronic disease.

In print, multiple chapters were also easier to place in a tight news hole, and we had multiple opportunities to find space for graphics and photos. Online, each chapter gave us another chance to invite readers into the story through Facebook and Twitter, and to promote HCV resources we’d assembled on our website.

The project was a boon for online traffic. Visits to our website shot up 12 percent compared to December 2009 — by far the largest month-to-month increase in recent memory.

Lesson 2: Find documents, include details for context.

Writing about myself demanded more research than writing about someone else.

When I’m writing about other people, I try to climb inside their heads, which means many hours of watching them just live their lives. In this case, I needed to do just the opposite and place myself in the context of the broader epidemic.

My brother, a doctor, directed me to medical journals and helped me decipher the articles. A database at the local public library supplied archival information about media coverage of HCV, and the Congressional record revealed how public health officials are — or are not — responding to the epidemic.

The most important documents were my own medical records. They included detailed doctors’ notes about all the tests I’d undergone as a teenager and a time-stamped transfusion report that revealed exactly when I’d contracted HCV.

One of the hardest parts was choosing what to include, particularly when it came to describing my birth. There were so many details: my hurried baptism, my father sleeping on the waiting room floor, my parents in their Jeep following the ambulance from one hospital to another, not knowing if I was dead or alive. Those are all important pieces of family lore, but they didn’t advance the story. Including them would have been indulgent, a disservice to the reader.

Lesson 3: Be honest about your fears, discomfort.

I was a crummy photo subject.

For more than a decade, I’ve been trained to collaborate, collaborate and collaborate some more with visual journalists. That’s what I planned to do with this story, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

Photographer Katie Barnes joined the Monitor newsroom a few months after I’d started working on the project and was soon assigned to my story. I was hesitant to drag Katie through my medical hell, and I (irrationally) didn’t trust anyone but myself to get it right.

There were logistical challenges, too. One of the side effects of antiviral medication is temporary absentmindedness. In my case, that meant showing up to work with mismatched shoes, getting lost in the grocery store and forgetting to tell Katie when something important was happening.

Finally, she made me a list of things I might do — walk the dog, cook dinner, visit the acupuncturist — that would help her tell the story.

I know now what it means, what it feels like, to be the subject of someone else’s journalism. Our sources have so much at stake: their reputations, their public images, the truth of how they view themselves. Building trust with the people we cover is everything, and that’s why honest storytelling requires so much time.

Katie ultimately made my discomfort a part of the story, producing a video focused on my feelings about the project. I was terrified when I sat down in front of that camera, but we’d been working together for almost a year, and I understood that this was part of the story only she could tell.

Lesson 4: Tend the seeds you sow.

The response to the series was overwhelming. By the time the last installment was published, I had Twitter followers from Russia and my e-mail and voicemail were full of messages from other people living with HCV.

My editors and I decided to turn some of those responses into an impromptu seventh installment. As I was writing, I found myself wondering if such a swift, multifaceted (and international) reader response would have been possible a decade ago.

The story continues to live on. I receive new e-mails every week from people who have discovered the series, often through Facebook or Twitter. More often than not, they have a personal connection to HCV. Take, for instance, the teenage girl in California who, like me, contracted the virus as a baby and who, like me, has faced cruel judgment from her peers.

As I read the e-mail, I was devastated that another young woman had endured such fear, shame and humiliation. Then she told me that she showed her family and friends my stories and, at last, people began to understand.

Meg Heckman splits her time at the Concord Monitor between writing and exploring digital storytelling. She is a 2001 Poynter summer fellow and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, where she now works as an adjunct instructor in the journalism program. Read more