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Ta-Nehisi Coates comes up with a pretty convincing economic theory about the lack of diversity at magazines: They’re vehicles for taste-making, edited by people whose backgrounds are “unrepresentative of America, though arguably very representative of American aspiration.”
Now take that thin profile and put it under severe economic duress. It was always a privileged life to be able to support oneself writing for magazines. Now it is an almost unheard of life. (Observe the medium through which I am speaking to you right now.) Even in the halcyon days of Gay Talese, I would bet that many of the writers supplemented their income by doing something else. So while it is true that there are few black magazine writers, or Latino magazine writers, or women magazine writers, or Asian-American magazine writers, it’s also true that, at this point in history, there are very few people, in general, doing this sort of work.
The routes to those jobs were exclusionary, too, Coates, says:
The Washington Monthly, for instance, has long produced an outsize number of long-form journalists. But the wages are the sort that would never appeal to someone worried about the grandmother’s medical bills, worried about their younger brother making it through high school, worried that their mother might get laid off.
He worries that the few places that encourage long-form journalism are staring into the same economic abyss as newspapers — but with smaller staffs. “[I]t becomes really hard to have a conversation about diversity,” Coates writes, “because we are all facing a world in which there is nothing to diversify.”
That wasn’t the case for women in the mid-’60s at Newsweek, according to Lynn Povich’s new book “The Good Girls Revolt.” Anne Eisenberg’s review of the book gives a quick precis of the actions and culture that led women at the newsweekly to file a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1970. Katharine Graham was president of the Washington Post Company, which owned Newsweek at the time:
Mrs. Graham was caught in the middle, a businesswoman looking after her property, but also a member by birth of the sisterhood. She was perplexed by the news of the complaint. “Which side am I supposed to be on?” she asked.
Amanda Hess writes that while the sexism at Newsweek was clear at the time, “the problem with journalism today is that its sexism is not simple.” Women make up about 40 percent of newspaper newsroom employees, Hess writes, and online-focused outlets are not doing much better. “This may seem like a niche issue—journalism is an elite career, and cracking into it is hard for anyone—but the industry’s gender gap reverberates widely.”
Today’s sexist employer knows that he can no longer get away with pinching butts by the water cooler or explicitly barring women from the ladder’s highest rungs. But between clearly actionable sex discrimination and full gender equality lies an extensive menu of workplace tactics by which employers can marginalize women.
In a video about how she landed her job, Senior Newsweek writer Allison Samuels says that “People will always ask me why do you only write about African-Americans. And I’ll say ’cause in our meetings there are 20 people to talk about Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. I’m the only person who says why not do Don Cheadle for his new show? I’m the only person who’s gonna say that in a meeting.”
“There’s not enough of us in this business,” Samuels says. “Sometimes you’re the only voice in the room who can say let’s do this, let’s do that. And if you’re not in that room, then, again, Don Cheadle doesn’t make it in the magazine that week.”