The timing seems sublime. In the same week The New York Times published an explosive report about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual harassment, it has also announced an appointment to the newly created role of gender editor in its newsroom.
She is Jessica Bennett, a contributor to the Times since 2012, who was chosen from among some 300 applicants to fill the leadership position. The role is attached to no particular section, and she will instead “lead a multi-pronged initiative to deepen the engagement of female readers around the world,” according to a Times news release on Tuesday.
Bennett, who starts her new job Oct. 30, authored the book "Feminist Fight Club," an illustrated manual for fighting sexism at work, and is a sought-after campus and corporate speaker on gender, identity and digital culture, according to the release. Her Times pieces include this profile of Monica Lewinsky, this Op-Ed on Wonder Woman, pieces on female pot entrepreneurs, feminists in sororities, campus programs teaching failure, and this column on Resting Bitch Face.
As executive editor of Tumblr, she helped oversee the first live-GIFed presidential debate. She also once interned for the late Trump biographer Wayne Barrett.
Poynter was curious about Bennett’s newly created position and asked her to answer a few brief questions in an email interview. Here are her responses.
How did you find out about this position? Did the Times reach out, or did you just hear about it and decide, “Hey, that sounds like something I’d like to tackle?” It seems like a daunting job.
Well, in the TMI category: Three years ago, I sat in Dean Baquet’s office with Susan Chira, his deputy (and now the Times' senior gender correspondent), to make a case for why I thought the Times should devote a full-time staffer to covering gender (ahem: me). I had just written a profile of Monica Lewinsky that I’d heard through my extended network of feminist spies had been complimented by Dean in the morning meeting, so it was a moment I thought I could get their attention. I made my pitch, wrote a subsequent memo, but the timing wasn’t right; there wasn’t the funding or headcount to bring me on. Then last September, when a job became a reality — now as an editor role — it was the week my book came out and I was basically having a panic attack. I couldn’t get it together to apply. But then the election happened, and I knew I wanted to help shape the coverage. I emailed Susan, made a website with a new memo, and asked if she would still consider my application. And then I took part in Survivor: NYT edition, where I did 11 interviews in one day (really).
The timing of your announced new role would seem to be perfect, considering the major news about Harvey Weinstein that the Times broke this week. And obviously that’s a big story. What other larger or important stories do you see that you want to focus on?
The Weinstein story has been incredible to see unravel because it was one of those pieces that was hiding in plain sight. Same with Cosby, same with Roger Ailes, same with what we’re seeing in Silicon Valley. People knew this was happening, there were “whisper networks” behind the scenes (note to self: Do story on whisper networks), and yet in many cases it took women speaking up in groups — or journalists like Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey or Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt convincing multiple women to go on the record — for people to pay attention. As for what we want to focus on, this is a global initiative, so we’re thinking about stories and products in a 360-degree manner: issues of women and work, sexual and gender identity and fluidity, the intersection of race and class, stories about politics, sports, business, science, health — all through the lens of gender.
What are just some everyday issues that you think could be addressed in a more comprehensive fashion?
Oh man, where do I begin. Narratives like Ellen Barry's story about getting away with murder in small-town India (follow-up here) that we will continue to uncover. Issues of sexual assault on college campuses. What happens in Saudi Arabia now that women are driving? Further fallout on China's change in one-child policy. Divorce on the rise in Africa … Honestly I could do this exercise all day.
You talk about “connecting the dots for readers” when it comes to gender issues throughout the Times. Tell us a bit about the disparate coverage you see, and how you’d like to address it.
It’s not disparate coverage, necessarily, but some of this is about how we take the great gender content our newsroom is already doing and figure out new ways to deliver it. So: a newsletter, a podcast, experimenting with live events, pop-ups, partnerships, making use of the Times’ incredible archives, Snapchat, and so on and so forth. I think it’s also about connecting the dots inside the newsroom: creating a hub for journalism of all kinds around gender, so that when we decide, say, to launch a campus correspondents’ program (something I want to do), and find out that our events team has been working on creating a speaker series on campus, we can connect these two things as part of a multi-platform initiative.
You talked with Teen Vogue about breaking down walls in the newsroom, since you’ll be attached to no specific section. That would seem to be a challenge in such a traditional newsroom at the Times (even though it has changed enormously over the past few years). What did the leadership of the Times say to convince you that this could happen?
One of the things I liked about the setup of this role is that it’s housed under NYT Global — creators of the Times’ 2020 report — which is a cross-company, cross-functional team that’s all about breaking down those traditional newsroom walls. I was also really adamant from the start that this initiative *not* be its own section, or a desk, so to speak. We are not trying to recreate the “women’s pages” of five decades ago — when women’s content was ghettoized into the “pink” section of the newspaper. This journalism is going to exist throughout every section and every medium — and even if I drown in bureaucracy in the process (which I have no reason to believe I will), I want to make sure that audiences of all kinds can access what we are creating. Also: no pink!
The American Society of News Editors just released its diversity numbers. And the Times is doing okay (44 percent of its leaders are women), but the Washington Post is at 50 percent. Do these numbers mean anything if the content is still out of kilter? (And I don’t even know what that looks like except to say it might mean a content audit would reveal a male-centric viewpoint more often than not?) Any thoughts about diversity in the newsroom?
We have to do better, and we will. And without becoming the journalist-who-moonlights-as-HR (though I did just write a book about it), diversity inside newsrooms must come from all angles: it’s about staffing and leadership positions, yes, but it’s also about who we cover, how we cover them, sources we quote, images we pair with stories, and of course bylines.
And finally, we at Poynter are always looking for ways to write about innovation. Anything you want to share that you’ll be doing along those lines?
Strategic partnerships. I will probably need to #leanout of the number of things I think we’re going to accomplish off the bat — in addition to still maintaining an occasional byline — but we are thinking about this in a hugely collaborative manner. Things I’m excited thinking about: newsletters, VR, partnering with a dating-turned-networking app (Bumble), creating a newsroom gender residency, working with organizations devoted to showcasing female photographers, making a podcast, creating pop-up events… what else. Francesca Donner (director of the initiative and my strategic partner) and I were getting excited the other day about the possibility of a video game. So, a LOT! (And by the way, if you’re an organization interested in partnering feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)