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July 26, 2017, 10:27 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Where are the mothers?

If news organizations, digital and legacy alike, want to attract and retain millennial journalists, newsrooms must better meet the needs of mothers with young children — and create better work-life balance for everyone.

Editor’s note: This piece by Nieman Fellow Katherine Goldstein is the cover story in the next issue of our magazine sibling, Nieman Reports. We’re sharing it with Lab readers as a sneak peek.

“We’re having a bit of a baby boom,” says Lauren Williams, executive editor of Vox.com and the mother of an 18-month-old. When the news startup began in 2014, there wasn’t a single parent working at the site. But as the website has grown, so have employees’ families. Now, around 15 percent of the 90-person staff have children.

Margaret Wheeler Johnson, who has a 2-year-old and an infant, was the first person to have a baby while working at Bustle.com, a startup women’s site. She’s now managing editor of Romper.com, owned by the same company, a site for millennial moms that is also experiencing a surge in new children among staff.

“We’re all in that early to mid-30s life shift,” is how Kate Sheppard, with a 20-month-old son, describes the leaders of HuffPost’s Washington bureau. Three quarters of the senior staff have children under 2.

“Any company that wants to employ millennials needs to address this,” says Laura Wides-Muñoz, mother of a 7- and an 8-year-old and vice president of special projects and editorial strategy at Fusion. She’s seen a wave of new parents enter her workplace. In contrast to even 10 years ago, she’s noticed these staffers have often been more upfront about their parenting realities and more vocal about their desire for better policies. “I think it’s a positive development,” she says.

In the conversation about how to create more diversity and gender balance in newsrooms, one group has been routinely ignored: mothers. What are newsrooms doing to retain women who have or plan to have children, to make sure more women stay in the talent pipeline?

While legacy news organizations have had some working mothers and (sometimes less than ideal) family leave policies for many decades, for a certain set of younger digital news organizations, this is all unfolding in real time. What happens when the people who took blogging mainstream in the mid-2000s, and who now hold demanding jobs in national news, start to have babies? A recent Pew study puts the median age for a first child among highly educated women at 30, and 1 million millennial women (born between 1981 and 1997) are becoming mothers each year in America.

A 2015 University of Kansas study found female journalists were at higher risk of burnout and more plan to leave the industry than their male counterparts, citing a feeling of less support from their organizations. Their dissatisfaction with the field was, in part, attributed to women’s desires to balance work with family responsibilities.

How both legacy organizations, hungry for journalists with 21st-century skills, and startups with nascent HR policies handle this may determine how diverse news leadership and coverage is for decades to come. What follows is a four-point plan for helping women — and men — with young families better manage work and parenthood.

If new mothers leave journalism, who’ll be left?

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I had been working for six months as a leader at a fast-paced news website. I was to be the first person on this digital team to be a parent. I’d spent my 20s deftly climbing the career ladder in digital journalism, reaching senior management positions at a young age. I had a loving and supportive husband, who was happy to go down a less intense career path while I was the breadwinner. I presumed after our son was born I would take 12 weeks of maternity leave and keep charging ahead in journalism.

My son, Asher, was born in July of 2015. There were the joyous moments — the discovery that listening to Stevie Wonder at full blast seemed to make Asher stop crying, and his love of making eye contact and cuddling. What wasn’t typical was, when my son was 6 weeks old, we took him for a follow-up appointment to a specialist because of a potential issue originally identified on a prenatal sonogram. My husband, Travis, and I were in the middle of laughing at a joke when the doctor with well-coiffed hair and a TV anchor smile came in with a somber look on his face.

We were shocked to learn that our son had a number of serious problems with his kidneys and would need surgery as soon as possible. What followed was a multi-week saga involving surgery, two hospitalizations, endless blood tests, and a spinal tap in the longest day of my life at the pediatric ER. I remember walking out of the hospital in a dress covered in a mixture of my son’s blood and urine. My eyes were glazed, but the clearest thought in my mind was, “I will never be the same person after this.”

I’m so grateful my son has recovered from those early ordeals, but as I prepared to go back to work, thoughts about his need for a second surgery loomed. Warnings about monitoring him for infections were sternly passed on by doctors, along with the directive that continuing to nurse him was “the best thing I could do for him.” Despite the traumas of Asher’s early life, I was back at my desk when my 12 weeks of maternity leave were up.

Many mothers find the early weeks and months of being back at work difficult. In the only developed country in the world with no requirement for paid maternity leave, the average length of maternity leave, when taken, was 10.3 weeks in 2006-2008, according to a federal study. A 2014 Careerbuilder.com survey found that 11 percent of working mothers took a maternity leave of two weeks or less. There’s some hope this could change in the near future — in the 2018 budget, President Trump included a proposal for six weeks of paid leave for all new mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents — but the current reality is far from ideal. And while my son’s health crises weren’t typical, there is not a parent on the planet who hasn’t dealt with some kind of acute stress, whether it’s a sleepless baby, colic, or the inability to find reliable and affordable childcare.

Although I was the first person within my digital news team to have a child, I started to notice something on social media that made me realize I wasn’t alone. More and more journalist colleagues from past jobs, acquaintances, and women I’d met at conferences over the years were starting to post pregnancy announcements, followed by that newborn photo with the blue and white hospital blanket. As I saw their sleeping infant photos or their anguished first-day-back-at-work posts I wondered: How do they manage the demands of this industry?

And, if all, most, or even many of the new mothers leave this business, who’s going to be left?

Increasingly, journalists are asking questions about how their own newsrooms and the industry at large can do better at creating policies that specifically support parents. Rebecca Ruiz asked journalists to report on the family-friendliness of their newsrooms for the Poynter Institute, and Melody Kramer, also for Poynter, has surveyed newsrooms’ family leave policies. Both efforts are important first steps in starting conversations and getting data on these issues. Additionally, journalists are bringing their unions into the conversation about better family leave policies and employer support for childcare needs. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff wrote a letter in March demanding more newsroom diversity, gender pay equity, and specific protections for the careers of parents. William Lewis, the CEO of Dow Jones, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal, recently released a statement about this, promising to address gender equality and other diversity issues at the paper, but did not mention mothers or parents specifically.

To research this article, I interviewed nearly 20 mothers at a wide variety of news organizations. I picked women who work in senior leadership or management positions: women who work in digital mediums and will have the most capacity to direct news coverage and story topics for years to come. I chose women who are fully immersed in newsroom environments and culture — editors, managers, strategists, assigners, and idea generators. I chose this group to get better insights into how newsrooms operate and what official and unofficial policies are in place to support them. In focusing specifically on how to retain mothers in the news industry, I hope to promote solutions for tackling the pernicious gender gap in journalism.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports →

POSTED     July 26, 2017, 10:27 a.m.
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