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Aug. 12, 2009, 9 a.m.

What do women want? PunditMom gives one answer to that question

For decades, news organizations have tried to figure out how to capture those illusive female readers. A room full of editors — likely by and large white and male — would metaphorically bang their heads against the wall, trying to conjure what that confounding group that makes an estimated 80 percent of the buying decisions in the American home wants.

The result, often, was as far off-point as when my husband guesses what I mean when I tell him “I don’t want to talk about it.”

News for women

Women’s news got ghettoized in the features section, and women readers were served up lots of fluff. Stories about face cleansers and nail polish and decorating the nursery. As the Web took hold, news organizations jumped onto the mommy blog bandwagon, and moms’ sites on newspaper Web sites like this one proliferated.

I’m not knocking mommy sites; they have a valuable place. In fact, I spent two years working on the online parenting page for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. But women need more than mommy sites. All women aren’t mothers. And all women, mothers or not, need news. Real news. News about topics important to them and delivered in a way that makes sense to them.

As news organization try to figure out new business plans, they can’t afford not to give more attention to the estimated 149.1 million American women (or more than 3 billion worldwide). News organizations really cannot wait until they figure out how to make money before they woo women readers — because by then, many of them will be lost to the blogosphere.

Why? Because the blogosphere is chatty, conversational, relationship-oriented, friendly, approachable. In short, it’s not like a typical newspaper Web site, but it is just the type of place many women like.

I’m not saying news organizations need to dumb things down for women. Not at all. What I am saying is that the way news organizations have been delivering news hasn’t served women readers for decades, and now woman have many other options.

Need for change

So what can newspapers do? Change. Change their format. Change their thinking. Don’t characterize every story that pertains to women or child care or parenting as a feature story. Don’t dismiss as trivial topics like child care funding or a lack of paid sick days. Don’t make decisions based on whether male editors are interested in the topic. (If a topic is interesting to women, nine times out of 10 a guy won’t care less.) Give women news with a dose of relationship.

A great example of what I’m talking about is Joanne Bamberger’s blog, PunditMom. Bamberger is a Washington attorney, journalist, political pundit and mom, but her blog is not a typical mommy blog. She does mention her daughter, PunditGirl, but most of her posts are about politics. She writes in what she calls the “op-ed” style, some opinion, linking to news, digesting what’s out there. (She also writes for the Huffington Post and BlogHer.)

Bamberger explains that she started the blog three years ago “as I thought about the fact that there are so few women in the op-ed pages, and even fewer who self-identified as mothers. It seemed to me that there was a lack of mothers’ voices in the world of opinion writing and I wanted to try to find a way to become a voice in that arena that seemed to be under-represented.”

For women, it’s a format that works, I think. You could read her blog and find out just about all the hot political stories that pertain to women, particularly women with children.

She has an opinion. She calls herself progressive. Some might call her a liberal. But her format, not her particular ideology, is what I’m touting. She offers women something they can’t really get in the mainstream media: A place to sit down with their smartest girlfriend and talk politics without being made to feel stupid.

(I realize newspapers generally offer female columnists, and I applaud that. But they write on a variety of topics; PunditMom specializes just on those she believes are important to other women. That difference is important. Plus, the average local daily has little room these days in print for many op-ed voices, male or female.)

As Bamberger put it in an e-mail to me:

So many women, and mothers especially, don’t see themselves as political in the traditional sense, but I felt that many of them were — they just didn’t realize it and I wanted to find a way to start a conversation among mothers about our political views and how sometimes our thoughts on political topics change when we become mothers. I think what I provide at PunditMom is a place where women, and mothers in particular, can feel comfortable talking about their views on a variety of political topics. I try to be conversational, but I try also not to be too ‘safe.’ I want to try to use my writing to get people to think about how they’ve come to their views, respect the opposing viewpoints and give women a space where they feel comfortable to talk politics, even if they don’t anywhere else.

One aspect of the Web that’s unbeatable is its ability to offer a space to chat. It’s an attribute that too many news organizations are missing as they battle over whether blogs should be able to quote their stories or link to them or whether people should be able to read online news for free. The fact is news organizations’ Web sites can be the coffee klatch, the backyard fence, if news organizations get used to that new approach.

What can news organizations learn from what PunditMom is doing?

— Create your own blog where politics (or any topic) is discussed through niche groups. (Moms, gays, gun-owners, whatever.) The one-size-fits-all news doesn’t work anymore. Bamberger acknowledges she writes “for mothers who don’t think they know enough about politics and current events to have an opinion” and she highlights issues that don’t get as much attention as she’d like to see. That’s a narrow niche that isn’t getting met many places. If you can’t create your own blog like this, link out to blogs like hers that do.

— Don’t worry about merging opinion with news. Offer a variety of voices to even things out. To keep things journalistic, have a person who doesn’t specifically cover politics write the blog as part of other duties. Or use readers. News organizations need to help readers understand and make sense of the news, not just broadcast it.

— Focus on relationships. What works so well about PunditMom is if you read her blog for a while, you feel like you almost know her. That’s the value of blogging over a news story, and many news organizations haven’t fully taken advantage of that yet. If you comment on her blog, she responds. If you email her, she writes back. As her reader, you don’t feel like one of the faceless masses; you feel a bit like a friend. People — women and men — like that, I think.

POSTED     Aug. 12, 2009, 9 a.m.
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