Women and the future of media

Laetitia@Work #16

Hi everyone,

I hope you’re well. I’ve read in multiple articles that bad sleep and nightmares are now regarded as common side-effects of lockdown. At least I know I’m not alone: my dreams are filled with impending doom or disasters. Can’t help it 😪 🤕 But hey, at least my family and I are all healthy during the day, and kept healthily busy by exciting new lockdown-compatible projects.

Now that I’m back in France, I’ve rekindled my interest in French media, notably the press. And there is no other way to say it: French media feature very few women. Fewer than do most English-language media. It’s not specific to this particular period because French media have never featured many women.

But the current crisis is suddenly making things visible that many of us would otherwise have happily continued to ignore. Mainstream mass media are going through a supernova moment with Covid-19. Like a supernova, their brightness is suddenly increased for a few months, but it doesn’t mean most of them aren’t dying. They’re not in tune with the digital age. They have high fixed costs. They’re not diverse enough.

But suddenly they have the spotlight. And many people who had stopped watching TV news or looking at the front pages of daily newspapers suddenly see what they had chosen to overlook: that a lot of these traditional media (particularly in France) aren’t innovative, do not show a very diverse crowd of people, do not necessarily have interesting things to say, and sometimes are quite simply sexist. Yet I’m quite optimistic about women and the future of media. For a number of reasons 💪

Nothing new under the sun. But a moment of reckoning.

If you look at the successive covers of established weekly magazines such as Le Point, L’Express or L’Obs over the course of one year, you’ll see that less than 30% of these covers feature women. And when there is a woman pictured on the cover, she is likely to be a generic woman chosen to illustrate a dossier about France’s hospitals or schools, or the wife of a celebrity. There are very few women featured on the cover for their work or expertise (yes, you can probably count one or two every year...but percentage-wise, it’s unarguably less than in equivalent US or UK magazines). 

Expertise and well-rounded knowledge are shown to be male traits. The typical French intellectual asked to speak about any possible subject with authority is almost exclusively male. And that typical intellectual can get away with jokes about raping women, the same way the typical French artist can get away with pedophilia (in case you have never seen this Blanche Gardin video on the subject, enjoy!). Meanwhile the few women who do enjoy the title of “intellectual” are usually presented as “feminists” and will often be asked by mainstream media to speak about women issues (like the representation of women in a particular field or domestic violence), or they will be given prominence in alternative, less mainstream media (with a few exceptions, like Libération).

In truth the under-representation of women in French media is nothing new (nor is it entirely specific to France, obviously. The Germans do not fare any better in that regard.) But the Covid crisis seems to have triggered a (temporary) moment of reckoning in France. There’s a mind-boggling gap between the representation of women in the media covering pandemic and lockdown and the percentage of women on the ground doing the actual fighting (looking after the vulnerable in hospitals, nursing homes and at home), or suffering from the consequences of the lockdown (domestic violence and domestic chores). Women represent nearly 50% of all French doctors and more than 85% of all nurses… but a negligible percentage of those presented as Covid “experts” on TV and in the press. 

Women working in hospitals and nursing homes are often mentioned in the abstract but few of them are interviewed as “experts” on TV or invited to comment on political decisions. Even fewer of them are invited to “intellectualise” the crisis and think about the future. The front page of daily newspaper Le Parisien on April 5 featured 4 men (0 woman) asked to philosophise about the world after the crisis. But honestly I probably would not have noticed if so many people hadn’t mentioned it online. First, I don’t read Le Parisien. And second, I’ve seen such covers all my life, in all newspapers. Nothing new under the sun. 

For some reason the strong reaction against this unfortunate (albeit all too common) front page of a daily newspaper is symptomatic of a number of recent evolutions. Mainstream media have seen their base dwindle over the years and are increasingly disconnected from the young. The current crisis seems to make a lot of people suddenly aware of their existence and (relative) irrelevance. It’s a bit like going to a family funeral and being reminded that your old uncle (who you never ever see in normal times) is a male chauvinist. If it weren’t for the family event, you wouldn’t have given that old uncle a thought.

Covid-19 is that “family event” shedding light on our old uncles. It’s become harder to overlook the gap between what our society has become and what’s shown in traditional media. There’s also a growing divide between urban and rural, rich and poor, educated and less educated, but also between those (still a majority) who passively consume mainstream mass media and those who do not. Mass media seemed to unify the nation (which is a somewhat idealised vision of the 20th century) as millions of people would passively absorb mass-produced content (news, films, articles) produced by professionals.

But there are new media now, new ways to produce and consume information and entertainment that are anything but top down. And it’s also changed things for women.

Lower barriers to entry for women in media

Already four years ago, exhilarated by the potential of new platforms like Medium and how it empowered me to publish content and find an audience, I wrote a piece about ‘the rise of amateurs” in which I wrote, “Widely available information empowers motivated amateurs to get access to expert knowledge that used to be the protected property of professional experts. Everywhere amateurs are now winning…”, and added that in a world where “expertise belongs to everyone”, a lot of amateurs aren’t in it for the money and are threatening the livelihood of the professionals. Therefore we will have to look for ways to decouple work, passion, revenue and social protection, i.e. create new institutions to make the rise of amateurs economically sustainable.

A few years later, Substack was created on the same premise (that amateurs were the future of media). But it was founded on the idea that they could be empowered to make a living. As Substack founder Hamish McKenzie tweeted a few days ago: “The old business model for media has exploded so spectacularly that the fire, smoke, and debris are obscuring a once-in-a-century opportunity to build it all over – better and more lucrative than it has ever been. I hope someone notices.”

Earlier this year, the publication of the book The Passion Economy by Adam Davidson was welcomed by numerous passionate freelancers (and lots of new media people among them), eager to promote an economic model for their projects. For Davidson, the passion economy “illuminates how the rules of the economy are evolving and offers lessons for the changing nature of work”.

In many ways Substack relies entirely on this vision. Its founders and investors are adamant that writers with a community of engaged readers will use the newsletter format more and more, and ask their readers to pay a monthly subscription for exclusive content. For Andrew Chen, a partner in the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz (backing Substack), “we’re living in a pivotal time in the history of mass communication — what we believe is the golden age of new media”.

Lower barriers to entry make it possible for a new generation of media to emerge. And a lot of these new entrants are women. I follow a number of remarkable newsletters by women. Here are a few examples among those I have subscribed to: Vestpod (about women and money), Femstreet (about women in tech and venture capital), The Broadsheet (Fortune’s daily newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women), Idée Fixe byToni Cowan-Brown (“deep dive into ideas and trends that dominate our minds”), Monomythical (about living life online), Women Make (about female makers and entrepreneurs), The Profile (long-form stories on people and companies), La Mutante (a short fiction—in French—to understand the present and imagine the future), Work & The City (a French newsletter about the workspace), Les Glorieuses (a French newsletter about the “feminist revolution”).

With everyone in lockdown now, barriers to entry are lower than ever before. Amateurs and professionals all work from home with the same equipment, the same tools, and the same information available online. There are so many SaaS (software-as-a-service) tools to create content, including videos, that anyone can now create content. And the viewers are used to watching home-made videos. They even like them! Nobody cares that the content was not created professionally in a studio.

I’m not naive about the representation of women in internet media and startups. I know that only 15% of Wikipedia contributors are female, for example. I know that the big winners of the “passion economy” (including Substack writers), those who make a living out of it, are overwhelmingly male. That being said, I feel empowered to seize the moment as a woman. And I can subscribe to, share and promote content written by women like never before. Rather than being forced to just lament over the lack of women in media, I can choose to ignore mainstream media, focus on those newcomers I like (there are men too among them :-), and promote them. In other words, I feel that I can act. I feel these are empowering times. And overall percentages matter less to me than the content of my mailbox and the communities I can create. 

Even larger media are more female-friendly now

There are essentially three reasons why even larger media companies are now more friendly to women: 

  • Some “old” media have decided they didn’t want to be doomed to irrelevance and chose to embrace digital, and embrace the cultural changes among which feminism is the most notable. A good example is the Financial Times, which, just like the financial industry at large, had a women problem (only 1 in 5 readers were women and they also happened to be a lot less engaged than their male counterparts). But unlike the financial industry, the newspaper worked hard for a couple of years to overcome this problem and tap into a large pool of new potential readers for future growth. They put more women in the editorial team. They created new sections. They even started using software to warn journalists whenever they weren’t quoting enough expert women in their pieces! To some extent, it worked. It’s now female-friendly enough that I buy the FT once in a while, and would consider a long-term digital subscription.

  • As the digital revolution transformed the value chain of the media industry and put the old model of ad-based revenue into jeopardy, a lot of new, hybrid models began to emerge: media companies whose revenues come from events and marketing, media companies that are also startups selling a product (which doesn’t necessarily mean all they do is content marketing), media with an engaged fan base ready to pay for subscriptions. Over the last ten years, France has seen a lot of great, new, more feminist media emerge based on various models. Among them Welcome to the Jungle, Usbek & Rica, L’ADN, Society… All of them have a feminist perspective on the world.

  • Last but not least new digital giants have emerged that are challenging the old (sexist) models. Let me illustrate that point with the battle between the Netflix model and the cinema model. It’s not just a different business model. It’s also a different artistic and narrative model. In tune with its users and driven by abundant data, Netflix has to cater to the desires of its female viewers. Unlike Hollywood films, modern TV series feature lots of female characters over 40. What’s true about Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein) is also true about French cinema: it’s a stronghold of male chauvinism. The only difference is that French cinema is more subsidised (it’s funded by our taxes). I’m not in any way suggesting that subsidies are inherently wrong. Nor am I saying that everything produced by the French system is rubbish. I’m merely saying that I wish it wasn’t so sexist, and that I’m glad I spend more money on Netflix than on French cinema. In spite of the anti-Weinstein wave, women are so underrepresented in that world that, according to Virginie Despentes (she speaks about it in this series of “Couilles sur la table” podcasts), it’s beyond saving.

All this is to say that I’m actually quite optimistic about the future. As new, less conservative giants emerge, they put pressure on older institutions to change. And yes, some of these old institutions won’t ever be ready to change. But as their readers/viewers age, they will progressively become so irrelevant that even subsidies won’t be able to save them. Or we can continue to ignore their existence and enjoy the media we like best. 

🌳 I’m in Normandy all week this week 😏

This week, Nicolas Colin and I have launched our own new media, in French. It’s called Nouveau départ: “Journal de la crise et de l'après-crise”. It’ll feature as many women as men. It will be composed of interviews of people we admire (videos), editorials by Nicolas and me, and in-depth analyses of the crisis and its impact on various industries. Its main target is entrepreneurs and managers, but there will be enough different subjects for Nouveau départ to be of interest to all sorts of people. If you’re interested, subscribe here!

I have new publications this week. For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote a piece titled “‘Ménager’ plutôt que ‘manager’, la clé pour garder ses équipes engagées ?” (in French), and an interview with a lawyer “Employeurs : les réponses à toutes vos questions sur le chômage partiel” (in French). I was also interviewed by Courrier Cadres on the impact of the lockdown on management.

Miscellaneous

  • 🤝 “Will Covid-19 end the handshake?”, Bryan Lufkin, BBC Worklife, April 2020: “From ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia to Classical Greece, depictions of shaking or displaying open hands as a sign of trust appear in art and literature from thousands of years ago. Those depictions include Babylonian stone reliefs and the epics of Homer. Experts say the exact origin story is a bit murky, but people are often shown displaying an empty right hand to demonstrate to the other person they’re not carrying a weapon, and so they can be trusted.”

  • 🧒 “Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance”, Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic, April 2020: “Millennials are vulnerable. They have smaller savings accounts than prior generations. They have less money invested. They own fewer houses to refinance or rent out or sell. They make less money, and are less likely to have benefits like paid sick leave. They have more than half a trillion dollars of student-loan debt to keep paying off, as well as hefty rent and child-care payments that keep coming due.”

  • ⌛ “Time Is Meaningless Now”, Shaila Love, Vice, April 2020: “For a culture that’s so rooted in productivity and time urgency, a sudden shift to event time is uncomfortable. We’re starting to experience this with Zoom hangouts with friends—which don’t end because people have to go somewhere else or commute home, but just… end when friends have had enough of each other.”

That’s all for this week. Let me know what your favourite media are. What about other great newsletters that you’d like to share? 💌

If this newsletter was transferred to you by a friend or colleague, you can subscribe to Laetitia@Work here: