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Elizabeth Day

Why women love journalism

British Journalism Review
Vol. 15, No. 2, 2004, pages 21-25

Elizabeth Day is a news reporter for The Sunday Telegraph and was named Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards in March, when the judges praised “both her hunger for exclusives and her stylish colour writing, mature and delicate”.

Contents - Vol 15, No 2, 2004

Editorial - Happy honeymoon, Michael 3

Mary Riddell - Blackadder bites back 7

Stewart Purvis - And finally? Not quite yet 15

Starting out

Elizabeth Day - Why women love journalism 21

Samuel Pecke - Local heroes 26

George Melly - The jazzman cometh 31

Mike Jempson - Clearing up our own backyard 36

Jackie Errigo & Bob Franklin - Surviving in the hackacademy 43

J M Wober - Top people write to The Times 49

Tessa Mayes - Here is the news-as-views 55

Bill Hagerty - Still on the waterfront 60

Ian Mayes - Trust me — I'm an ombudsman 65

Will Wyatt on Simon Rogers 71

Charles Perkins on Jayson Blair 74

Bernard Shrimsley on Toby Moore 77

Nicholas Jones on Andrew Blick 79

Patrick E Tyler on Tom Rosenstiel 82

Alastair Brett on Joshua Rosenberg 85

  It was my first job interview and I had the hiccups. I tried everything to make them go away. I held my breath to the point of nausea. I asked people to frighten me. I drank water backwards, my head lolling between my knees. I did a series of ill-advised deep-breathing exercises in the manner of a yogic guru. That only made the hiccups worse. In the end, I pumped myself full of black coffee and attempted to memorise the finer points of the Northern Irish peace process, and where I wanted to be in five years time, in a bid to sound uber-employable. A kind colleague, sensing my terminal edginess, took me to one side. “Don't worry,” he said cheerfully. “He likes tall women. You'll definitely get it.” The hiccups came to a miraculous stop.

I did get the job. Whether it was my height or my gender that swung it for me, I suppose I will never know. I was asked about the Northern Irish peace process and I was seated throughout, so perhaps the pros and cons ultimately evened themselves out. In any case, my interviewer – Max Hastings, then editor of the Evening Standard – must have thought I was all right and gave me, fresh out of university, a job on the paper's Londoner's Diary.

I never consciously felt that being 5ft 11ins was a career asset but I realised that being a woman probably was. The kinds of things I was being asked to do – schmooze celebrities at book launches, film premieres or gallery openings – were somehow easier to get away with if you were a woman. A strange man who wandered up to you at a party and started asking all sorts of intrusive questions would be dismissed as lecherous or psychopathic, whereas, in a woman, the same traits were generally seen as out of the ordinary and rather charming. I often found that the best way to hear some of the juiciest gossip was to stand in the corner looking surly and unimpressed. Sooner or later, someone was bound to come up and start a conversation along the lines of: “You look very bored so I thought I'd come over and cheer you up.” It seemed to me that a woman standing alone at a party was deemed in need of rescuing, but a solitary man was seen as louche and enigmatic. And, as I was tall, I suppose I was more noticeable. So maybe it does make sense to hire tall, female, diary journalists.

More recently, however, I came to realise that it is not just diary journalists who are increasingly female. At the British Press Awards in March, I was both stunned and honoured to be given the Young Journalist of the Year prize for my work as a news reporter on The Sunday Telegraph. Of the six nominees I was up against, five were women under the age of 26. (I was not able to evaluate their height as the ceremony brochure featured only their headshots.) None of the other, more established, awards had the same shortlist composition, suggesting that a new generation of women journalists is beginning to edge into the public consciousness. Now, more than ever, it seems that the future of journalism is female. So given the old Fleet Street stereotype of boozy, school-tie chauvinism, refined over a long lunch at El Vino, what is it that now attracts so many young women to print journalism? And what makes young women such attractive prospects to newspaper employers?

New breed of journalist

I think the answer to this lies in the most noticeable shift in print journalism over the last decade: the trend towards celebrity news. In a progressively secular society, celebrities have become our new spiritual icons to the extent that even the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to draw parallels with Footballers' Wives. With the launch of heat magazine and the incredible success of the Mirror's 3am Girls, the door has been opened to a new breed of female diary journalist.

Whereas previously the diarist was synonymous with well-connected, middle-aged men with waspish tongues, such as the Daily Mail's Nigel Dempster or the Express's Peter Tory, the 3am Girls are the scribes of a new kind of fame. With reality television, celebrity has become equitable. The old currencies of royalty, aristocracy and politics can no longer compete with the sexy Technicolor lives of pop idols, footballers or soap-stars. Who better to infiltrate this fast-paced world than a glamorous young woman, with the intelligence to use her feminine wiles? Celebrity gossip is a more extreme aspect of diary schmoozing and a watered-down version of the honey-trap. In both, women are able to capitalise on their assets to get a good story. Given that the readership of the gossip pages is mostly female, it also makes sense to employ women who know what other women want.

“In the same way as women sometimes respond better to male interviewers, so men often respond better to female journalists,” says Ruth Hilton, the 26-year-old showbusiness and media editor at the Daily Express. “I think women can be cooler under pressure and maybe people wouldn't expect someone who is fluttering her eyelashes to stitch them up. Also, I think one reason people are attracted to showbiz journalism is because the image has become that it's all just parties, clinking champagne glasses with celebs and fun, fun, fun. Sadly it's not the case. The do's would indeed be brilliant fun if you didn't have to work at them. On the most basic level, if you are a good-looking girl with a showbiz column and you're trying to get into a party guarded by male bouncers, then you'll probably have a higher success rate.”

While Hilton became the youngest national newspaper section editor when she got the job at 23, the 3am girls have remained the neo-platonic ideal for celebrity journalists. They embody a quintessentially female quality of sassiness, but mixed with a tabloid instinct for what makes people buy papers. They have become so ubiquitous that Vanity Fair did a several page profile on them, thereby turning them into the kind of demi-celebrities they write about.

The column has spawned several pale imitations – the re-launched Bizarre pages in The Sun, penned by Victoria Newton, and the less salubriously named The Bitches in the Daily Star. With such high-profile female role models in prominent positions on national newspapers, it is unsurprising that a growing number of girls are growing up wanting to share the glamour of celebrity journalism.

Of course, there were also some very strong role models for my generation. At my all-girl secondary school we were frequently asked which person in public life we most aspired to. More often than not the answer was Kate Adie. For an impressionable teenage girl, Adie was the living proof that a woman could succeed in a man's world. Not only had she pursued a career in reporting in an era when it was far more difficult for a woman to be recognised, but she had chosen the most masculine form of journalism as her metier: war reporting. The television films of Adie in a flack-jacket, her voice curiously calm for someone surrounded by sniper shots, had an undeniable impact on me and my contemporaries. The impact was all the more powerful because, growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, there were not that many female role models who had reached the apex of their profession so visibly – with the notable exception of Margaret Thatcher. It was not so much that there was a lack of strong, successful and aspirational women to look up to; it was simply that Kate Adie, through her frequent television appearances, became part of our cultural consciousness.

The fictional female journalists we grew up with further heightened this consciousness. Two of the most popular television programmes of my youth were Press Gang (1989-1993), set in the offices of a school newspaper, and The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) starring the actress Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. In Press Gang, a young Julia Sawalha played Lynda Day, the assertive, yet slightly stroppy editor of the Junior Gazette. She was perpetually wooed by Spike, a wise-cracking American student, but was always far too busy being a proper journalist launching important campaigns to prove that the school was corrupt. To my 11-year-old eyes, Sawalha seemed to be the epitome of cool. There was something ineffably glamorous about turning down the class heart-throb to concentrate on your journalistic vocation. Similarly, Lois Lane ended up getting Superman, but without compromising her career as ace reporter for the Daily Planet or her perfectly coiffed hair and tailored business suit.

Women's empathetic qualities

There were also contemporary cinematic examples of self-assured female reporters. In Crocodile Dundee (1986) for instance, a gorgeous blonde journalist with no fear of reptiles braves the Australian bush in search of a scoop. She ends up getting the story and the man (although definitely in that order). It might sound trivial, but growing up with this kind of cultural shorthand, a young girl was likely to equate journalism with success, self-assertiveness and nice clothes. I know I did. Luckily that opinion evolved somewhat before I actually became a journalist. Otherwise, I would be stalking around The Sunday Telegraph offices with shoulderpads and a pencil behind my ear looking for Paul Hogan.

Apart from Lois Lane, I was also attracted to journalism simply because I love writing. If the higher percentage of girls studying arts subjects at Alevel is anything to go by (approximately two girls for every boy are taking English at A-Level), it appears many other women share that predisposition towards written analysis and expression. It is difficult to say why this should be without veering into stereotype, but women are meant to have empathetic qualities that enable them to assess and incorporate the subtleties of other people's arguments into their own. Perhaps this heightened sensitivity is what makes certain women exceptional interviewers or gifted colour writers.

But stereotypes are not particularly useful. Indeed, many women are attracted to journalism precisely because they relish the chance to compete in an aggressive, male environment. On the other hand, there are also women who have capitalised on the increasing trend towards lifestyle journalism to become cookery writers, interiors experts or first-person columnists detailing the minutiae of everyday life. And with the rising accessibility of mobile technology enabling a journalist to write from home, having a child is perhaps now less of a career disadvantage than it used to be.

Whatever the reasons behind this trend, the results can only be positive. As more of us make our careers in journalism, there will be further opportunities for other young women. Eventually, we will be able to say we are no longer a phenomenon, but a normality. Whether as a 3am girl, a war reporter or a Lois Lane, journalism can be a rewarding, brilliant and challenging profession. Aged 25 and still 5ft 11ins, I truly cannot think of a better career.