Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Press Releases: Gender confusion?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Press Herald watchers have long since tired of editor Jeannine Guttman’s roughly weekly “Editor’s Note” columns, which more often than not should be called “Painfully Obvious Self-Promotion.”

At least then we’d be warned in advance about the rewritten corporate memos that Guttman passes off as her thoughts on the news business and running the paper. Take as an example her January 27 quote from a middle-level sports editor that the writers the Press Herald spent thousands of dollars to send to Arizona would “cut through the media circus that is Super Bowl week.” She went on to say those writers would bring “Maine perspective and insight” to an event on the other side of the country in which a team from another state competed for a national title.

But Guttman shows herself to be even more out of touch with reality in her latest column, “Poll Shows Gender Gap in News of Interest.” After the muddled headline, Guttman spends 1000 words (including nearly 300 words of direct quotes) summarizing a 980-word report from the Pew Research Center, and still somehow completely ignores the study’s most interesting finding.

She spends most of her space explaining why “gender differences” are the reason “newspapers offer different kinds of content sections and pages — from lifestyle to sports, from recipes to NASCAR.” That’s not entirely accurate: newspapers publish niche-topic sections as much to draw advertisers as readers.

Guttman even appears to find the major point, but then skips over it — twice. She does discuss the study’s report that both men and women are very interested in breaking news and the top stories of the day — including topics such as the presidential campaign and the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. But she treats that idea as an aside, going on to highlight more differences between what topics men and women are interested in, and from what mediums they get their news.

Even in a study attempting to delineate differences, the Pew researchers found similarities. Among the study’s lists of specific recent news stories preferred by one gender over the other were subjects in which both genders reported very significant interest: tensions between the US and Iran, tornadoes in the South and Midwest, and the recall of toys made in China.

This was a national study, so it didn’t test people’s interest in Maine’s biggest stories. It did look at general subjects, though, and found large proportions of both men and women follow news about local government, consumer issues, and the weather. The biggest gender “split” is in sports; the rest are in niche areas such as science, religion, finance, and health.

But when concluding her column, Guttman observes that the Press Herald is a “general-interest medium,” and professes uncertainty about “how to keep the content useful, valuable and newsworthy to a broad audience that includes both men and women.”

The Pew study’s road map is clear: cover major news stories, which are of very strong interest to both genders. Maybe she missed that while looking for story ideas on NASCAR or cooking.

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