How mainstream news media has ignored the rise of a new type of female reader.

One of the striking things about the recent protests against the Citizenship Act is the role that women have played, and are continuing to play. In the past few weeks, women of all ages and backgrounds have stood up to the authorities, defying stereotypes about who the Indian woman is, what she cares about, and what she wants to pay attention to – whether in a sari, a mini skirt, or while sporting a hijab.

Educating women has not been a radical idea for the middle class for a few generations now. But, until not too long ago, a woman was educated with domesticity in mind. Managing the home was still her primary role. As her aspirations changed, we entered a phase when she could seek ‘balance’ between work and home. But we still continue to define the modern Indian woman and her concerns in very narrow terms. These terms are limited to her immediate relationships, a certain set of gender-specific interests, her career (if she is working), and ways to succeed in the latter while still optimizing for perfection on the
home front.

When the definition of women in society is so narrow, it is worth taking a look at what constitutes women’s media in it. In one quick glance, you will then have a very good sense for the dominant stereotypes about women.

India’s English language media – a segment that is already focused on an elite and educated audience in this country – has not picked up on the fact that women’s horizons have broadened. Stories are still heavily skewed towards lifestyle, entertainment and, in recent times, towards a soft form of corporate feminism that is supposed to be empowering. There are also other types of overtly feminist pieces on subjects such as sexual liberation. But there is no sense that she is engaged in the world around her in a meaningful way; or that she is thinking about controversial issues such as the Citizenship Act; or curious about global developments such as Brexit.

There are reasons that more men than women are power news consumers today, personal interest and time being the most cited ones. But it may also have a lot to do with the current nature of mainstream news writing. For the most part, news articles tend to be confusingly written — crammed with excessive details and acronyms, and usually lacking in context. Reading a front page story in the paper is like joining a conversation mid-stream. It is natural to feel a bit lost.

The majority of newsrooms are still male dominated, with female reporters pushed to cover softer stories. The ones that pursue ‘harder’ ones — on the economy, politics, policies and more — are far and few in between and have to defer to male editors. Mainstream news is gendered in a way that is invisible to the people producing it.

So, what does it mean to develop a news product that addresses this gap and speaks to women? I believe there are certain elements that are key.

Tone, context and readability are the big ones, in my view. Reading a news story shouldn’t feel like homework — something that you have to wade through in order to earn the badge of being well-informed that you can then display to others. Summarizing and simplifying without dumbing it down is a craft that every news publication should master.

Although the history of news reporting in the West is just as gendered, with many conventions born out of patriarchy, the one thing they place emphasis on is readability — or on making sure that the writing is eighth grade level at most. And even if it’s the fifth story that they are publishing on a given subject, they ensure that there is sufficient context in the form of a short recap of preceding events. This is not insulting the reader’s intelligence. It is just respecting their time.

We also don’t always need to tell readers what to think or how to feel about a given issue. There is enough shaming and trolling across news and social media, currently. It is possible to inform, without suggesting that there is only one acceptable stand to take on an issue. A publication can do this without compromising on values that it forefronts. For example, feminism may be a core ideology that it supports but there are various positions and points of view that can be accommodated within it.

Women are curious about the world but this insight is not being used to develop engaging news stories. We have found that the more successful stories on our site are reflective and well-researched rather than reactive – a piece on the global garbage economy, for example, or a view into the supply side effects on the price of onions in the country.

It is becoming very challenging to find trustworthy sources delivering relevant news these days. In many ways, the move to digital has made the situation worse. Any given publication will produce several great gems on a given subject but they are hard to find because of high volumes and churn. If you are producing thirty to forty stories on the same subject within a 24-hour cycle, the information starts to splinter and it is difficult for the reader to get a clear sense of what is going on.

I believe that we will reach a tipping point over the next five to six years in terms of challenging the narrow groups that women have been slotted into. The Indian woman can be more than, and different from any of those labels. It is a paradigm shift in many ways and it’s time mainstream news media acknowledged it.

(As communicated to Viewpoint)

is Founder and CEO of Broadsheet India, a daily newsletter...