The Problem with Counting

The VIDA count (vidaweb.org)

If there’s one thing the capricious media world perennially adores, it’s talking about itself. When a crop of prominent journalists including Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein, and Nate Silver broke with their employers to start new ventures in early 2014, their peers were predictably abuzz. The media world trailed the development of these independent outlets with keen interest, seizing particularly upon their new hires and growing mastheads. In time, however, commentators began to observe that for all their talk of maverick journalism, the staffs of First Look (the company that publishes the Intercept, edited by Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill) and Vox (Klein’s new online venture) looked suspiciously like the old guard they had supposedly left behind—that is to say, overwhelmingly white and male. When Nate Silver announced the newest additions to FiveThirtyEight in early March, the excited chatter around these budding ventures had begun to transform into something more pessimistic. As Emily Bell wrote in the Guardian, “The new micro-institutions of journalism already bear the hallmarks of the restrictive heritage they abandoned with such glee.”

This rumbling came on the heels of the 2013 VIDA Count, an annual release of graphs from the feminist literary-world watchdog that tallies each year the ratio of female-to-male bylines in major publications. VIDA, which presents its data in colorful pie charts that starkly illustrate the continued imbalance in gender representation in the most prestigious English-language magazines and journals, has gained steady momentum since its inception in 2009. Its mission is now familiar enough to those who work in publishing that the phrase “VIDA count” functions as an informal shorthand for the ratio of men-to-women bylines in a given volume ( as in, “Yikes, the VIDA count in our February issue was really bad.”) By making visible the byline disparity that has long lurked unspoken at major magazines, VIDA forced a much needed, if largely internecine, conversation among editors and publishers. Yet, for all the media-insider handwringing it has produced, the count seems to have changed little else in the world of literary publishing: the statistics from 2013, as many reported this year, had improved only slightly from the year before—and, in some cases, not at all.

On one hand, the growing prominence of groups like VIDA and the much-warranted criticism of burgeoning boys’-club news outlets seem to signal an increasing unwillingness to remain outsiders on the part of those who have long been excluded from the media. However, the numbers game—which is to say, the eagle-eyed focus on what percentage of writers and other employees at a given outlet are women and/or people of color—offers only an incomplete assessment of media inequality. While such statistics provide sobering reminders of the lack of diversity in the industry, especially at the top tiers, they tend to transform media inequality from a structural problem to an individual one by focusing disproportionate attention on outlets’ hiring and commissioning decisions. Few of those who chastised Silver for his mostly homogenous hires mentioned the more insidious inequalities upon which the media industry currently rests.

That publishers routinely fill their mastheads and bylines with a disproportionate number of white men should hardly come as a surprise when even getting a foot in the door of the industry requires a significant amount of capital, both economic and social. As Farai Chideya observed in the Nation last year, “The issue comes down to money. Mainstream journalism, with its endless unpaid internships, has come far from its working-class newspaper roots. Getting your start in journalism often doesn’t pay. Instead, you have to chip in to join the club.”

The subject of several lawsuits and a flurry of contentious debate over the last few years, unpaid internships continue to exist as a rite of passage in the media world, available only to those who can afford to work for no pay, sometimes for months on end. And as widespread as they remain, internships are only one part of the gatekeeping apparatus that locks working-class people and people of color out of media jobs. Demos blogger Matt Bruenig has suggested that even if all media internships were paid, the socioeconomic makeup of the industry would still look much as it does now. Highly competitive media internships, he points out, require credentials (such as a college degree, at the very minimum) that affluent applicants are much more likely to have.

Additionally, as the prestige of the organization or type of internship rises, so does the amount of social and cultural capital an applicant must possess in order to be considered for the position. As Shani Hilton of Buzzfeed has noted, “a packed résumé or nicely written cover letter isn’t nearly as useful as a recommendation from friends and colleagues, especially in an industry as insular as journalism. In some cases, applicants who don’t get a boost from networking might as well be invisible.” And Bruenig further points out, “People from high socioeconomic backgrounds, like those in media, have certain values, cultures, behavioral norms, entertainment preferences, food preferences, and so on. The ability to fit in to that culture almost certainly has an impact on candidate selection. Cultural capital is an especially insidious filtering agent precisely because it runs under the radar.”

In other words, the deck is stacked high against the economically disadvantaged long before the point in their careers where they might become viable candidates for hire at FiveThirtyEight or the Intercept. While conscientious affirmative-action hiring would certainly help, especially at the entry level, the media commentariat’s “good dog/bad dog” approach to examining the diversity of new journalism outlets points the finger at individual hiring decisions rather than at the deeply exclusionary pay-to-play requirements of media jobs at the ground level. Furthermore, simply citing the number of people of color or other marginalized groups at a given publication can reproduce a kind of feel-good liberal multiculturalism that eschews the radical restructuring of unequal institutions in favor of simply increasing diversity at the top.

Counting bylines at best only scratches the surface of the gendered power imbalance within the media.

This problem of misdirection also underlies the mission of VIDA, whose annual counts assess only the number of women’s bylines that appear in select publications and not, for example, how much or whether these women are paid for their work. This focus on representation and the positioning of women’s bylines as the litmus test for a publication’s commitment to “gender equality” certainly addresses some real disparities, but it obscures a number of the gendered material inequalities that structure the publishing industry. The massive pay gap between men and women in book publishing is one notable example. Though the industry runs on the labor of women, who make up 76 percent of its workforce, women in publishing earn only 65 percent of what their male counterparts do on average. Perhaps more insidiously, women also constitute over three-quarters of the ubiquitous shadow army of unpaid interns—a labor force on which VIDA itself ironically depends to produce its annual graphs.

Counting bylines, in other words, at best only scratches the surface of the gendered power imbalance within the media. At worst, it advances a literary version of what Sarah Jaffe has called “trickle-down feminism,” or a liberal interpretation of equality that concerns itself with the smashing of the glass ceiling for a privileged few rather than seeking to redress the exploitative labor practices that affect far more women in the literary world. While VIDA has stated that it “believes in the importance of intersectionality,” its singular focus on “women” with little regard to the racial and class distinctions within that enormous category feels inadequate at a time when many feminists are examining the ways in which some women’s concerns are privileged above others’ and allowed to stand in as universal issues.

More troubling still, VIDA’s focus on a select handful of “top” print publications overlooks some significant and rapidly growing efforts to circumvent legacy media barriers. By analyzing only the print venues it describes as “widely recognized as prominent critical and/or commercial literary venues ”—a subjective criterion that somehow filters out high-circulation “women’s” publications like Elle, Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harper’s Bazaar—VIDA paradoxically reinforces the legitimacy of a male-controlled canon of prestigious publications at a time when new independent journals are thriving outside of this sphere, both online and in print. Though official VIDA counts have yet to be performed on publications like the New Inquiry or Los Angeles Review of Books, the ratios of women-to-men contributors in many of these new outlets are far less lopsided than the count at the notoriously male-heavy New York Review of Books.

As a tool for evaluating the egalitarianism of the media, the numbers game often falls short, substituting a politics of shaming for a politics of redistribution. As political theorist Adolph Reed warned in his recent Harper’s essay, if the left abandons serious calls for economic justice in favor of tepid attempts to simply make historically marginalized groups more culturally visible, “we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than a desiccated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, handwringing, administering, and making up ‘Just So’ stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity.” And the media doesn’t merely reflect the power structure of our society—it functions as a vital component of that very hierarchy. Increasing “diversity” in the top tiers of the establishment should not serve as an end goal in itself, but as one small step in creating a more politically responsible media.

As with electoral politics, our efforts to change the dynamics of the media must abandon the notion that simply ushering more women and people of color to the most prestigious perches will be enough to challenge these deeply unequal institutions. Moving beyond superficial umbrage over the overrepresentation of white men will require putting aside the numbers game in lieu of a thorough investigation of the exploitative labor practices and material inequalities on which the media’s very operations are predicated. Even if what VIDA and other media insiders envision as a “diverse” industry comes to fruition, without the dissolution of the concealed mechanisms that enable only the ruling class to guide its trajectory, the media will simply be playing the same old game.


Jennifer Pan is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine.