Credit: Courtesy of Eleanor Mills (above) founder and editor-in-chief of Noon

2021 will be in part remembered by two events. One is the Oprah Winfrey's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in which the royal couple claimed that the British tabloid press was 'racist and bigoted'. The second was a statement from The Society of Editors (SoE), a major UK media industry body, refuting this claim.

This sparked a national conversation about racism and diversity in the British media, where journalism academics and news publishers alike piled into the debate, largely condemning the statement. Next up, a car-crash interview with then-executive director Ian Murray on BBC News, which led to him resigning from his post after widespread criticism for maintaining the SoE's stance.

Two months later in May, a fresh diversity report by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) confirmed what the critics were saying: the British press does have a diversity problem and this can lead to biased coverage. The headline finding was that 92 per cent of the British press is white and 89 per cent hold a university degree. In short, the British press is pale and privileged. In August, SoE gave into pressure and withdrew the statement.

Someone else caught in the storm was Eleanor Mills, an industry veteran with 23 years of experience in The Times and The Sunday Times in various editor and director roles. She quit her position as an SoE board member in March following the controversial statement. In a widely shared LinkedIn post, she said this was because a "robust rebuttal" from the organisation had not materialised.

Mills, who spoke at our recent Newsrewired conference, also chairs Women In Journalism (WIJ), an organisation that supports women journalists through research, mentoring and events. A WIJ research found that during one week in July 2020 - when the Black Lives Matter movement was in full force - not a single front-page story was written by a black journalist. Just six of the 174 stories were written by BAME journalists.

This echoes her own experiences of feeling outnumbered as a woman in a newsroom starting out in journalism in the 90s and working up the ranks into more senior positions.

"I know what it's like to be the only woman in the room," she says. "I have had many conversations with many black journalists about being the only black person in the room and how alienating that can be and difficult to speak up and challenge editors."

Because newsroom teams do not reflect the makeup of society, harmful editorial choices happen. Mills cited the much-criticised "Legs-it" front page run by The Daily Mail in 2017, which prompted outrage for focusing on the appearance of the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and then-British Prime Minister Theresa May, instead of their competence ahead of a critical political meeting about Brexit.

"If you think that no matter how powerful you are, you are only going to be judged on your appearance, that is a terrible lesson to send out to women. I have two teenage daughters myself and I certainly don't want them to think that's all society thinks about," Mills said.

"Those kinds of distortions are what I mean by a male lens and how the media behaves," she continued, adding that these mistakes happen when there are not enough different points of view in the newsroom.

Catering to forgotten audiences

The digital space offers a meaningful alternative to newsroom teams. Mills launched a digital publication this year called Noon, aimed at the 'forgotten demographic' of women in midlife. It wants to tackle the intersection of ageism and sexism because women disappear from the mainstream media when they hit their mid-40s.

Noon is another example of how understanding unmet audience values or needs can be the springboard for new business ideas. The website is full of inspirational stories of women who are rediscovering their purpose later in life and challenging media perceptions. Without a publication to cater to women in midlife, they are left to feel that they are unable to fulfil their dreams and ambitions. Mills describes the response to Noon so far as "relief" for women to be finally seen and served.

“It matters not just for the women themselves as they hit midlife, but also for all the women who are coming up behind them," she added.

"That matters because if we live in a society, which again, is only judging women on how attractive they are through a particular male lens, then we miss the inherent value of the women themselves, what they can bring to life, what their purpose is, what their legacy is, all those other incredible qualities that they bring."

She warned that newspapers will become irrelevant to audiences if they do not cater to all parts of society. Talented diverse journalists, too, will avoid working for them because social media and digital media platforms offer viable opportunities if they feel they do not belong to the newsroom.

"That is chipping away at the mainstream media," she continues, describing a past industry where newspapers were once at the centre of everyday culture, bridging politicians and celebrities with the rest of the world. That is no longer the case.

"There's a huge opportunity for people in the niche to say: 'you're not reflecting the conversations I want to have, we can set up our own thing'.

"There's a real sense that the whole media model is up in the air now. If you can find a niche and serve it well, you can often win yourself more eyeballs, interest and thought leadership space than you would expect. That's an interesting model for anyone from gal-dem to Noon who are fracturing off different audiences."

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