I have been trying to convince my good friend Mohsin Sayeed to write a drama set around a newsroom in Karachi in the early nineties. It would be loosely based on our experiences at our respective publications, me at Newsline and him at The News. Between us, we have so many stories to tell about love, loss, learning, friendship and life and, of course, a country slowly returning to democratic rule. I keep badgering him to write about life at an English-language newspaper before social media, when, for example, Altaf Hussain could shut the city down with a single call. And I mean on a landline.
I remain certain that the everyday stories and challenges about a team of diverse, eccentric, wildly talented but wildly awkward folks publishing a daily newspaper would interest people.
Although Mohsin and I disagree about people’s interest in such stories, we agree on one thing. We were very lucky to have the editors and environments we did back then and which allowed us the room and freedom to grow. However, given the conversations today about toxic environments in newsrooms and various inequalities, I wonder if it’s a case of looking back at life through rose-tinted glasses. There was wage inequality and fewer women in management roles in the news media then, so am I guilty of misremembering how things were?
I was reminiscing about my Newsline days one evening in January with Fareshteh Aslam who narrated how often people at The News would hang back after their work was done because of the environment. “We had fun at work,” she said, describing her work experience in the early nineties at The News where she wore several hats; cricket correspondent in 1991, then deputy sports editor and launching Instep in the mid-nineties. “There were a lot of women on all the desks,” she added, “I suspect that is not the case today and it’s reverted to being a male hub.”
Aslam began her career in journalism at the Dawn Group of Newspapers papers in 1987, and moved into public relations in 2005. She has headed her own firm Talking Points since 2016. She credits the paper’s first editor Ghazi Salahuddin, “for actually hiring women for all the desks: foreign, sports, city, national and business, which all had female subeditors (of all ages) who went on to be reporters. Backed by Mir Shakil ur Rehman and nurtured by Imran Aslam (her late husband) it was a vibrant editorial floor.”
Although we never worked together, I can relate to what she describes, having started at Newsline where I was mentored by an incredible all-female editorial team. I also understand what Aslam means when she speaks about leadership in the newsroom; how it can foster a conducive environment to create opportunities for women. Saleem Asmi did this for me at Dawn by giving me the chance to lead The Review three months into my joining. But I’m equally aware not everyone had – or have – the same opportunities. Increasingly, I am coming across younger journalists who feel they are lacking in mentors. My peers tell me they don’t have the time to teach given their workload.
“When I first entered the newsroom, computers had yet to make their way in, so things were well paced out, with enough time for rookies to learn the craft,” said Munazza Siddiqui, who started her career at The Muslim in 1995 and now works as an executive producer at Geo News.
“Nothing was rushed, senior journalists had enough time, energy and the willingness to teach. But it wasn’t the kind of teaching-learning environment we have today. Old-school male chauvinism was the norm. Harassment, gender insensitivity, glass ceiling, etc., were prevalent but never discussed. They were not even considered issues, let alone addressed. Women had to behave like men to survive those newsrooms.”
That chauvinism remains a constant. There are a handful of women in management positions; they continue to feel discrimination, whether in the disparity in pay or promotions or opportunities.
Zahrah Mazhar, who started her career at The Express Tribune in 2002 and is now Managing Editor at Dawn.com, says there are a lot of opportunities for journalists of both genders to grow and dabble in a bunch of things from reporting to editing to video to multimedia. There is a lot you can do in the digital space especially but the challenges are particularly unique to women, especially as a woman in a leadership position, although she is quick to add that it is not as rampant as is widely believed. “Your male colleagues and team members find it harder to respond to a female senior shift in-charge or senior editor. I’m not saying it’s rampant but I have experienced it as have younger journalists who have to assert themselves a little more than a man would have.”
Almost everyone I spoke to agreed that women have to deal with a whole set of challenges because of societal attitudes and newsroom demands of being flexible and mobile. They cannot travel with the same ease as their male colleagues, so it can impact their reporting, or the shifts they take on, especially when you add familial pressure that may come into play. Safety concerns are real and may explain why there are fewer women on desks – not because they don’t want to work those shifts but because often they can’t.
Mazhar also cites a perception about what beats or desks women can take on. Women should do ‘softer beats’ like the arts and culture and not so much hard news. She, in her role, proves how wrong that is – as do several other women – but the perception has not changed.
Women older than me or my peers say the opportunities to grow were plenty then, provided you were good at your work. However, some of the younger women I spoke to off the record felt otherwise. Job insecurity is a real threat. “You can be laid off at any moment,” said one woman at a digital outlet who asked not to be named. She has seen it happen to her friends at other newsrooms and says it’s almost always folks at the lower level who bear the brunt of a company’s “financial problems” and “rarely the people with connections to owners, or the boss’ favourite or foreign-degree holders.” It’s hard to substantiate this claim but easy to believe.
Is a career in the news media worth the uncertainty? After all, the media is facing major challenges, especially with so much disruption making it potentially unstable compared to say a career in banking. I will always say yes but I identify as a bit of a misfit and I think there is no better place for misfits than a news organisation. You will find your tribe here. Of course, you have to be interested in the news.
Working women journalists I spoke to also said yes but added caveats. You have to be flexible, not just about timings and desks/beats you are assigned to. You have to be curious about your surroundings and well-informed. You have to be patient. You have to make smart alliances.
“Newsrooms of the past were gender biased but a great place to learn holistic journalism,” says Siddiqui. “In contrast, today’s newsrooms are gender-sensitive but not great places to learn or teach. Without constant learning and teaching, journalism really doesn’t work. So, if women today are willing to put in extra time and effort to pursue the craft, then I would say definitely join the news media today. The environment is more gender friendly, which takes off a lot of pressure and allows women to follow their passion.”
The writer researches newsroom culture in Pakistan and tweets @LedeingLady