We recently learned that SBS Zela, an Australian website dedicated to women in sport, will finish up after the Olympics.
The reasons for decisions like this from any publication are far from simple and I’m not going to go into it here.
It’s left me with mixed emotions. Sadness to start with, exasperation next, and finally, fatigue. These feelings aren’t directed at SBS or the reasons the decision was made. It takes courage and conviction to back something like this to start with.
These are feelings I have when I see forum posts asking why women aren’t featured in other publications, when I see a high-quality article on women in sport receive almost zero traction on social media, and when I see skilled writers and photographers work for free because they want to contribute to this gap but can’t build a relationship with enough publications that can pay them for this work. In short, my feelings are in response to the state of media on, by and about women in sport far more broadly, and the actions from audiences in response.
I’ve worked in this space for nine years now, for a range of publications, and often for a few at once. I’ve seen so many people try to make regular, quality coverage on women in sport work.
We just lost one site, but if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose a whole lot more.
Intelligent, diverse, well-communicated coverage on women in sport is something that’s on the cusp of becoming a sustainable enterprise. But that cusp can feel like a knife edge during weeks like this, or a lightly drawn line in the desert on others. There’s no crystal ball or magic compass to know exactly where to head or the most efficient way to get there before all the supplies run out.
Readers say they want this content, but audience numbers in comparison to stories on men’s sport too often tell a different story. Beyond content on and for women in sport simply existing, I feel that readers don’t know what it should look like any more than the people who are creating it. There are so few resources compared to content on men’s sport that it can’t be covered in the same way, and nor should it be. These stories need their own voices, their own shape, and should be as various and multiple as the people who experience them.
Creating content on and for women in sport takes effort. And when success is measured in clicks, when advertising is linked to views, and media professionals need to make ends meet, it can feel like a constant fight to make these stories work.
In writing this I’m so happily aware that there are indeed stories that do work. And by work I mean people click on them, read them, like them and share them. It’s through these actions that social feeds prioritise this content and the stories find their way find their way to broader audiences.
If I turn to cycling over the last month, the announcement of Anna Meares carrying the flag at the Rio Opening ceremony was met with huge applause, as were her incredible efforts on the track. So was Chloe Hosking winning the La Course by Le Tour de France, a victory she’s since backed up with another win, on the way to her road world championships campaign.
My comments in this post aren’t concerned with the exceptions. I’m concerned about the majority. Shifting the majority has a long way to go.
How do we create household names, and emotional, curiosity-driven responses in audiences, for athletes that haven’t had the exposure of four Olympics like Meares? Or who have a trade team that puts budget into press releases and videos after almost every single event, like Hosking’s, building a narrative before one of the most broadcast women’s cycling events on the calendar?
If I scan various social media feeds during the Olympics, it seems like stories about how NOT to report on women in sport are the ones that are going viral. These articles are important, but why aren’t we sharing more of the stories that are doing it well?
This isn’t a whinge post on how hard it is to create good content, or how scarce resources are in media. This is a post to say we – the collective we of journalists everywhere, including men, who want to see this content grow – are trying. We’re trying hard. We’re asking questions, we’re looking at what others are doing, we’re watching how the landscape is changing and we’re constantly seeking out new ways to get these stories out there.
As far as cycling is concerned, I’d like to see the number of stories, images and magazine covers featuring female riders better reflect the percentage of women that participate in the sport. I’d like to see image databases have a healthy selection of recent photos to choose from. I’d like to see professional teams have enough budget to pay athletes as well as a media officer. I’d like to see the efforts of people working to tell these stories in media recognised from within the sport, along with athletes, coaches and clubs, through events such as the annual Cycling Australia awards and from companies and organisations pushing for content and advertising. And I’d like to see more publications paying their contributors a respectful wage. Too many cycling journalists support their work in this industry with a suitcase of passion and other jobs elsewhere.
For any of these shifts to exist, to reach screens, to become part of conversations, and memory, and motivation and thought, we need your support.
So what can you do?
If you think it matters that stories are produced on women in sport, you need to show that it matters.
Don’t just be glad that someone is doing it. Know that every time you click your mouse or tap your touchscreen and engage with an article, you’re casting a small but important vote.
Have a look at the Zela website and see the different shapes these articles can take. And pay attention to other sites doing a good job. Show your support by following them on social media, and experience the range of content that is and can be produced. Get a sense of what this space might look like if this kind of attention was placed on women in sport more often.
Read an article you might not have read and discover something new. Comment if you think it’s been done well or you have something to say. Share it if you think others might be interested in it or, in the current media climate and as part of this digital world we’re living in, it’s likely that no one will ever see that article, and it will die as well.
I’m not saying comment and share if it feels fake or uncomfortable. But know that every click of the mouse, or tap of the touchscreen, is a vote saying this stuff matters. It’s a vote saying you’re glad it exists. And it’s a message to content producers that it’s worth their energy, investment and time.
If you have a spare two minutes, please leave a comment at the bottom of this article, on the Facebook or Twitter post accompanying it, or send me a message here (scroll down). Share a little about what you appreciate, what you’d like to see change and/or what you’d like to see media look like in the future. Some honest feedback or heartwarming motivation go a long way too.
Comment on cycling specifically, which is where my own expertise lies, and I promise I’ll read it and, where possible, work toward that vision too. Comment on any sport and I assure you that other Zela contributors will be doing the same.
We don’t produce this content for ourselves, we do it for a diverse and discerning audience, and we so badly want to know what you want those stories to look like.
If we don’t work it out quickly, it’s not just one site that will finish up, it’s other sites and other articles that will cease to exist too. Or just continue to limp along, in the shadows of what they could be. And that, I feel, is the saddest thing of all.
Header image: Wayne Christensen