Category Archives: Leadership

Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

People will be parsing this election for years to come. Here’s one thing I know: Journalism failed us badly. Since we are going to need good journalism more than ever in the days ahead, I offer some thoughts about what went wrong:

  1. The bottomless well of Trump coverage early on. This is mostly attributable to cable, but it was true of television more broadly, and it influenced print and online media as well.

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I included this chart from the New York Times in my March 28 blogpost: A tough test for Journalism and the Midterm Grades Aren’t Good.

As the Times story said, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”

Of this development, CBS Chairman Les Moonves famously said: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  Here’s what else he said: “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

He did. So did they.

Continue reading Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

A terrible loss for journalism, as Gwen Ifill dies at 61

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Gwen came out to Los Angeles to receive the 2011 National Cronkite Award at USC.  The  judges (I was honored to be among them) cited her (and her co-winner Judy Woodruff) for election coverage “focusing on the issues, talking with real voters and letting the candidates explain themselves,” adding that “they avoided the horserace component that is so typical in political coverage.”

How powerful those words feel now, at this moment of loss.

 

 

 

Making Journalism Indispensable

Last week, I was part of a national conference https://sustainlocal2016.sched.org/ on journalism sustainability convened by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. Our panel was asked to begin with an overview of the state of local-news sustainability.

Having no particular expertise regarding the mix of revenue streams everyone is testing these days, I decided to focus on what I think lies at the heart of the question: the public. Whatever happens with advertising and subscriptions, events, membership or repurposing of content, I’m convinced that a key to survival will be a public willingness to support journalism. We must come to see information in the public interest as we do the arts or education – as a civic good, one we are responsible for sustaining.

This is no small challenge, since we’ve trained the public for years to believe that the news comes to them for free — or really cheap. You turned on the TV, or you plunked down your quarter for the paper, and you never really thought about the fact that advertisers were paying the bill. This means that we are going to have to make our work so important, so engaging, that people will feel they can’t do without it.

In other words, we’ve got to make our journalism indispensable. Here are a few thoughts I shared with the journalists at the conference about how to go about it:

— Be IN and OF your community.   When I started as a cub reporter at the Colorado Springs SUN, the editor and publisher wrote a column published on the front page. As a newly minted Medill master’s graduate, I found this unorthodox custom disquieting. But it surely worked for the readers, who sensed the editor’s engagement with the community. Later, when I became editor of the Des Moines Register, we kept alive the paper’s historic tradition of running our cartoon on the front page. Register cartoonists had won two Pulitzers over the years; more important, they’d won the hearts of Iowans. In particular, the Sunday cartoons, poking fun at the state and its residents, made it clear that we were all in this together.

— At the same time, we need to remember our leadership role. We are not, as journalists, just seeking to be part of the kaffeeklatsch. We are leading a conversation. I remember focus groups at the Register in which, at the end, a reader would say, “Well, you’re the editors. Help us see what you think is possible.” It’s not a return to the old top-down model that I’m recommending here, but rather engaging in ways that broaden and deepen the community, making it more inclusive and ensuring that people discover things they don’t know.

— We need to be honest about who we are and what we’re attempting to do. The hardest voice I ever had to write in was the editorial voice of The New York Times, when I served on its editorial board. People don’t respond easily to disembodied voices. Amid today’s endless debates about objectivity, I’m struck by the power of the view espoused by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. They believe that their journalists should be, first and foremost, AUTHENTIC — a quality that is essential if they are to cultivate the rich relationship with readers that the organization seeks.

— Keep in mind that HOPE may be bigger news today than disaster. In this era of cynicism and division, we need a journalism that helps people understand that solutions are possible and government can work. Journalism is supposed to provide an accurate picture of the world around us, but ours has looked pretty lopsided for years. This is not about softball questions or happy-talk stories: Good journalism creates community through a common understanding of accurate information – the good as well as the bad.

— We must remember that we are most effective when we reach people through their hearts as well as their brains. We’ve always known that good writing and powerful photography were key to our success. We have so many more tools today for engaging people and making lasting connections. Elizabeth Alexander closed her poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” by asking “…and are we not of interest to each other?” In recent years, journalism has done as much to distance us from one another as it has to connect us. Our future now may rest on our ability to correct that course.

 

One More Sexual Assault, One More Brave Woman, a Quarter Century Later

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Read it and weep  — this statement from a young woman attacked by a  Stanford freshman. Having been convicted of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious, he has now been tapped with a ruler on the wrist.

Just over 25 years ago, we published a series in The Des Moines Register  called “It Couldn’t Happen to Me: One Woman’s Story.”  I felt we were taking one strong step to move rape out of the darkness in which it flourished.  Whatever society’s pretensions against it, we seemed unlikely to act against it until we could really see it.

I knew that this seeing and even more, the acting — would require many acts of courage like that of Nancy Ziegenmeyer (the remarkable truth-telling rape survivor in our story).  And I knew that the actions would require a disorienting shift within our society — confronting the gap between what we say we condone, and what is in fact rampantly present.

But today I wept, reading this woman’s statement, to see just how far we are from closing that gap.

Why is progress on this painfully clear human-rights challenge so slow?  What is the difference, say, between progressing here, versus progressing on gay marriage?  Not that justice for gays didn’t take eons; it did, and continues to.  But, on the issue of gay marriage, from the moment when people began speaking out, began really grappling with it and openly arguing about it — from that moment, the change came with remarkable speed.

We are nowhere near that on rape — not really speaking out loudly enough to be heard, not really grappling, still not really arguing about it.  Those societal “Tsk’s” when yet another athletic program is revealed not to have taken sexual assault seriously? That’s not grappling.  That’s closer, by far, to sighing that “boys will be boys.”

This administration has tried to deal seriously with sexual assault on campus.  Countless brave women have spoken out in the years  since Ziegenmeyer refused to remain in the shadows prescribed for those who have been raped. Yet here we are, far indeed from the grappling, from the serious arguments about the need for change. Far from confronting the everyday reality, far from holding people accountable, far from forcing those opposing change to make their arguments about why this deep injustice should continue.

The only thing I can think to say is that this will change when women’s voices are heard against rape, the way gay voices were heard for marriage.  So I guess that puts me back where I was, a quarter of a century ago, believing, as I wrote then, in a column that triggered the Register series:

“I urge women who have suffered this awful crime and attendant injustice to speak out, as some are beginning to do, and identify themselves.

“Rape is an American shame. Our society needs to see that and attend to it, not hide it or hush it up. As long as rape is deemed unspeakable – and is therefore not fully and honestly spoken of – the public outrage will be muted as well.”

 

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On Rape and the Power of Speaking Out:”  I am adding today to my site a page to bring together pieces I have written and other resources on the issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rape and anonymity: A fateful pairing

 

Nancy Ziegenmeyer identifies the man who raped her. By David Peterson, from the 1989 series
Nancy Ziegenmeyer identifies the man who raped her. By David Peterson, from the 1990 series

The Rolling Stone’s indefensible University of Virginia gang-rape story felt like a punch in the gut to anyone feeling hopeful about progress against sexual assault. But hopeful I remain. This fight is (finally) too vigorous to be stopped by flawed journalism.

News and social-media coverage over recent weeks, from the serial rape allegations against Bill Cosby to reports of sexual assault in the military and on campuses across the nation, would indicate that rape is at last being recognized — as an unacceptable reality that we have accepted for far too long. A lot of people seem to have decided no longer to acquiesce in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of folks poised to seize on any sign that a rape claim might be false. Rolling Stone gave these folks a huge assist: A spectacular gang-rape story, almost entirely free of attribution, quickly collapsing under its own weight. Continue reading Rape and anonymity: A fateful pairing

Women in leadership in media: The conversation goes on.

The fall continued to be a lively season for the topic of women in leadership in media.  A conversation I moderated at the Society of American News Editors in Chicago proved lively and productive, focusing on the future and drawing one of the convention’s biggest crowds.

The panel came just as the fine Nieman Reports cover story on the topic was published online.

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All such conversations are greatly enriched by the comprehensive report by the Women’s Media Center, for which I had the pleasure, as a new board member, of writing the postscript, including this thought:

“The decision-makers at these news organizations are at fault. They share in that familiar human tendency to self-replicate, hiring and advancing people who remind them of themselves. But we whose voices aren’t being heard are also at fault. We too often think our views are not valuable. It’s true that the absence of our voices in the media seems to send the signal that our views aren’t valued. But we know that they are valuable. We need to try harder to make them heard.”

Where are the women?

Geneva Overholser

Photo Courtesy of USC Annenberg

Geneva Overholser

Former editor, The Des Moines Register

There’s a welcome, thought-provoking look at the paucity of women in leadership in media in the new Nieman Reports, Why so few women in media leadership?  The American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Managing Editors will be mulling the same question next week at a panel I’ll moderate at their joint convention in Chicago.

I’ve long felt that one change, among many, that newsrooms will have to make is to reframe their pinched notion of “diversity.”  Here are my thoughts from the Nieman article:

The newsroom culture desperately needs to shift from the old “We journalists know news, and it looks like this, and that’s what the public has to get” to a new ethos: The public is no longer just sitting there receiving the “wisdom” produced by our narrow conventional definitions of news. We need to figure out how to serve the myriad interests of our fast-changing communities. The best allies in this new ethos are people who themselves have had varied and differing life experiences. When this new ethos takes hold, then people of different economic and educational backgrounds, different ages, genders, ethnicities, become the “experts.” To date, we’ve dutifully sought to hire “different” folks but then forced them to conform to the reigning ethos. This isn’t comfortable for anyone. If men are forcing themselves to speak less but really don’t believe that others have more to say, it won’t work. Everyone needs to believe that LISTENING to people who have views other than their own is more important to the newsroom than ensuring that their own wisdom prevails. Newsrooms are allergic to cultural conversations like this, but they really are essential. Folks have to quit thinking of diversity as a wearisome duty and start understanding it as a key to success, an exciting prospect, the only way to win in the future. And it turns out that, for most people, it’s a lot more fun to work with a wider assortment of folks.

 

 

 

 

Hey, Silicon Valley: You oughta have old journalists (like me) on your boards!

 

I loved doing this interview with the wicked-smart and delightful Ruben Sanchez, just out in Skyword.com’s Innovator Series.  Reading it over, I realized that one of the ideas I mentioned to Ruben is something I wanted to develop a bit, so here goes:

In all immodesty, the cool, bristling-with-ideas folks planning startups are overlooking an opportunity:  They should be putting old journalists (yes, like me) on their boards. Google “why startups fail,” (see here, here and here for just the first three examples I saw) and you’ll get my point.  Veteran journalists have skills that counter common startup plagues.

Take the single-minded commitment of one leader: It may be a criticall thing for a startup, as far as it goes.  But listening mostly to yourself is a problem.  Run your thoughts past folks who have served the public interests in many different ways over a long period of time, and everyone is likely to learn something.   Same with one very narrow idea — enrich it by regularly subjecting it to discussions with those who have long experience with life, and enhance its staying power.

Management weaknesses are another challenge.  Anyone new to this arena could benefit from the counsel of those who have found solutions over years of management challenges.

Veteran journalists know how to picture the people they are trying to reach.  They know how communities function and what strengthens or weakens democracy. They know how to write, edit, verify, curate. And, stubborn and passionate as we are, old journalists can help by bolstering your tenacity and passion when those are flagging.

Silicon Valley is famous for its lack of gender and ethnic diversity. Both of these lamentable facts decrease startups’ chances of success in our ever more diverse society. Here’s another lack that weakens them. Journalism has made plenty of mistakes over the past few years. Why not benefit from what we’ve learned from them?