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?

 

 

What Makes a Good Editor?

The wonderful Mario Garcia graciously included me today in his list of good editors he has known.  When he asked me for my own thinking about what drove me as an editor, I said what I’ve always felt:  That your main job is to make everyone else’s job go better.  Another ingredient occurred to me yesterday, when I had lunch with a friend who told me that someone had once called her “the toughest nice person” he knew.  Definitely another good qualification.

An Early Read on Baquet as New York Times Leader

In the swirl of the Jill Abramson firing, a couple of things being said about the new executive editor, Dean Baquet, didn’t sync with my impression of him. I looked back at this video of a forum I hosted at USC Annenberg with Baquet when he had just become managing editor of The New York Times, and saw why

What I had found most worrisome was Glenn Greenwald’s charge that Baquet has “a really disturbing history of practicing this form of journalism that is incredibly subservient to the American national security state.”  When I looked back at the video of Baquet at the USC Director’s Forum on Oct. 27, 2011, I was struck by the fact that he had opened the session with an impassioned call for national-security reporting.

He talked about a call he got, when he was executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, from George Tenet, then director of the CIA. Tenet asked him to hold a story about the CIA, which was spying on the Iranian community in the U.S. Baquet told us that he held the story for a day so as to be able to review it, then called Tenet back and said he’d be running it.

Baquet talked to the gathering of students and faculty about other such stories, as well, including the New York Times reporting on National Security Agency surveillance. He noted that he had had conversations with folks in both the Obama and the Bush administrations on national-security issues, “and the argument is always the same.”

“But so far, not a single bit of evidence — even in the case of Wikileaks, which I edited – has emerged to prove that any of these stories has threatened national security. I’d argue that, in each case, it’s the newspaper that’s being the patriot.” Continue reading An Early Read on Baquet as New York Times Leader

It’s commencement season, and this was my message: “LEAD your own life.”

 

(This is a slightly edited version of the address I had the honor of delivering at North Carolina’s St. Andrews University.)

 

Good morning.

I want to thank President Baldasare for having me here today.

I want to add my thanks, too, to the faculty and administration of this wonderful university, who have made the fine education that we celebrate today possible. I want to salute the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and dear friends who are here to witness this momentous occasion. And, finally, the most important thing I have to say:

CONGRATULATIONS to all you freshly minted graduates of St. Andrews University! Hooray!!! Job well done! You’ve done so much hard work to get to the place where you sit today.

This is a very moving moment for me. I find myself these days in the midst of milestones: our younger daughter got married two weeks ago today. We will be celebrating my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday next month, in Charlotte. And our older daughter is due to deliver our first grandchild in July.

Equally moving to me is this: I am here, on this beautiful campus, where both of my parents taught. I got to party last night with friends I first made half a

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century ago, friends with whom I graduated from Laurinburg High School. On this campus, my brother taught me to drive a stick shift, bucking around the parking lot that was then behind the Vardell Building. And it was in that building, by the way, that I took piano lessons. (I became a pretty good driver, but not much of a pianist.)

So, this is a very powerful place for me. And today is a very powerful moment. I was deeply honored to be invited to give your commencement address, and I wanted very much to find something real and meaningful to say to you. So, amidst all these milestones, I’ve been thinking a lot about life, and how it is shaped, and what shapes it. And that’s what I want to talk to you about: The role you play in shaping your life.

In other words, I want to talk to you about LEADING your life. You know, much of the time, life leads YOU. And this is truer now than ever. My field, journalism, has surely shown me that. The constant wealth of information available, whenever and wherever you are, is an addictive distraction. Virtually every field is like journalism, in that change is coming unbelievably quickly – technological change, social change. All our lives, now, are affected by fast-paced change, happening constantly all around us.

It’s easy to get carried along in the rapids.

Continue reading It’s commencement season, and this was my message: “LEAD your own life.”

Abramson and Sulzberger: The Two Who Couldn’t Tango

The reasons for Jill Abramson’s firing as editor of The New York Times are no doubt many and complex. But one thing is clear: the editor-publisher relationship failed, spectacularly.

This classic journalistic partnership, when it works, is like a good marriage. Full of successes and challenges, warmth and tension, it requires constant open communication and full-hearted dedication on the part of both parties. Also loyalty. A good editor ensures that the publisher is never blindsided.  A good publisher ensures sufficient editorial independence to do good journalism. And a newsroom relies on believing that the two have confidence in one another.  The successful combinations are legendary: Punch and Abe, Katharine and Ben. (I learned how essential this partnership is when I was fortunate enough, as editor of the Des Moines Register, to work with publisher Charlie Edwards.)

What happened in this case, according to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is that his editor, Abramson, had to leave because of her management style. But, really: Editors are famed for being difficult.  Every journalist has stories about newsroom leaders throwing fits – or, better, potted plants. Hot tempers, arrogance, polarization:  these have practically been job requirements for editors.  I’m not saying this is a good thing.  I’m saying that it’s striking that we’d become sensitive to the unpleasantness only when a woman makes it to the top.

Actually, though, there IS cause for newsrooms to be even unhappier today than usual.  They are being made to change (though not quickly enough), and change is difficult. So, if it has always been true that newsrooms were fertile ground for anyone seeking anonymous gripes, it is even truer now. Indeed, my word to wise publishers would be to be wary today of the universally loved editor.  He’s probably not doing what you need him to do.

Of course, the editor does have a managerial responsibility to the publisher: To ensure that the staff is doing good work.  In this, Abramson seems to have succeeded. Her “management style” became a firing offense only because the editor-publisher relationship was broken.

Continue reading Abramson and Sulzberger: The Two Who Couldn’t Tango

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