Geneva Overholser: ‘Public Media’ or Public Interest?

[Interview conducted May 2008]

It was in the depths of 2006, with the severity of the media crisis only deepening, that GENEVA OVERHOLSER — former editor of the Pulitzer-winning Des Moines Register, ombudsman for The Washington Post, and currently director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California — issued her now-classic “On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change” sent the conventional wisdom to the recycling bin. It’s not just about Craigslist eating up classified-ad revenue. Journalists, she said, are not open to change. The public trusts them less and less. And “relentless” pressure on media companies to achieve “unusually high profit margins” quarter after quarter only deepens the quagmire.

Notable Quotes

• PUBLIC INTEREST: “One of the great things to emerge is the understanding that transparency and accountability to the public are absolute hallmarks of journalism in the public interest, the vision of information in the public interest … this means that all of us who care about journalism are reminded of the point of it (which we’ve too often needed to be reminded of). It’s not about the journalist, it’s about the public interest — arming people with the information they want and need in order to live their lives more richly and be citizens in a democracy.”

• TRUST: “People will say they do value their local newspaper or their local television station, but they generally believe the press is not as reliable as it used to be.”

• NPR & PBS: “They have their own complexities in terms of being a model; they began with the controversial question of government [funding], and that has affected them substantially, which I hope would not necessarily be true for most public media, but I think it’s important to note that they’re sort of singular in that regard. Although I think there may well be a role for government, it’s important to note that it’s complex. Also, NPR increasingly has a commercial model — they may call them sponsorships, but they aren’t much different from advertisers …”

• PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: “When they are part of a public that is being skeptical, or that is stressing the questions, then they are better. So I think having a public media, having a set of public media, having citizens who are expressing themselves, who are committing their own acts of journalism or who are demanding better journalism — [these] have a real effect of a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’”

• FOUNDATION FUNDING: “Foundations aren’t necessarily [a solution] — they may be interested in health reporting, but what if you decide when you’re doing this health reporting that you’ve come across a remarkable energy story … are you gonna hold off and then you have to go to the foundation that cares about energy? I’m mean, it’s not the way reporting can work.”


GENEVA OVERHOLSER, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Interview by Josh Wilson, May 2008What are the strengths and weaknesses of public media in the internet era?

When you say public media, do you mean media that are mostly contributed to by non-journalists? Or do you mean nonprofit? I guess you need to define public media for me.

I’m being deliberately evasive on that because different definitions are emerging.

Yeah, well, I don’t know how useful the phrase is; [but] it opens a door to what we really need to be focused on — which is information in the public interest …

Think about something like the Center for Public Integrity, which is certainly a professional, nonprofit center for investigative reporting based in Washington, doing what often looks like fairly traditional investigative reporting, but according to an untraditional economic model, basically because their financing is noncommercial.

It’s certainly producing reporting in the public interest that’s very different from what, say, is happening in the Twin Cities, where you have two struggling newspapers, one of them which had been bought by an equity investor, and you have Minnesota Public Radio, which is a really interesting model; you’ve got MinnPost, which was started by a former publisher of the Star Tribune, being backed by a bunch of investors, and mostly done by professional quote-unquote journalists who have been laid off or took buyouts from these other struggling commercial media. Then you’ve got the Minnesota Monitor [now the Minnesota Independent — Ed.], which is a nonprofit, done by a guy who’s made money — the Center for Independent Media.

Some of the things that Jan Schaffer recognizes, like that wonderful New Hampshire medium that emerged from the library in that little town [Deerfield] that couldn’t meet its information needs. So from the library came this online medium [“The Forum”] that began meeting people’s needs. I mean there are all kinds of things going on — it’s a wide, yeasty mix, right? There’s plenty of room, and there’s plenty of need — whether they can survive, of course, is the question.

What public support means is another question — I mean, you know, newspapers are publically supported too if people subscribe. I mean, when I was editing [the Des Moines Register], people would call me up: “Well, I pay for this newspaper!” They pay 20 percent, max, circulation prices. But, that’s public support.

What are the strengths or weaknesses of public media in the Internet era?

One of the great things to emerge is the understanding that transparency and accountability to the public are absolute hallmarks of journalism in the public interest, the vision of information in the public interest. Because the public are demanding this … this means that all of us who care about journalism are reminded of the point of it — which we’ve too often needed to be reminded of: It’s not about the journalist, it’s about the public interest — arming people with the information they want and need in order to live their lives more richly and be citizens in a democracy.

It means we’ve got new models that we’re launching, it means that citizens are becoming more aware of the importance of journalism as a public good. This is great! That is good for everyone. It’s good for old-time journalists, it’s good for democracy, it’s good for these emerging publications that are made up entirely of citizen contributors.

We are now talking about reliable information, information in the public interest, ethical journalism, whatever you want to call it, we’re talking about this as a public good, and that really is essential to me. In recent decades, we’ve just assumed that the journalism will be provided. It will be provided primarily by commercial media, it will be paid for by advertisers. Fundamentally, we have very little public sense of responsibility for the quality of this information or even for the continued provision of it. There was a presumption that it was just going to flow our way.

The difficulties that have originated with this presumption, and with the failures of journalism to serve the public interest, and also with commercial models collapsing, as well as with the public generally becoming less trusting of all sources of power (it’s not just journalism … there’s much less trust in everything, from Congress to big business) — all these factors mean that the public is really in the arena now, much more likely to demand higher quality journalism, and much more likely to feel they have a responsibility to help produce it. We can hope that there would be sectors of the public who are willing to pay more, and maybe get philanthropists to support the journalism as well,

We’ve seen that a little bit with Herbert and Marion Sandler [the ProPublica funders]. We’ll see more of it — but, that’s also problematic, by the way. [Laughs] None of these things are no-strings. But they’re all there.

There seems to be more consciousness of the problem of the newspaper as commercialized, as a scandal sheet, and reporters have lost a certain cachet. Yet, you just described a countercurrent, of a recognition of the importance of journalism.

Right. And I think those both — they coexist. People will say they do value their local newspaper or their local television station, but they generally believe the press is not as reliable as it used to be. So it’s really hard to know what to make of those kinds of things. But what I do see arising, I think, is a much greater concern on the part of the public about where they’re getting their information and whether their information needs are being heard. You see it now with Free Press and the media reform movement, but you also see it in the blogging movement …

So there’s a huge expectation, which is really healthy, that journalism matters, that news in the public interest matters, that public information matters, that civic discourse matters, and I think that’s absolutely terrific. It also means we’re seeing more, not always better, but more media criticism, and fundamentally that’s a good thing.

Let’s talk about the legacy of public media up to this point. Even before the Internet emerged, public media have been undergoing changes.

Do you mean NPR, or PBS?

Yeah. Not necessarily to coin a phrase — “legacy public media” …

They have their own complexities in terms of being a model; they began with the controversial question of government [funding], and that has affected them substantially, which I hope would not necessarily be true for most public media, but I think it’s important to note that they’re sort of singular in that regard. Although I think there may well be a role for government, it’s important to note that it’s complex. Also, NPR increasingly has a commercial model — they may call them sponsorships, but they aren’t much different from advertisers …

I wrote a book chapter about NPR, and I was trying to think about what were the things that really made it unique, and one of them clearly is public support. It means something, that you have to go to your news consumer and ask them for their support, and they give it to you. It was in a book that came out just recently from the University of Missouri called “What Good is Journalism?”

But the point is that I do think, yes, that that public engagement with the media and this particular legacy public media has been very important and formative. [I]t’s surely one of the reasons that NPR has been as good as it’s been, and that its listenership doubled essentially in this past ten years, although it has leveled out.

I like to believe that the explanation is part of the same reason that we’re seeing the increase in attention to what they call the British invasion — the Economist and the BBC — which are giving Americans substantial news at a time when our own for-profit media are cutting back. I think NPR is the exception to that sad truth, and it was responsive to the desires of people in communities throughout the country to receive substantial news in the public interest.

Maybe you can talk about the roles public media can take in the Internet era.

Well, I think the media are very much a part of the culture, and are affected by the culture, and we saw that after 9/11, when media were not adequately aggressive, and were not exercising the amount of skepticism we’d hope they would.

When they are part of a public that is being skeptical, or that is stressing the questions, then they are better. So I think having a public media, having a set of public media, having citizens who are expressing themselves, who are committing their own acts of journalism or who are demanding better journalism — [these] have a real effect of a “rising tide lifts all boats.”

You know, there is a wide variety of what’s happening with public engagement. We’re selling our house, so we’ve got some stuff in the basement, boxes of books and eighty long-playing records — I put them on Freecycle D.C., and it is so wonderful — so I’ve had people trooping by taking my box of puzzles, you know, jigsaw puzzles, and my eight boxes of books and my husband’s old table saw — well, that is a form of public medium.

Some of what has happened is that we have disaggregated the pieces that used to come together to make a newspaper, like the classified ads. We also would have had the celebrity news … we had the bridge column, we had the comics — it had all those things that came together and they helped support substantial news … the kind of thing that keeps a democracy going. Well now we’ve kind of disaggregated a lot of that, and reaggregating it in some other way could be part of the solution. If we’re smart we think about how we do social networking, and this Freecycle component, and delivery of the news …

It’s a really interesting time. I couldn’t be more hopeful than I am about having so much public engagement on this question of “Are we, as a democracy, getting the information that we need?”

We used to behave in the journalism world the way doctors do: “Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about what happens behind this veil” — you know — “only one of us can understand it,” which is surely no good way to provide the public with the information they need. That arrogance is over.

The high priesthood.

The high priesthood. Boy, insufferable it was, even if you were in it!

There are definitely some good folks in it, though …

Oh yeah absolutely — we can’t do without them. We’re nowhere near replacing them

Even replacing may be a little bold — reinventing, reimagining, and redeveloping …

Right, we’re doing all of those things, but nothing has yet arisen that in any way, to date, sufficiently addresses the need to have eyes on the inner working of business and government. In my view. Nothing has yet arisen that anywhere near duplicates the kind of quality, however imperfect, and quantity, of eyeballs on the public business that we need. Most people don’t have time to do that.

That bottom-line investment in reporting power. Person power. So you say nothing yet has arisen to date to replace the newspaper?

I do think the newspaper is the main engine of that kind of reporting for us in this country. In this country until recently it has been a hugely successful commercial model, and you know that really has ended. There were plenty of problems with having the decisions made by businesses that were more focused on profit than public service. But what has happened now is that they can’t even count on this profit — they’re not able pay for this journalism and what we’re struggling with now is figuring out how we’re going to pay for the information needs of the citizenry.

And we’re seeing lots of interesting experiments, but I think we have a long way to go especially before we will really and see the kind of journalism that can go up against big governments and big business. Which is really pretty daunting. It requires deep pockets and tenacity and guts and rolodexes and a lot of things —

Yeah, you need a foundation to do that.

You need a lot of foundations to do that. And foundations aren’t necessarily going to be — they may be interested in health reporting, but what if you decide when you’re doing this health reporting that you come across a remarkable energy story, well — you know, are you gonna hold off and then you have to go to the foundation that cares about energy. I’m mean, it’s not the way reporting can work.

Actually, what I meant is, you need a foundation — as in, you need a base, some sort of journalism infrastructure to stand on, as a reporter or news publisher, which is hard to find these days. But, yeah, the grantmaking foundations are not really in sync with the needs of news publishers.

Actually I do think foundations are going to have to see this as part of the public good. I had dinner with Putnam, you know Robert Putnam who wrote “Bowling Alone,” and I was talking to him about journalism as social capital. I think we need to think of it as social capital.

He was saying that?

No, I was, but he agreed with me, or he sounded like he agreed with me. I think this is the kind of thing we’re going to have to engender among foundation leaders and wealthy people in this country, and communities … you know, the Knight Foundation brought this before community foundations, which are sitting on pots of money across the country…

Yeah, Dan Gillmor made a good comment about that in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007.

Yes, exactly. That was a fine op-ed.

The thing is, as a reporter, you don’t want to be dependent on a special-interest funder …

Well, you never know what you want to be dependent on. You want to do good work, and I figure you’ll do it any way you can, as long as you’re guaranteeing your independence and keeping your eye on responsible reporting.

What are the opportunities that academics should be thinking about?

I think the academy, the journalism academy, is not doing nearly all it could do. And communities where various universities and colleges are located — you know, they could be making themselves available to the public who want to do the journalism, or want to understand news literacy better. They could be setting up organs on the Web for media criticism. There are all sorts of things that journalism schools could be doing that they aren’t doing. That’s a huge effort and the web clearly makes it much, much richer.

What are the lessons that of the Internet that public media needs to take to heart?

The Internet is a whole new frontier — it really feels like the Wild West, it has endless possibilities and endless pitfalls, and so it seems to me that when we talk about information in the public interest as opposed to everything else that is going on in the Web, we need to think about what constitutes responsibility towards the public, what constitutes the public good …

[I]n my view, that means we’ve got to think carefully about news literacy on the part of the public, so that the public can judge information. In Canada, there is a required course in news literacy in junior high and high school, in all the provinces, which is remarkable. We need to have news literacy here. That’s number one.

And number two, we need to think very carefully as journalists, and as citizens interested in contributing to or providing journalism ourselves, about what are the enduring values that need to go forward in digital media.

We don’t need dead trees, we don’t need the inverted pyramid, but … we could each come up with our own lists, [on which] we’d find truth-telling — or some close approximation to accuracy — you would find context, you would find independence from factions, or, we’d find transparency about our allegiances …

So if I’m providing information in the public interest, it doesn’t matter if I’m a journalist or not, but I need to tell you: what is my intent, here’s what I intend to provide to you; and is it without fear or favor? And it’s perfectly honorable if what I’m doing is giving you the best sales job I can on Hillary Clinton — but I need to say that to you. So transparency, accountability. And then if the public is armed with a better understanding of media; and those who provide media are intent upon being more transparent about what they do, and holding themselves accountable, then the sky’s the limit.

But, you know, Lord knows, it’s not, “Oh, now we have the Web, we needn’t worry about anything else — ”

The techno-Pollyannas.

Right, right. I’m very excited about it, though, good Lord, the depth you know, and it’s really going to reach people, and I still go talk to newsrooms, and people say, “Oh my goodness, I can’t get more than 30 inches in the paper, I guess I can always think about the Web…” Yeah! It’s amazing, the resources available to people now who want to do good work.

I like the optimism.

Yeah! I couldn’t be more excited. Of course, I’m not paid by a daily newspaper anymore.

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