Written by Geneva Overholser on September 25, 2010.
We introduce our next guest blogger of our monthly series on the 25th of every month, in celebration of our 25th anniversary this year, Geneva Overholser, director of the U.S.C. Annenberg School of Journalism.
Geneva Overholser is director of the U.S.C. Annenberg School of Journalism. She is former editor of the Des Moines Register, ombudsman for the Washington Post and editorial board member of the New York Times.
As the director of a Journalism School lucky enough to include a distinguished and growing department of strategic public relations, I’m struck by the many similarities in the ways our two fields – journalism and public relations – are experiencing today’s fast-changing times. Since I figure we need all the help we can during this Time of Unsettlement, I thought I might share with the blog’s readers my top five thoughts to keep in mind amid the change. They’re journalism-based, it’s true, but I hope you might find them helpful as we confront the many (similar) opportunities and challenges before us. And hearty congratulations on your 25 years!
1. It’s about the public. Change is hard, especially when the good old monopoly days were so generous to journalists. Still, how well journalists’ 401k’s are doing and whether we get to wear the fedora with the press pass is not the primary question. Rather, it ‘s whether or not the public is going to continue to get a high-quality flow of reliable information. When you cast your eye in this direction, the terrain still looks scary, but it also looks wide open and far more promising. And those good old legacy journalists will still, I’m betting, have a powerful role to play.
2. Traditions aren’t what matter; principles are. Here’s an example: I fought with all my might, when I was a newspaper editor, to keep ads off the front page. Now I’d welcome them hungrily – though I’d want to be sure they weren’t designed to deceive anyone. Ad-free front pages were a tradition; being transparent with readers is a principle. Other traditions? The inverted pyramid. The ink-on-paper platform. Paying little attention to what readers have to say. These, we must remember, are not the heart of the matter. Verification, transparency, proportionality, and comprehensiveness: These are what count.
3. Collaboration and participation are the future. Those who partner with others, link to others, aggregate the material of others, concentrate on what they alone can do best and point their news consumers to those who can offer them the rest – that’s what’s coming. Those who participate and collaborate are likeliest to thrive.
4. The good old days had their problems. We left out wide swaths of the community – the poor, people of color, most folks (for that matter) who weren’t in power or hadn’t done something criminal. As we journalists became more and more comfortable, we began to lose track of the old responsibility to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Moreover, our content was too top-down driven, and we tended to get stuck in conventional thinking.
5. We can do it BETTER this time. The people formerly known as the audience want to be (and are!) part of creating information in the public interest now. Helping them become better informed about how to do that (news literacy is key) will make our work ever richer, and our democracy ever stronger.