Happier Days p. 20

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Des Moines Register editor sees better times at hand
as business improves and newspapers face the need to change sp.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER’S message to the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference wasn’t exactly “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but the Des Moines Register editor was clearly feeling upbeat about newspapering these days.
“We are all kind of besieged by all the reasons to feel doom and gloom…(but) on the other hand, I really feel like we’ve come through a kind of tough time when we had some simplistic solutions offered up, and we should be more hopeful,” Overholser told 1,000 IRE members gathered in St. Louis for their 19th annual national conference.
“We should be worried, obviously, about the fact that so many newspapers have died over the last 20 years. We should be worried that so many newspapers are experiencing circulation declines and that readership figures give us all sorts of unhappy news about people who don’t seem to find us necessary,” Overholser said.
“But we shouldn’t get so bogged down in all this worry that we don’t think about something I think is really true?and that is we are getting better about responding to these fears,” she added.
Overholser’s optimistic tone probably came as a surprise to the investigative reporters, who had been primed for the kind of tart-tongued presentation that has made her one of the nation’s most quoted editors. Indeed, the IRE program included a compendium of Overholser mots juste, including “Newspapers aren’t worth a damn if they don’t invade privacy.” At IRE, the tart tongue did flash occasionally ? but to articulate a somewhat different message: “We don’t need to be assholes when we call people,” she told the reporters at one point.
And while praising investigative reporters for their “fire and guts,” Overholser also urged them to “love your community.”
“We’re not out to discredit people or to sap people’s hopes. We’re out there to give them hope by giving them the tools which they need for action,” Overholser said. “If all we do is tear down, we can’t provide that vital democratic function.
“That doesn’t mean boosterish stories or Valentine editorials. It means the truth, the whole truth, assembled by tough-minded but compassionate people.”
Overholser portrayed a newspaper business with worrisome problems, but none insurmountable.
In the last two decades, she said, newspapers have swung from one extreme to another and are now finding a reasonable balance.
“For a good number of the post-Watergate years, we were ignoring declining readership and circulation. We were…generally being pretty arrogant and prideful,” she said.
And when newspapers did tumble to their increasingly parlous state, Overholser said, they overreacted for a while with “kind of mindless and formulaic and rigid” responses, including: “We’d better copy this newspaper or that one. We’d better do better with the color weather map. We’d better do the Boca Raton jump.
“Recently, though, it seems to me, we’ve gotten a lot smarter about what’s important,” Overholser said.
Consider, for example, the reams of reader research compiled by newspapers.
“When we ask readers what they want, we get good news,” Overholser said. “They want good stuff. They want compelling human stories well told. They want serious subjects reported on thoroughly.”
Research, in fact, demonstrates that the supposed differences between readers’ tastes in news and what they really need is “a fake dichotomy,” she said.
“We are really misguided when we say, ‘Why should we pander to the readers?’ Those are eminently respectable wishes readers have,” Overholser said.
She also rejected the idea that newspapers are losing young people because young people simply aren’t reading.
In fact, though, the young are devouring magazines, novels, alternative papers and “anything that comes up on their computer screen,” Overholser said.
If they are not reading newspapers, she said, it is probably because newspapers continually disparage the so-called Generation X.
“And then we wonder why we can’t reach them effectively. Young people are reading and I think if we really reflect their lives in our newspapers, I bet the chances are good they will even read us,” Overholser said.
She also said investigative reporters shouldn’t turn up their noses when their papers try to brighten up.
“People see this as dumbing-down and a threat to investigative reporting and the end of the long piece. This is just an example of the closed-minded and rather silly defensiveness of reporters, if you’ll excuse the expression,” she said.
“What I see happening at good newspapers,” she added, “is an increasing appreciation that you can tell a powerful and complex story more effectively if you plan ahead, when that is possible, and if we call upon the insufficiently appreciated…talents of layout people and artists and design people.”
On diversity, Overholser said, there can be newsroom stresses, but none that cannot be defused with a little plain talk.
“Young white men need to lament that it seems like the rules changed just when they got there. Young black women have a right to bristle at anyone’s questioning how it is they got there.”
While calling for “fearless” journalism, Overholser also urged investigative reporters not to let their healthy skepticism turn to corrosive cynicism.
And she concluded with something IRE conventions normally do not feature, a heartfelt exhortation to express, of all things, love of community.
“The readers of our newspapers should know, day to day, that we love our community,” she said.
“We should want our community to succeed.
“Now, that’s not the kind of language we like to use. . . . We’re too good at tearing things down and not too good at constructing things,” Overholser said. “Make no mistake about my meaning: We’ve got to be tough. We’ve got to be fearless. We’ve got to tell the truth.”
?( If all we do is tear down, we can’t provide that vital democratic function. That doesn’t mean boosterish stories or Valentine editorials. It means the truth, the whole truth, assembled by tough-minded but compassionate people”) [Caption]
?( Geneva Overholser) [Photo]

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