Des Moines Editor, M.E. Resign p.12

By: Mark Fitzgerald JUST LAST SUMMER, Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser was counseling a convention of investigative reporters not to despair about the newspaper industry.
"We are all kind of besieged by all the reasons to feel doom and gloom . . . . [O]n 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 . . . . Recently, it seems to me, we've gotten a lot smarter about what's important," Overholser told the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference last June.
But on a midwinter day in February, Overholser announced to a stunned newsroom her resignation as Register editor ? and a flurry of published reports immediately suggested Overholser was burned out herself by the relentless financial pressures of the newspaper industry, circa 1995.
So what changed her mind about newspapers in those eight months? It hasn't changed, Overholser said a few days after announcing her resignation.
"I feel very harmonious with that speech now. I want people to be upbeat about newspapering," she said, speaking from the Poynter Institute in Florida where she was judging an American Society of Newspaper Editors writing competition.
Nor does she feel particularly burned out, Overholser, 46, insisted.
"I don't feel weary about newspapering, and I hope I'll continue to have an impact on American newspaper journalism," Overholser said.
Nevertheless, she allowed that editing a newspaper these days is an "incredibly intense" job.
"You're constantly trying to build bridges between the business pressures ? and newspapers are a business, I realize that ? and the subscriber, who is really not the important person at the table he used to be," Overholser said.
"Advertisers don't want some subscribers and [newspapers see] subscribers as just extra newsprint ? and we know how newsprint is regarded these days," she added.
Clearly, the Feb. 13 resignations of Overholser and colleague David Westphal ? a longtime Register staffer whom Overholser appointed as managing editor when she arrived in 1988 ? has struck a chord with editors throughout the industry. (By coincidence, New York Daily News managing editor Martin Gottlieb announced his own resignation the same day.)
"The thing I can't believe is how many phone calls I got from editors who say [the position] is just an unimaginable job with the marketing pressures, the advertising pressures, the newsprint [price pressures]," Overholser said.
"It's amazing how many people have thrown their emotions into what I thought would be a specific instance," she said.
From the start, Overholser has insisted her resignation was not prompted by any single episode with the Des Moines Register or its parent, Gannett Co.
"This is not any fight with Gannett. I want to make that clear," Overholser said of the company which in 1990 and again in 1993 named her the chain's "Editor of the Year."
Indeed, Overholser said, the business pressures that are undermining newsroom coverage and enthusiasm exist at virtually every big paper and chain.
"Of course, for me, because that's where I work, it was a specific decision at the Register" that bore on her decision to resign, Overholser said.
Soaring newsprint costs have hit the Register as hard as any other paper, prompting it to reduce its news hole by about 4%.
More specifically, the paper that once prided itself in speaking for Iowa ? and circulating to every one of the Hawkeye State's 99 counties ? has increasingly focused its marketing only on Des Moines and its central Iowa surroundings.
It makes business sense, Overholser said ? but journalism will be the poorer for it.
"[Covering] the whole state means lots more stories, lots more perspective . . . . Certainly, our position as the newspaper with the best agricultural and agri-business coverage ? which I believe we have ? comes into play," Overholser said.
The Register, she said, is inevitably a different paper than the one that "just blew me away" when she first joined it as an editorial writer in 1981.
"I feel positive about the Register's future, but I do think it will be a different future. And it will need a different editor," she said.
Overholser noted, incidentally, that her 61/2 year tenure as editor was virtually the same duration as those of her predecessors James Gannon and Michael Gartner.
But the chances she will become a newspaper editor again, Overholser said, are just about nil.
"I didn't set out to be a newspaper editor, anyway. It's just that I got this wonderful opportunity," she said.
For now, Overholser says, her plans remain unsettled. She lists some possibilities: writing, teaching, running an editorial page, "going to the equivalent of a think tank.
"I've got a family, so I will be doing something. I didn't quit to go walk the beach somewhere," she said.
The widespread interest in her resignation has had one effect on plans, Overholser said: "It's been like a great help wanted ad."


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