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Newseum CEO Charles Overby is optimistic about the future of journalism

Luisa Majnoni d'Intignano, Washington International School
October 25, 2010


In an era where old journalism models are failing, journalists worldwide are asking themselves: what is the future of print papers and where is technology going to take the profession? Are we going to lose the journalism we know? Charles Overby, CEO of the Newseum and of the Freedom Forum, also contemplates these concerns and acknowledges that USA Today is reducing its staff by 9% and Fox News will cut its salaries by 5%, as the organizations announced in August and September, respectively. Nonetheless, he has a positive outlook on where journalism is headed and embraces modern developments, such as the seemingly endless flow of iPhone news applications.

Prior to his work at the Newseum and Freedom Forum, Mr. Overby worked as an editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi and was a reporter, editor, corporate executive and vice president for News and Communications at Gannet Co., the nation’s largest newspaper publishing company. He has also served on the USA Today management committee.

Experiencing first hand how influential journalism can be, Mr. Overby won the Pulitzer Prize Public Service Award in 1983 for a news and editorial campaign on education reform in Mississippi while he was working for the The Clarion-Ledger newspaper, where he began his career. The campaign resulted in legislature passing a comprehensive education reform that allowed the rebuilding of schools, classroom restoration and instated public kindergartens, which the state of Mississippi did not have. “We did it honestly without any thought ever of the Pulitzer prize. We just new that there was this bad situation after the stories came out the public really got in behind the need to improve education. It was probably the biggest thrill of my journalistic career not the Pulitzer Prize but the passage of that education reform,” he said.

Mr. Overby has helped shape the future of journalism for three decades, and though he began his career in print, he embraces television and the Internet as useful platforms that allow for the instantaneous broadcasting of news.

"People have always wanted to get their news as quickly as possible,” he said, remembering the ancient legend from which the term Marathon originates, when a Greek soldier ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens without stopping in order to inform his troops the Persians had been defeated. “He could have walked, but people wanted the news, and that’s the way it is now,” he said from his distinctive office, overlooking the US Capitol.

Advances in technology and the timeliness of news, however, are not the only new characteristics of contemporary journalism; Mr. Overby pays great attention and appreciates the “amazing evolution of both racial and gender equality” throughout his journalistic career. This continuously growing diversity has opened new doors, providing reporters innovative story ideas as well as a varied pool of people to interview.

“My experience is that when you have a newsroom that’s made up mostly of white men, that their sources tend to be white men,” said Mr. Overby. In this situation, vast amounts of news are overlooked and not covered as a result of newsrooms that do not represent their readership.

Now that countless new opportunities are emerging in the journalism world, Mr. Overby expressed with a smile that, “I think it’s a great time to be a young journalist,” highlighting that “the good thing about young people is they are prepared for change. They’re not anchored in just the past.” Not wanting students and young adults to lose the enthusiasm which motivates them to become journalists, he recalled how his interest in the field was spurred in tenth grade, where after the second day of journalism class he turned to a friend and said, “if they pay you to do this, this is what I’m [going to] do.”

Despite his confident optimism about both rising journalists and technology, it cannot be overlooked that journalists today must face the practical issues surrounding the 24-hour news cycle. Writers no longer have all day to write a story, as they often did when Mr. Overby began his career. Now they post their articles on the Internet in real time and allow the public to read about news on the day, or even the hour, of its occurrence.

Working for an afternoon paper, “if a story happened after 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning I had all day to work on the story,” he said. As news reporters no longer have this leisure and focus their attention on a much narrower time frame, they are required to “be able to turn things around faster, [which] puts a big challenge on accuracy, fairness [and] balance.”

According to Mr. Overby, the concern surrounding these recently developed difficulties and the ability to maintain of high standards for the quality of reporting, writing and news itself can be solved by one word: editors. Although we are in an age of cutbacks and opinion-based blogging, no matter what, the general public will always have to receive its news from a reliable news source supervised and permanently under the careful watchful eye of an editor-in-chief. If even Mr. Overby, who has won a Pulitzer Prize and has been editor, journalist and on the management committee of numerous newspapers, still needs someone to read over his written work before it is published, then editors are not going anywhere, because everyone needs them.

Editors, however, are not enough; every news station still needs strong and skilled reporters to capture its stories. In order to undertake the journalistic changes at hand and produce the necessary capable writers, Mr. Overby encourages young journalists “to have as much curiosity as possible of as many things as possible at a young age and to write as much as possible. The more you write the better you are, the better reporter you are, the better journalist you are. So ask questions and write.”

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