On December 10, 1990, Geneva Overholser spoke to a gathering of Gannett executives. At this dinner, she was presented with an award as Gannett’s Editor of the Year. At the time, she was editor of The Des Moines Register. Overholser now writes for The Washington Post Writer’s Group. Excerpts from her remarks follow.
…Gannett, I am proud to say, is a risk-taking, history-making company. When all other newspaper companies were solidly fitted with blinders that kept them from seeing anything but the old traditions, Gannett launched USA Today—and remade the face of American newspapers.
And, while everyone preached but no one acted as to how white and male our newspaper staffs were, Gannett put its policies where its mouth was—and remade the shape and complexion of American newsrooms.
Well, here’s my dream for the next risk-taking, history-making endeavor: Let Gannett show how corporate journalism can serve all its constituencies well in hard times. As we sweat out the end of the ever-increasing quarterly earnings, as we necessarily attend to the needs and wishes of our shareholders and our advertisers, are we worrying enough about the other three? About our employees, our readers, and our communities?
I’ll answer that: No way. And we’re not being honest about it. We fret over declining readership and then cut our newsholes so that we have insufficient space to do the things we know readers like.
We fret over a decline in service to our customers and then pay reporters (and others throughout the company) wages that school districts would be ashamed of. (That’s one way to make sure we’ll have fewer men and more women in the newsroom, I’ll tell you.) And we fret about our lack of connectedness with our communities and then cut the support that we once gave for cultural and social activities in them.
Our nation is crying out for leadership, our communities are crying out for solutions, and newspapers can help—newspapers that are adequately staffed, with adequate newsholes. But not newspapers where underpaid people work too hard and ad stacks squeeze out editorial copy.
I’m blessed to be the editor of a great newspaper, but too many people in my newsroom think the greatest years are passed, and we’re just hanging on by our fingernails. Too often by far, being an editor in America today feels like holding up an avalanche of pressure to do away with this piece of excellence, that piece of quality, so as to squeeze out just a little bit more money.
Yet we work in a business in which hard times mean a 25 percent profit margin cut to 18 percent. We need to be honest about the impact of this fact on our communities, our employees and our readers, as well as our advertisers and our shareholders.
I want to see Gannett prove that corporate journalism can serve all these constituencies just as well as family-owned newspapers did.
I say, who better than Gannett to lead the way on reinvestment in an era when reinvestment seems crazy? Who better than Gannett to prove that corporate journalism needn’t bring the ills its critics call inevitable?
I want Gannett to be the company that shuns lip service, rewards brutal honesty, and goes against the grain in hard times. Bold, risk-taking? Daring? Foolhardy? A hare-brained idea? Naive? From what I’ve heard, they said that and more about USA Today. And now, most of its critics are copying it.