CAMP 2013: Fran Lewine interview featuring Geneva Overholser (VIDEO)

By 2013 JAWS Fellow Caitlin Huey-Burns

Edie Lederer interviewed Geneva Overholser, longtime newspaper editor and former director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Here are some edited highlights of Geneva’s answers.

On writing: I think of myself of having fallen in love with journalism more than writing. When I was in junior high school, I was editor of the Richland Raider. I knew I wanted to do it.

Choosing a journalism career: My senior year in college, the guy I was dating said what do you really want to do? I said be a reporter. An editor at the Boston Globe told me: “listen here girlie you better go carry coffee for a news organization or go to a damn fine journalism school.” Northwestern gave me money so I went there. It was a summer program, and then a full academic year… Chicago was a great news town.

What were you thinking of in terms of jobs? I sent out 40 applications. The only offer I got was to be a women’s editor in Arizona. I was about to accept this job. The night before I got my degree, I got a job offer as a general assignment reporter in Colorado.

And what was that like? I was only on general assignment for two weeks, then the cops reporter left. The cop in charge wouldn’t let me look at the records because he said “there’s rapes in there.” [Eventually, she was able to, with the urging of her editor.] Then I moved on to city hall really quickly. It was a wonderful moment in history in Colorado Springs.

You then left Colorado? My first husband was determined to go to Africa. It was really tough for me because I loved my work. I got married and I went to Kinshasa. I thought I would freelance. I became the school librarian. We lived there for two years, traveled for six months in Africa in a VW. My husband got a teaching job in Paris. We decided we wanted to have a child, and the freelance was a lot better there.

As editor of the Des Moines Register: It was a great honor. Geneva spoke about some of the most interesting and impactful stories published during her tenure, including a series on gays in Iowa and a series on rape.  “Pioneering. Deeply felt. Photos that were totally out there… We covered the flood in 1993, and ran a headline: And on Day 12, We Flushed.”

Leaving the Register: Being an editor, the whole point of your existence is to make life better for the people who work for you. Like conducting a wonderful orchestra. Hummed. With the profit pressures growing, though, I couldn’t continue to create a situation where people could do their best work…. I was paralyzed by a number of things…I kept being asked to do things I couldn’t bear…every budget sessions felt terrible.

As a member of the New York Times editorial board, how is that writing different from reporting? It was very, very different. I found it easier at the Register than NYT. Trying to write in institutional voice is pretty much a style killer. At the Register I wrote on so many different things, I got to know the city and the state.

Geneva’s Advice:

On Hiring: Don’t self replicate. Think about people different from you.

The work-life balance: If you want to have children, find a really supportive partner. One thing I do like that Sheryl Sandburg said, we are too willing to turn down things because we might have a child….don’t leave until you leave.

Being a woman in journalism: “I’ve definitely been underestimated as a woman, but I came to people’s notice because I was different, too.

On feminism: The work that I’m proudest of combined journalism and feminism…really speaks from your soul, feels a little risky.

Watch the video by Macrina Newhouse.