Geneva Overholser
Storytelling Innovator Series

Meet the Editor: Geneva Overholser

Geneva Overholser has over 40 years of experience as a celebrated journalist, and her ability to lead organizations through amazing change is clear. Geneva led The Des Moines Register to a Pulitzer Prize and ran the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism during a time when journalism was being redefined. And she has done so much more, but I think her Twitter bio sums it up best: “Old media bio, new media gusto!”

So for this interview, I turned to her as someone who has already tackled plenty of the questions that follow many writers, editors, and content marketing teams around—questions about content quality, establishing trust with readers, and building a loyal audience.

Question: Today you are an independent journalist in NYC. Can you tell me about your current work and what you want to accomplish in it?

I want to try to apply the fruits of a long career in journalism to the current discussion about change. I’m blogging mostly on journalism. I wrote about Jill Abramson, and I’ve written about Dean Baquet. I’ve written about things in a perspective from my own 40 years in journalism, but I’m also taking advantage of my archives. I’m mining my own life for commentary, as well as doing some moderating and public speaking. It’s been mostly about where journalism is headed.

When I speak about journalism today, I keep using the phrase, “Information in the public interest.” Because this is all about the public and what citizens and the people need to know to lead richer, fuller lives.

Q: Given that, can you see yourself working for a brand and writing for a content marketing program?

Yes, I definitely could see myself working for a brand if I believed in what it was doing. In some ways, the greatest thing about the current media environment is that it’s a free-for-all. Everything is possible. I think that we are testing things. I think of Clay Shirky’s wonderful comment, “Nothing will work, but everything might.”

Let every flower bloom. And corporations are going to be among the flowers. I’m for it as long as it’s transparent.

Q: Do you see a big shift in the way content is written?

The content is changing. What people like to call “voice” is far greater than it used to be. If you go back even 10 years, a news story was much more a recitation of facts in a certain order. Good writers still had a chance to do good writing, and there were narrative stories that were an exception to this rule, but generally speaking, there really was a recipe to news writing. And then it became clear that there were certain issues with this.

Jay Rosen talks about the “view from nowhere.” The reporter is not supposed to acknowledge any knowledge himself or herself. Or any view independent of what they got from sources. Now the writer is more likely to make certain assertions and not have to attribute everything.

In fact, old newspaper readers do often complain that the paper feels very feature-y today because feature stories always got to have voice.

Q: Why is that changing?

This notion that we in journalism have a perfect pitch on what is truth and that we are going to give it to you in a top-down way is all gone. Now the “people formerly known as the audience” are co-creators of content. And they ask questions. They can ask questions and get involved in an interchange with the reporters: by email, through social media, etc. That’s changed it because reporters have become involved in a conversation with readers. They used to be operating from on high and delivering the information to the lowly reader, and nobody is buying that notion now. Now readers really do feel, rightly so, that they are part of creating that conversation.

It’s a bit of a tension because people do still want to believe that there are places they can go where they really believe the information is curated and edited and verified, and as close as possible to the truth. So it’s not that that authoritative voice doesn’t matter, but it’s part of a much larger constellation of voices now, I think.

Q: Who’s benefiting from access to journalistic talent?

Anybody who’s doing content marketing and native advertising. I’m glad that they understand that they can benefit from journalistic talent in both editing and writing.

People who spent some time in traditional legacy journalism are likely to have honed their writing skills in ways that are useful wherever they go. And I think that editors in these organizations are likely to have spent years developing a good eye for when content works and what makes it work, and how content can be improved.

Q: Who’s losing out?

Too many startups have not understood the value of these traditional skills. A lot of startups have not understood how valuable writing is and how valuable editing is. I think that if there was a better combination of these things then that’s the best possible outcome. I was telling a friend who does a lot of work in Silicon Valley, “It seems to me they ought to be hiring people like me, frankly, who know old skills and embrace new opportunities. So many startups die for lack of understanding good, old-fashioned things like writing and storytelling, and having a selective eye, and curating.”

If you know how to tell stories, if you know how to reach people, if you know how to write clearly, that’s very, very valuable for anyone who wants to get a message across.

Q: What does it mean to build trust with a reader?

I think that all of us who serve people’s information needs have to think first and foremost: OK, I am sending this information out, not into some wild blue yonder, but to people. How can I earn their trust?

One way is, of course, through transparency. You tell people, “This is who I am. I’m a newspaper or I’m a corporation, and this is my intent. I want to provide you with a news report or help my company become as vibrant and as economically successful as possible.” Consumers of information need to be able to go to that little “About” section and really find out your intent. Then people can approach the content with an understanding of what the content is and where it’s coming from.

Q: How does the editor keep the balance of the story and know what is in the reader’s interest?

The simplest answer is: understand what your goal is. If I’m a news reporter, then my goal is to inform. From there, I still need to think about what it is that people will read.

I can’t go out and write a four-page eye-burner that nobody is going to read and think that I’ve performed a public service. I’m still going to be more driven by the needs of the public related to this given topic and then how I can serve it to them in a way that they will receive it.

Q: But audiences are no longer captive and people are not necessarily attracted to good information. How should we go about building audience today?

I think so much of it is seeing what others are doing successfully. Talking to people whom you are trying to reach. We used to do it in the form of focus groups. But it really works to talk to individuals—you do need to put flesh on the bones of those mathematical numbers you get from surveys. You want to talk to individuals who really care about whatever niche topic you’re aiming for. See what drives them.

And then in the end some smart reader in a focus group will say, “Look, you’re the editor. You should know what we want. We don’t really know what’s possible. You need to dream some dreams yourself and give them to us.” And that’s true. Providers of content need to think about what they might do that’s different. What they might do that would challenge people because people like to be challenged. And they like to be introduced to something new.

Building audience requires a very rich combination of things: respecting your readers, earning their trust, understanding what they want, but then being a professional. Being a terrific writer or a wonderful photographer, understanding what’s coming down the pike, having your own antennae out more than they are able to have time to do, and offering things that are new.

Q: What’s your overall philosophy on editorial leadership?

I have a simple philosophy about that. Your job, if you have people working for you and producing content in one way or another, is really pretty simple. The main goal is to enable them to do the best work they possibly can do. It seems to me that if editors can keep that in mind and thus try to create the environment in which people can work, try to clear the obstacles, try to be the one addressing the crap coming from the top, then your team will understand that’s what you’re trying to do. And that will really help things go well for you as an editor.

Q: Finally, what enabled you and your sister Nan to reach such heights in your careers? And what advice would you offer to women climbing the ranks?

We had an interesting upbringing. Dad was a preacher, mother a homemaker and writer. We had little money, but both our parents were always reading, traveling, questing to learn and experience more. I think Nan and I were both conscious that Mom didn’t get to achieve all she was capable of—not even close. And we were also conscious that Dad, while he expected nothing but the highest academic achievement from us, also expected less from us than from our brother in terms of professional achievement. Indeed, he used to use the word “ambitious” as if it were a vile epithet! I think we had both positive and negative goads from our folks. Plus, we were both lucky, choosing fields about which we felt passionate (in her case, academe, in mine, journalism) and then having positions of leadership opened to us.

As to advice, I’d remind women (AND young men!) that life takes twists and turns, and you mustn’t feel that any one setback is determinative. Set goals, check in with yourself from time to time to see how effectively you are pursuing them. But also be open to serendipity and enjoy life as it happens. For women in particular, do picture yourself in leadership positions, even if you can’t look up and see women in those positions in your organization. And let your boss know you are interested!

If you or someone you know would like to be highlighted in this Content Marketing Innovator Series, please send me an email at

Recommended for you