Back to On the Road with John Tarleton

Interview: Professor George Kennedy, University of Missouri School of Journalism

by John Tarleton
April 1999

COLUMBIA, Missouri—George Kennedy is the co-author (along with Brian S. Brooks, Daryl R. Moen and Don Ranly) of News Reporting and Writing, one of the most successful journalism textbooks ever published. Kennedy, 57, graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1964 and worked as a news reporter at The Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal and the The Miami Herald before returning in 1974 to join the Journalism School faculty.

"Doing journalism is to me a very rewarding and challenging intellectual and emotional enterprise," he says. "And we do that on a daily basis."

Kennedy has been the Managing Editor of The Columbia Missourian for the past nine years and has lectured in various countries including Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Turkey and Nigeria. At once relaxed and authoritative, he is an effective spokesman for the goals and the values of the world's oldest journalism school.

Are the flaws of American journalism rooted in its dependent relationship to Capitalism? Or, are they due to poor judgment on the part of individual editors and reporters? Do new on-line technologies represent a threat or an opportunity for traditional newspapers? Returning to the journalism school I had graduated from 10 years earlier, I was eager to pin him down on these and other questions. It was a more difficult task than I had imagined.

The J-School

JT: Can you talk a little bit about your work here at the J-School and what it is the J-School tries to achieve in its formation of young journalists.

GK: What we're trying to do here is at least two things, closely related but I think a little bit different. One is to try to equip our students with the professional skills in order to work as a productive and successful journalists during their working lifetimes. The second thing is, of course, in the context of the broader university, to provide them with some education, some understanding of the issues of the society, of the world in which they are going to be living and working.

One of the realities of journalism here on the verge of the 21st Century is that hardly anyone is going to finish their career in the job that they start out in. And so we need to do a better job than we have in the past of equipping people with some professional mobility. That means both an array of skills: print, on-line, broadcast, etc., verbal and visual. But even more than that, it needs to prepare them to be lifelong learners, to be people who are excited about and capable of dealing with change instead of people who are either resistent or afraid of it.

JT: What do you personally find most satisfying as a teacher? What keeps you motivated to be a teacher here as opposed to being at a newspaper?

GK: For me the most satisfying thing about this job is the dual opportunity it provides to be both a practicing journalist and to be a teacher.

While on the one hand you're able to experience the frustrations that go with both of these things, the flip side of it is you get a fair amount of satisfactions that go with both. And doing journalism is to me a very rewarding and challenging intellectual and emotional enterprise. And we do that on a daily basis.

Class Bias in Higher Education

JT: You've talked a little bit before about how the students at the J-School tend to be very conservative. Can you talk a little bit about why you think this is and how the J-School might avoid being just an assembly line for producing media drones.

GK: (Laughs) Well I'm not sure we can. And of course at least part of our function is to produce high quality media drones. But, universities in this country have changed along with the rest of society. And one of those changes, I think, is pretty clear.

Public universities like this one are increasingly drawing a middle-class and upper-middle-class clientele. Working class kids, poor kids, marginal students increasingly are being forced into other kinds of higher education if they experience it at all. This university boast a great deal, for example, about the fact that the ACT scores of our entering students are higher than they've ever been and maybe the highest of all the Big 12 Conference schools. We boast about our number of National Merit Scholar winners. And those are good things for those of us who teach because they give us brighter students to work with.

What that also means is that we're getting students who in many respects are more homogeneous. We're getting students who are much more in the mainstream of Middle America. And we're not seeing as many, as we did 10 or 25 years ago, of the students who are the first in their families to go to college or students who are in the state university because they can afford it.

Well, state universities, including this one, are not all that cheap anymore. And so poor kids in many cases have trouble affording it. They're much more likely to stay home and go to a local community college or go to SW Missouri St. or something like that.

The Assembly Line

JT: What would you say the expectations are of most students when they come to the J-School? Is it to live the great, adventurous life of the journalist? Or, is it something more modest? And how does that evolve?

GK: Oh I think the expectations of most of our students are highly vocational. That is they believe they are coming to the Journalism School to learn a useful skill that is going to enable them to get a good job and have a happy life.

There's a minority of students who come here because they are excited about the notion of journalism, about its role in society, about it as a life's adventure. Those are the students I get most excited about because they're the most interesting, the least predictable and the most apt to do something wild and crazy. Those students have always been in the minority. They're in the minority in society.

At the under grad level here we get a lot of students who don't know what they're doing. I mean they're 19 or 20 years old. Many of those students aren't going to end up as practicing journalists. And a good many of them probably shouldn't. Many of them are going to wind up going to law school, or teaching or going to who knows where.

For me, a high percentage of the most interesting students are the graduate students. Because, our typical graduate student has done something in life other than just go to school. Most of our grad students have been out in the world. Most of them haven't done any journalism. But, they've sold shoes. Or they've traveled. Or they've worked as paralegals. Or they've tried to write that novel. Or they've been schoolteachers. Or something before they decided journalism was it after all.

They don't necessarily bring with them a higher level of skill than the under grads. Often the under grads are more skillful because many of them have been doing journalism since junior high school. What the grad students bring with them is the maturity and life experience that makes them more interesting people and in many cases gives them the potential to be better journalists.

Society's Conversation with Itself

JT: And what do you think, ideally, that the role of journalism should be in a democratic society? And how close are we to achieving that ideal?

GK: The phrase I like, since I first heard it 10 years ago, was popularized by James Carey of Columbia University, who is the philosopher-king of American Journalism. Jim Carey likes to say that in a democratic society journalism constitutes that society's conversation with itself. What I like about that is that it is a broad enough picture, a broad enough definition that it allows for a full range of journalism.

Because in a society's conversation with itself, you've got the news - those high school killings out in Colorado. That's part of the conversation. You've also got the other serious issues: Kosovo, abortion, education, the budget, Social Security and all that. But that conversation, if it's going to be a healthy one, has room in it for sports, for humor, for human interest, for gossip. It's the full range of humanity. How good a job do we do in playing that role as the conversational conduit? Not very good, I think.

Television, which has become the dominant medium of our time, devotes far too little time to the thoughtful part of the conversation and far too much to the gossipy and frivolous parts. Newspapers, which have the capacity and information to deal much more effectively with the serious parts often don't define the conversation nearly broadly enough. And, often produce entire 100-page editions that are boring, that are largely irrelevant to the lives of way too many people in the public, that just aren't sensitive enough to the real issues that real people are actually dealing with and want to talk about in their public conversation.

Newspaper circulation has not kept up with population growth in the past 20 years. I think that's a symptom of a lot of problems, some of them society's problems. People are busier than they used to be. People don't seem to care as much about politics and government and public life as they used to. But, it's also a symptom of the fact that newspapers have gotten in many respects sort of fat and happy and self-satisfied; that they have, to a depressing degree, lost touch with what we're really supposed to be doing and what our communities expect us to be doing. The industry's concern now is to re-focus on relevance and on being interesting and on being diverse and on really being apart of the community instead of standing back from it and watching it fall apart.

The Meaning of USA Today

JT: Starting with USA Today and a lot of its clones in the past 15 years, it seems like some newspapers have decided the best thing to do is to imitate television in a print form. Do you see that as a trend that's going to broaden? Or, is it a dead-end track?

GK: I think to a large extent that is a trend that is in reversal. USA Today, I've always thought, was a largely misunderstood and unappreciated newspaper, especially by other journalists.

What journalists tend to forget is that the people who started USA Today always saw it as a kind of supplemental kind of newspaper, a newspaper that was never intended to take the place of somebody's local daily, but was intended to be the paper for people who were away from home, a paper for people on the move, a paper for people who wanted and needed a quick fix, a quick scan of the events of the day. And so it was designed that way. And it was wildly successful; by far the most successful newspaper launch in America in the past 50 years. Hands down.

I think you're right that many newspapers missed the point of USA Today and often got caught up in the color graphics and the photography and the short stories. And when they saw USA Today succeeding they said, "well maybe there's a route to success there for us, too." That, most thoughtful editors would now agree, was a mistake. Until we figure out how to make the pictures move, newspapers are never going to be television. And it's not only a mistake but absolutely counterproductive for us to try to do that. But, newspapers have what television doesn't: space, depth, ease of use, thoughtfulness, time. And what we need to be doing is realizing that the route to success for newspapers is not to be an imitation of television.

Monica and the Media

JT: About Monica and the state of that conversation we're having with ourselves. What happened to the media in 1998? It went crazy over what seems like a very small matter. Why did this happen? Is it because of these large entertainment conglomerates that control the media? Or, are journalists as sexually repressed as the House Judiciary Committee....

GK: (Laughs) Oh hell, I don't know that anyone knows what was going on. I think that there was a lot of things going on at once. One thing that critics of newspapers tend to overlook is that in many respects the Monica story was about Monica and about sex, there was a very important level at which it was about a hell of a lot more than that.

It came to be about the impeachment of the President of the United States. It was in part about truth telling, about trust, about manipulation, about very high stakes politics. And, all those things are pretty damned important. And are things that should've been covered and in many newspapers were covered pretty well.

The sensational aspects of it, the pandering to the lowest common denominator stuff, was what drove me and a lot of other journalists and a lot of normal people away from the television screens and the front pages. A lot of newspapers did get caught up, at least for awhile, in the media feeding frenzy.

In the O.J. case and to some extent in the Lewinsky case, it seemed to me that mainstream journalists forgot what we're really supposed to be about, forgot that we really are supposed to have some judgment, and that one of the things that people expect from us is to tell them what is important anyway; what ought we be paying attention to. Because, people don't have much time to monitor the world very successfully on their own behalf. Instead, we saw the talk shows and the tabloids and said, "By God, there may be a viewer or a reader that we're missing somehow. So we're going to dive down in search of the lowest common denominator." And to a depressing extent, some of the best news organizations in the country played that game.

What I think they lost track of was that an awful lot of people who were watching those talk shows, etc. were not people who really care very much about the public policy issues involved, which is what we ought to care about, but were people engaged in what a lot of people have come to call the car wreck syndrome. You're driving on the highway and see a car wreck. And everybody slows down and they gander and take a look. Well, that's normal human curiosity. And people give way to it momentarily. But then, they get their eyes back on the road....

JT: But this went on for 11 or 12 months....

GK: This went on for 11 or 12 months. I think part of it was this lowest common denominator phenomenon. Part of it was that the story was, to a considerable extent, driven by the tabloids and by a mindless competition on the part of people who are old enough and smart enough that they should know better.

But I would argue John that at least in the latter stages that newspapers, in particular, did kind of come to their senses and focus much more on the serious issues. And, there were serious issues. It was easy for that to be drowned out. But I think if you were to look at The New York Times and The Washington Post and, for that matter, The Columbia Missourian, you wouldn't have seen nearly to the extent that the popular imagination has it this feeding frenzy phenomenon in the last couple of months.

JT: Was that because it wasn't selling anymore? Or, was it good judgment?

GK: Oh, I think to some extent it was good judgment. To some extent it was a realization that people had gone too far. As a lot of people pointed out, sex and gore and scandal are always going to sell. But they're different from the serious public policy kind of journalism. And I think all of us need to remember that. And, to remember that we're talking about different audiences, or at the very least we're talking about different appeals to people at different stages of the story.

Super Scandals and Market-Driven Profit Formulas

JT: Do you think there will be more super scandals in the future? How do you think the media will cover them? And is it possible, at this point in 1999, for good journalistic judgment to prevail over market-driven profit formulas?

GK: Oh, I think that it certainly is possible. And, I think you can find examples all over the country of newspapers that didn't fall into the Monica or even the O.J. frenzy. People, including media critics, often pay more attention than they should to the East Coast broadcast and major market media, which are really a minority of the journalism that is being done in this country day in and day out. I think of the 1,500 daily newspapers in this country, 1,400 of them understood all along that the local school tax issues were more important than the latest revelation from Ken Starr's grand jury. But it is that 50 or 100 that tend to be bigger and more strategically located and attract most of the attention.

Will there be more super scandals? Well sure. Will we handle them any better than we did the last couple? I see no particular reason to think that we will. We don't seem to have learned anything from O.J. when it came to Monica or Princess Di. Journalism at its worst can be pretty ugly.

Freedom of the Press Is for He Who Owns One

JT: The increasing concentration of ownership in the news media. Now we have these vertically integrated global media corporations. From your vantage point here at the Journalism School, how has that changed the workings in journalism over the past 20 or 25 years?

GK: I don't think ownership changes have had that much impact on the state of newspaper journalism. Television, is, I think another matter.

There, I don't think it's so much the whole vertical integration thing as the fact that once the ownership of the major networks fell into the hands of people who had other businesses and for whom the networks were primarily profit centers, then I think you saw, for example, the decline of CBS News and the great and continuing pressure on all the network news operations to make more money, to contribute more to the bottom line. We see that a lot in newspapers, too.

In the case of newspapers, that's attributable mainly to the reality that most newspaper companies are publicly-owned these days. And so the people who manage these companies have, by law, a real obligation to the shareholders who own these companies. In many cases I think the balance has shifted to profit and away from what you might call public service.

"The First Amendment Doesn't Say That Journalists Have to Do Anything."

JT: Journalism is protected by the First Amendment in our Constitution. How do you balance that out with the needs and commands of stock market investors?

GK: Well, I don't know exactly. The First Amendment, as we too often fail to remember, is a prohibition. The First Amendment doesn't say that journalists have to do anything. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law abridging the Freedom of the Press." Period. That's all it says about the press.

It doesn't say the press is obligated to be fair or honest or aggressive or any other damn thing. It's just expected to be free. And the theory is if it's free, it's free to be wonderful. Well, it's also free to be absolute garbage. And at the time the First Amendment was conceived, the press was something we wouldn't recognize today. It was wildly unfair, almost universally inaccurate, totally partisan, far more libelous and vicious and less reliable than today. And that's the kind of expression that the people who wrote the First Amendment had the vision to see some value in protecting.

Today, we assume there are obligations that go along with that protection. And I think that's a very healthy assumption. How to balance those obligations with the obligation to make a 20% profit each year? Well increasingly, that's become the art of editing.

My friends and colleagues who run the big newspapers across the country find themselves forced to be more concerned about budgets, to be more concerned about marketing, to worry about whether the paper is going to sell. The great problem, I think, is on the part of top management. There is an almost irresistible tendency to take the short-term view, to worry about increasing profits this quarter and not worry too much about making investments to protect the franchise over the next 10 years.

Journalism and the Internet

JT: One last question. Talk about the future of the print media, the Internet and how the two are going to play off each other.

GK: I have not a clue about what's going to happen in the balance between words on paper and words on screen. At the moment and for the foreseeable future, the paper product still offers great advantage in terms of its utility, in terms of its availability and in terms of the economics of it all; for advertisers at least as much as for journalists and readers. Whether 50 years from now newspapers will be on paper or news screens, I don't know and the truth is in some ways I don't care that much.

What I care about is the journalism that is being done whatever the medium. One very important question that I don't think anybody knows the answer to is if the future turns out to be on-line instead of on paper, what are the economics of that? Newspapers, as we know them today, are supported 75% by advertisers and roughly 25-30% by the sale of the newspaper. Nobody has yet figured out how to do effective advertising on the Internet and whether the big newspaper advertisers will be able, or willing or interested in making that jump.

If you pick up a newspaper today, you see the Classified Ads which are being done on the InterNet. That's an immediate threat or opportunity depending on how you look at it. But, you also see these full-page display ads selling everything from cars to clothing. It's not at all clear how that translates to this much more personal, much more interactive, much more easily controllable medium of the on-line world. And that kind of advertising makes up a big part of the present support base not only of newspapers but of, hell, the American economy. Is that shift going to occur and if it does, how will it play out and who are going to be the winners and losers? I don't think anybody knows.

The great unanswered question of this whole field of on-line journalism really is the economics of it. The journalism is pretty exciting because clearly you can do things on-line that you can't do either on a normal television screen or on a normal newspaper page. And those things, if used the right way, can add a lot to the quality and the depth and the reach of journalism.

What I tell my students is if you master the basics of doing good journalism, you're in good shape. Because, those basics can be easily transferred from newsprint to on-line and on-screen. Who's going to pay you to do that? And who are you going to be reaching? Those are the questions I don't know and I don't think anybody else knows the answer to.


University of Missouri School of Journalism
Journalism Resources
Michael Niman's Media Launch Pad
Free Speech TV
TV Turnoff Network
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (F.A.I.R.)

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