Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: This is Karen and Geneva, after having taken a short break. We’re going to pick up where we left off, about Gracie, Geneva’s daughter’s birth, and then the return to the States, I guess.
Overholser: Perfect. I love that you remember that. Gracie is actually what my grandmother called my mother, Gracie. Her name was Grace. And Laura’s name is Laura Grace, after her, but we call her Laura. And, yes, she was born in Paris, let’s see, 1978. So now we’re up through ’78.
I had been taking courses in French. I was speaking Belgian African French when I moved to Paris. I mean, I had had quite a bit of French in high school and then at Wellesley, but, you know, after living in Kinshasa for a couple of years, I was not speaking le français de l’Académie by any means. And so I decided to go to the Sorbonne and brush up a little bit. So that was a lot of fun. I met a lot of other people from other countries who were studying in France. And continued to do my freelancing, and Laura was born, and we then took her on a summer trip, you know, hiking around, and just marvelous, marvelous time.
But we were ready to come back home. We’d been overseas for five years, and you really, I think, at that point begin to decide we’re either going to be expatriates for real -- and we had a lot of friends who were expatriates. You know, you get on this American School [circuit]. They’re ubiquitous. And you get on the train, and just sort of go from one to another. I mean, by this time we had friends from Kinshasa days who were in Malaysia and Hong Kong and Nairobi and Caracas, you know, and so we sort of thought, “Well, we’re a journalist and a teacher. We could sort of do that.”
But I really didn’t want to do it, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love living abroad, which I did. I felt strongly that I wanted to be a player in the political scene. I don’t mean I wanted to run for politics, but I wanted to feel like it was my political scene. In France, I felt so, appropriately enough, foreign, when election day would come and I’d walk by all the polling places, and of course I couldn’t vote. If I had stayed, I would have wanted to become a Frenchwoman, because I hate not being able to -- you know, I really feel like I want to feel some sense of responsibility for the political life around me, and I’m very much intrigued by it and I didn’t like being so detached from it.
Also, I wanted my children to know their grandparents and their cousins. So we both began looking for work back in the States, and as is a theme in our conversations, Karen, yours and mine, then again was kind of a tough time to get into the newspaper business. And so the first thing either of us landed was a fellowship that I landed with the American Political Science Association, which gives congressional fellowships, mostly to political scientists, to academics, but a couple per year to political journalists.
I remember going for the interview from Paris. I was still nursing Laura. And so I flew over, you know, and had this interview, and I was so elated, and I got the fellowship. Then came back and met Laura and Mike at a little ski village in Italy where Mike had gone as a chaperone for an American School of Paris ski trip.
Anyway, so that was our next grand adventure. We moved to Washington, and we lived on Capitol Hill, six blocks up above the Capitol. So if we came up out of our little basement apartment, which was euphemistically called an English basement, but it was really a basement, and mice ran all over and cockroaches ran all over, came up out of the apartment and looked down, and there was the Capitol, gleaming in the sun. I never got over, really, finding that very powerful.
I spent a year working in Congress. The fellowship is just a wonderful thing. You choose whom you want to work for in each house, spend half the time in each house. I decided that I wanted to work for, in one case, somebody whose issues I really knew so that I would be able to be a legislative assistant [L.A.] as opposed to a press aide. So in the Senate side, I worked for Gary Hart from Colorado, because I knew energy and water, and so I was an L.A. to Hart. And, you know, for all the things that Hart has become famed for, he never came on to me, which may say something about me, but he was a really very good senator, and his staff was a terrific staff, and he used his staff wisely and engaged with them. So it was a great office to work in. He had staff meetings regularly. He took me along to hearings where I’d worked on the issue. I mean, he really was a terrific senator to work for. So that was a great experience.
Then on the House side, I decided that I wanted a very different experience, and I also wanted to see a woman in action in Congress, because I felt then, and feel now, that it’s an extremely difficult environment for women to be effective in and powerful in. I also felt like I wanted to get to know a part of the country I didn’t know. So I went to work for Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn, and it’s so ironic because I thought I was going to work for somebody from somewhere I’d never live, and then I ended up living in Brooklyn Heights when I worked for The New York Times.
But anyway, Holtzman was an astonishing -- is an astonishing woman, smart as hell, very difficult, and I was a press aide there. She ended up running against [Jacob] Javits for the New York senator seat, and I ended up, after my fellowship was over, working for her for a while for that campaign, because I was trying to get a job in newspaper reporting, and I had begun by now to realize that the people who do hiring in newspaper reporting are some of the least imaginative people in the world. I mean, I would apply. You know, I applied for beginning reporting positions with the AP [Associated Press], say. People would say to me -- I’d say I lived in Africa and traveled all over Africa, and they’d say, “You left a perfectly good reporting job. Why the hell did you do that?”
Then I’d say, “I freelanced in France and I worked for National Public Radio [NPR] and I worked for the International Herald Tribune there and did all this stringing.”
And they’d say, “You were freelancing?”
I’d say, “I spent a year inside Congress. I really know Congress. I worked in the House and I worked in the Senate.”
And they’d say, “Well, you weren’t covering it.”
I mean, it was just like banging my head against a brick wall.
Q: Even with those clips?
Overholser: I could not get a job. I had great clips, International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, on and on, great clips, Miami Herald. Actually, a bunch of the papers were dead later. The Washington Star, the Philadelphia Bulletin -- Chicago Tribune, great clips. Couldn’t get a job. I was freelancing, you know. They didn’t like that.
So I worked a little while longer, and finally -- I mean, with Holtzman, and Mike was teaching at a private school in Washington, Sidwell Friends. We really wanted to stay in Washington, but we couldn’t afford it, because I couldn’t get a job, and a private-school teacher’s salary is even worse than a public-school teacher’s salary, and my fellowship had ended. So what I did, and thank God -- this is one of those avenues we were discussing a while ago that you would never expect -- while I had been in Paris, I had written to a number of sort of very good, but smaller newspapers, to try to expand my markets, because, you know, you can run the same freelance piece in fifteen different papers, as long as they’re not in competitive markets. So I wanted to move beyond the Boston and Chicago, so I wrote some various papers, including the Des Moines Register, because I knew it was a really strong paper and internationalist.
So the guy wrote back, the editorial page editor wrote back, and said, “We’re really not much of a market for freelance pieces, but your résumé looks really interesting, and I have an opening for an editorial writer. Would you be interested?”
Well, I was living in Paris. I thought, “Are you kidding? Of course not.” And, you know, I sort of responded with a “Thanks so much, but no thanks.”
But then, this is two years later, and I’m in Washington and I have finished this fellowship. This is probably three years later, and I can’t get a job. And Gil Cranberg, the editorial page editor, who actually grew up here and went to the Bronx High School of Science, happens to be in New York visiting his mother, I think, and he says, “Why don’t I come down to Washington and see you,” because he’s still interested in me, bless his heart. Thank god for his tenacity So he persuaded me that, you know, coming to the Des Moines Register would be a really great thing.
Meanwhile, my husband’s father had had a terrible heart attack. He was in Minneapolis, and Mike had gone to college in Iowa at Grinnell College, so he kind of wanted to get back to that part of the world. And so a number of things came together, and we decided that we’d move to Des Moines.
I have to say, moving from Paris to Washington to Des Moines, I was pretty sure this was the very definition of decline. But I fell absolutely in love. I just loved it. I mean, the Des Moines Register was such a wonderful newspaper. It was owned by this wonderful Iowa family, the Cowles family, who had this marvelous sense of noblesse oblige, and they really believed that newspapers ought to serve the information needs of their readers. Of course, they were a wealthy family, and they took some profit out of the newspaper, but a very modest profit, and they did just fine, thank you. And the paper was extraordinary.
I remember when I came there, there was an ad in the paper that said, “Only one newspaper has won more Pulitzers for national reporting than the Des Moines Register. Congratulations to The New York Times.” I mean, it was that kind of paper. It was just an extraordinary paper. It had a great Washington bureau. The people I met there were some of the most interesting and really soundest journalists I’ve ever met, and the state is a great place to do newspapering in, because it is very civically engaged.
All these things have changed somewhat, because, of course, time changes things. Let’s see, when I first went there was, what, 1981. You know, that was twenty-two years ago. But the state has a powerful tradition of populism, and it was very strong bipartisan. I had never lived in a bipartisan place. I grew up in the South, when it was all Democratic, and I lived in Boston. They were different kinds of Democratic. I didn’t know that you actually could have a strong bipartisan tradition within a state and that you’d have really interesting people on both sides. To day this day, Jim [James Albert Smith] Leach in Congress is one of the few remaining moderate, thoughtful, substantial Republicans. There just were some wonderful people in the state, politically very interesting, a long history of feminism.
When I was in Washington, knowing I was going to go out and write editorials in the Register, I went down to the National Women’s Political Caucus and talked to them about feminism in Iowa. They said, “Oh, this wonderful woman, Roxanne Conlin, is the head of the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus, very strong tradition of feminist involvement in politics.” So I thought, “Oh, this is going to be great.”
And I was thrilled to be going into editorial writing, because I had found that having a young child and wanting to have another -- not yet expecting, but anticipating having another -- I really was worried about the hours with reporting, and I knew that editorial writing has a little more containable hours.
So, went to Des Moines, just loved it. We bought our first house, got our first piano. Laura could play in the yard, grew raspberries in the back yard that my father-in-law gave us from his Minnesota yard, just really did do the kind of “This is a great place to raise children.” One reason it works to do the “This is a great place to raise children” is if you have a really compelling job, and Mike was teaching at an interesting high school there, so we loved it.
I had an opportunity, actually, to become editorial page editor, but at that time I was pregnant with our second daughter. I had had a miscarriage earlier, and I just didn’t -- I was worried about -- in between the two girls I had had a miscarriage, and I just didn’t want to threaten that, and I didn’t feel like it would combine well. So that’s when I thought of the Nieman.
I was deputy editorial page editor. Nell was born. This is Eleanor; Nell we call her. I’d been agonizing, because to tell you the truth, we had sort of thought, we don’t want to have children and farm them out, you know. If we’re going to have children, we're going to really be their parents. So when Laura was born in Paris, as I mentioned, I really didn’t work full time. I just did this, and it was great. And then in Washington, Mike had actually taken a year off when I had the fellowship, so that was great. And then when he went back to teaching, I wasn’t really working full time. I was looking for work. So really, until Laura was four or something, we were with her, you know. So we thought that’s the way to do it, and it almost kept us from having other children, because by this time we were so much engaged in our careers, we didn’t want to do it that way again. So we thought, “Oh, what the hell. We’ll have one and farm her out.” And so we did, and she actually is perfectly fine, I must say. [Laughs] But we did; we farmed her out. I’d go nurse her at lunchtime, you know.
But I did feel conscious that I wanted, especially during her one-year-old year, when they’re very verbal, you know, they’re just really developing, I wanted to be with her more. So that’s when I applied for the Nieman. And your good question is exactly right, what sort of motivated. You could argue the last thing I needed was another fellowship. I had been lucky enough to have a fellowship, and I’d only been back in that -- let’s see. I guess I’d been back at it for five years. I was moving on in my career fairly fast by then, and I wanted to have time with Nell. So I applied for the Nieman and the Knight, and got them both. We couldn’t decide, do we want Cambridge [Massachusettes], do we want Stanford [University], and we thought, ah, we want Cambridge. So we moved there.
Laura went to Peabody Elementary School -- as they said, Pibity -- and her class was everybody from all over the world, just a really interesting group of people, and she fell in love with being -- I mean, she was just playing on a bigger stage and thought it was great.
While we were on my Nieman year, the paper was sold to Gannett. It was sold by this indigenous Iowa family to the largest newspaper-owning corporation in America, and these assumptions about, oh, they’re going to run it into the ground, etc., were bandied about. Bigger newspapers plucked off all the top talent that they could. It was just amazing. All of us got these phone calls. So I got a job offer from the Philadelphia Inquirer and from The New York Times and a couple of others, and I was trying to decide between those two, and I decided that I really would love to go to The New York Times.
So we moved here, and I kind of considered myself -- you’re supposed to take the Nieman and go back to your paper. But, you know, the paper had been bought, and I really did think it would be a different paper. Indeed it was a different paper. So I went to The New York Times, and we moved here. We bought a little piece of a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, and Mike went to work teaching at Packer, which is a private school in Brooklyn, and the kids could go there tuition-free and I could walk them down to Packer and then get on the train and go to Times Square. So we had it great. I mean, we just loved living here. It was a lot of fun. It was a terrific experience.
The Times is not a terrific -- it’s sort of like, when people tell me they love skiing the first time, I don’t really believe them. You don’t love the Times when you first go there. You might love that you are at the Times, but you don’t love it. It’s a real tough initiation period, I would say. But within a year or so, it turned completely from being kind of a -- I felt all the time on edge. I mean, I was the youngest member of the editorial board, and I was certainly the only mother of young children. But all of that was nothing compared to the fact that I was from Iowa. I mean, you know, that one was the real, “Oh, my god, she’s from Iowa.”
But during my Nieman year, I had spent much of my time on Soviet-U.S. relations, so I was writing about Soviet-U.S. relations, and this happened to be an extremely interesting period of Soviet-U.S. relations, because this unknown fellow named [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev was the premier. I’ll never forget the first day I came into the -- you know, you sit there on the -- have you ever been up to where the editorial board -- I mean, I had my own beautiful office with a view of the Chrysler Building, you know. It was just terrific. I have arrived. And the editorial board is this lovely -- it looks like the Kings College Library. I mean, it just sort of resounds with history.
Anyway, we’re sitting around this beautiful table, and I said, “You know, Gorbachev has given a truly interesting speech.” Well, you could just see all of them thinking, “She thinks you listen to the Soviet leader’s speeches?” I mean, before this, you never listened to anything Soviet leaders said. It was all boilerplate and balderdash. It’s like their Constitution, which prides every freedom in the world, and all of it was bullshit because there were no freedoms. That’s what Soviet leaders sounded like, except here’s this guy who is saying things like, “We must be more open to the rest of the world.” Well, that soon got a name -- perestroika. I mean, this was an historic period. But I was an unlikely beacon of this particular change, because in all honesty, it’s sort of like you in the computer world. Women in national security and a young --
[END TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO; BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE]
Q: We were talking about this extraordinary time with Gorbachev and how a woman covering national security was a new thing, and the reception when you talked about this interesting speech that was the introduction of perestroika.
Overholser: Exactly. People just thought I was being naïve, you know. I was actually listening to the Soviet leader? Oh, what would happen next?
I felt very insecure, I have to say. It was definitely a time in my life when I had to prove myself. It’s a hard thing to do to come into this august, kind of self-consciously New York intellectual, you know, and “We are the Times” feeling, and I felt like the writing of Times editorials was a difficult thing for me to command. I never did enjoy the writing of those editorials as much as I enjoyed, you know, the signed pieces, the Topics of The Times. The Topics of The Times weren’t signed pieces. The Notebooks were signed pieces. I think they still do these. Yes, they call them Notebooks, and they run at the bottom of the editorial column and they’re signed, and you can write in a much warmer, more personal style. But also, these little Topics of The Times, which are kind of smaller editorialets, let’s say, I enjoyed those more.
When I was writing the kind of primary editorials, I found it very difficult to adopt the voice of authority of the Times, and I have often thought about this as I’ve thought about women in positions of authority. I’ve had various occasions to think about this. This is a theme I’d like to return to. I think women do power and authority differently, and I think we sound different when we’re authoritative and powerful. And the Times voice, you couldn’t change the sound of it. So I found it a difficult adjustment, and I must say, I think I am a better writer than I was able to be at the Times, because it was not something that came to me naturally. But I did gradually learn how to do it, and I did do my reporting, I must say, and I think I ended up being a valuable member and a valued member of the board and really enjoyed it.
I was able to go to China for the Times and just, you know, enjoy going to those editorial board meetings, the publishers’ luncheons up in the -- “Punch” [Arthur Ochs] Sulzberger was still publisher then, and you’d have these amazingly ornate luncheons. After the lunch, the waiter would come around with this -- is it a fumidor, I don’t know, box of cigars, and open them and pass them to everybody. Inevitably, I was the only woman around this table, and he would skip me, and, frankly, I felt offended. I didn’t want the damn cigar, but I thought at the very least he could have offered. I mean, you know. [Laughs]
Anyway, a very interesting period. But I hadn’t been there more than two and a half years when a very interesting thing happened. Gannett, as I mentioned, had bought the Register, but they had done an interesting thing, and that was that they had decided to name as publisher the sort of scion of the Cowles family, Charles Edwards, who was the nephew of the previous publisher. In other words, he was the fellow whom the Cowles family had been grooming to become publisher had the family continued its ownership. And Gannett, to its credit, had named Charlie publisher, so that there was continuity in the leadership, if not the ownership, of the newspaper.
Charlie called me one day and said he really would like me to consider becoming editor of the Register, which absolutely floored me. I don’t want to assume false modesty here. I mean, certainly by then I felt that I was accomplishing great things in my career. But it was sort of that. I felt like I was exactly where I wanted to be. I’d finally busted through some difficult adjustments at the Times. My family loved being here. We’d moved enough. I mean, you know, we moved from Des Moines to Boston to New York, and we just wanted to stay. We loved our brownstone. We had a little garden out back. My sister was the president of Wellesley. We’d go up there. We couldn’t afford a summer home, but why did we need one? We’d just go up there on Lake Waban and sail and swim. So we just really liked our lives. Mike liked teaching at Packer. The kids loved Packer.
New York, as you know, but a lot of people don’t know, is a great place to be a kid, especially for Laura, who by then was, let’s see, you know, in her young eleven, twelve age. And when you’re eleven and twelve in Brooklyn Heights, you can walk everywhere. You can go get the cleaning and go to the grocery store. You can get on a train. You can do things. But actually, then later when we moved to Des Moines, people would say, “Oh, it must have been terrible for Laura,” and here she is in Des Moines. Well, in Des Moines, everybody had to drive her everywhere. It was a terrific thing, especially for Laura, to be here.
When we first got here, Laura would say, “Oh, I miss my yard in Des Moines,” and everything, because we’d only been in Cambridge for a year, remember, so Laura still felt that Des Moines was really home, and she’d be all plaintive. And then Nell, copying her, not even remembering Des Moines, would say, “Oh, me, too.”
I didn’t want Nell to say this. I mean, I wanted Nell to know that -- you know. So I’d say things like, “Well, Nell, you know, in New York there are no ferries,” because she loved the ferries. We lived in the Heights, and you could hear the ferries going to Staten Island. I mean, “In Des Moines there are no ferries and there are no trains and there aren’t even many taxis.”
And she looked at me and said, “How does anyone get anywhere?” because she couldn’t even imagine that people would have private cars. We didn’t, and nobody we knew did.
Anyway, so we didn’t want to leave. I mean, we really loved it here. And I said no. But then, I must say, I did think, “Oh, my god, I mean, editor of the Register.” I had never envisioned myself as editor. You would have had to be a megalomaniac to envision yourself. I didn’t know any women editors, and there were almost none. I had never had an editor who was a woman. And it wasn’t what I had set out to do, I thought, although having recalled earlier with you the pleasure I took in running the paper in high school, I should have thought about that. But I didn’t. I thought, “Okay, I’m on the editorial board of The New York Times. This is what I want to do.” It combined well with having young children, and yet, you know, really could feel like I was kind of at the pinnacle of the profession. I mean, why did I want to leave? I didn’t want to leave, so I said no.
But I called Howie Simon. We all called him our rabbi. He was the curator of the Nieman Fellowship. He was an absolutely wonderful man. He had been managing editor of the Washington Post when Watergate happened. He was Ben [Benjamin C.] Bradlee’s managing editor. He had left the Post and gone to the Nieman, and he was curator. We just adored him. I mean, he really was one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known, wise and funny and loving and smart as hell about newspapering. So I called him, and I said, “Howie, I want to tell you what I’ve just done.”
And so I told him, and he said, “Overholser, you are a whole lot dumber than I thought you were.” [Laughter] You know, I was just floored. He said, “You had an opportunity to be editor of the Des Moines Register and you turned it down?”
I hung up and I thought, “Look, that’s his thing, this is my thing,” and I bravely kind of strode on like this for a couple of days. But I began to have these gnawing, gnawing doubts. I talked to Mike about it, of course, and Mike, I think, was more torn than I thought. I thought he’d say, “God, no. Please let’s not move.” But I think he really did miss being close to his family, who still were in Minneapolis, and I think he just found life easier in Iowa with little kids. Of course, it is easier. But we kind of agonized and agonized.
And Charlie called me back, and he said, “I’m calling you back to see if I can change your mind.”
I was really torn for all these personal reasons, but also because, in all honesty, I thought -- I mean, the Register is a wonderful newspaper, especially it has been, and it’s a very traditional newspaper. I mean, it was hilarious, later somebody wrote in Newsweek it was the most feminist newspaper in America, which is just ridiculous. They wrote that because I was editor of it. It is not. It was not. I mean, I certainly tried to bring women more into it, but, my lord, its strengths were in the big sports section, you know, political reporting, for obvious reasons, because of Iowa’s role in the presidential elections; and, really, farm and agribusiness reporting. If those are feminist, you know, then so be it, but it was not a female newspaper.
And so I was worried that people, like the football reporter, whose name was Buck Turnbull, were going to think, “Oh, my god, a girl.” Plus, I’d been on the editorial page, remember. I was not even in the news room, which is not the traditional choice.
So I said to Charlie, “I’ll tell you what. I would like to think about it, but I’d like to come out and visit.”
He said, “That’s fine.”
I realized when I went out there that all the things I thought they’d be worried about, that I was a girl, that I was from the editorial page. I use the word “girl” jokingly, but that is what several of them said. I had just turned forty, actually, and I was very glad that I had, because forty sounded more substantial, you know. But all those things that I had been worried about were not the things that they were most worried about. They were worried that somebody from USA Today would be named editor, because, of course, that was Gannett’s flagship paper. They were worried that somebody who had never been part of the Des Moines Register would be named -- you know, didn’t get anything about its history and its legacy, which were really gold. I mean, they were just gold, the legacy.
So when I showed up on the scene, the first person, you know, to sort of be brought back, people were thrilled. I mean, a lot of people were relieved. So the reception I got was very different. I’m sure there were some people who thought, “Why in the world? Why Geneva?” Because it was an odd choice. Talk about a bold choice. It was a very bold choice for Charlie.
But anyway, so I realized that there would be some people who’d not only not be horrified, but would be relieved and heartened, and that I could bring that real strength of having known and loved the Register and Iowa, but also that I’d be coming from The New York Times, which made people at the Register feel, “This is what we deserve, not somebody coming from a very different -- ” you know, really, culturally the Register and the Times were much more a part of the same tradition than would have been somebody coming from this new upstart paper which a lot of people loved to disparage, USA Today. So that was amazing, and I decided to do it.
Mike said he didn’t want to come -- I took the job. I started in November, and Mike didn’t want to come until the end of the year. So he and the kids stayed out here, and I went every two weeks between Des Moines and -- I mean, I could have walked backward blindfolded through O’Hare Airport. There was no direct flight from Des Moines to New York.
And I had such funny experiences, because everybody in New York thought, “Oh, my god, there’s no bookstore, is there? Surely, you can’t even eat decent vegetables out there.”
And I thought, “Oh, what idiots.”
But then I’d go to Des Moines, and they’d all say, “You mean you rode the subway? Surely you’ll be raped. You left your children out there?”
And I thought, “Oh, what idiots.” I couldn’t decide who made me madder, each side just so sure that you couldn’t possibly live in the other place.
But anyway, there began a grand adventure of six and a half years as editor of the Register, although it was an extremely heartbreaking one in the end, too.
So I feel as if I should take a break right there.
Q: Okay. Fine.
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: We are again.
Overholser: So, we’re talking about Des Moines.
Q: The last thing was how they did, in fact, welcome you because you had been at the Des Moines Register before, and they were relieved it wasn’t someone from USA Today. So that was your visit, so maybe we should talk about the first day of work when you really came back.
Overholser: Yes. I believe it was November 14, 1988, as a matter of fact, and I was, of course, full of apprehension. I had gotten this apartment, a new condo in Des Moines. I looked out the window and saw all these trains and thought, “Boy, I really am back in the Midwest,” very different landscape from the New York landscape I’d been living in.
Walked over to the Register, began my day, as I said, full of apprehension. I remember one thing I did the first day was walk around and meet with the different staffs -- the feature staff, the business staff, the city, state, support staffs -- met with the copy desk, just wanting to kind of say, “Here I am, honored to have this job, delighted to be here, want to hear your thoughts, concerns, etc.” So, of course, one of the toughest ones -- I’m a pretty good sports fan, but I’m not your typical jock, right. So one of the toughest ones was the sports staff. I walked back to the far end of the news room, where the sports staff’s domain. And I’ve already mentioned Buck Turnbull. They all seemed to have these names like this, you know. So I sat down, and I had barely sat down when a guy named Tom Witoski [phonetic] opened his drawer and took out a baseball and threw it at me.
Now, people have said since then, “I think Tom wanted to bean you,” but I really think he was testing me. And I caught the ball, you know. I did a pretty good job. I can catch a ball. So I caught it and looked at him and said, “So, do I get to keep this?”
And he said, “Yes. You’ve earned it.”
And I thought, “Well, that’s a nice -- ”
It felt like a wonderful, warm start, and I’ve got to say, I just loved it. In some ways, I think I have never taken a job -- I mean, it’s a funny thing to say, because I was not prepared for the job in a way a lot of people who become editors of metro newspapers are. I certainly hadn’t come up, made my way up logically through the ranks. I was not your typical editor. You wouldn’t look at me and say, “Oh, yes, there’s the editor of the Des Moines Register.” But I just absolutely loved the job from the start.
I loved the feeling of directing a news room full of talented people. There were so many talented people. People have compared it to conducting an orchestra. I had thought, well, I’ll miss doing my own journalism, but the fact is, you feel your talents amplified several hundredfold, because there are all these wonderful journalists working for you. And the job at the Register is over both the news room and the editorial page, so I still got to direct the editorial page, as well.
One of the great blessings of being an editor of a newspaper is, if you do get along with your publisher -- and my publisher was a wonderful guy. Charlie has his weaknesses, as do we all, and certainly some of them came to the fore. I think it was hard for him to stand up to Gannett. Hell, I’m not sure anyone can stand up to Gannett anyway. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He expected it to be a more civilized environment than it could end up being in corporate Gannett.
But, man, while we lasted, we were a great duo. He was just really supportive. He had told me before I came, I said, “I’m really worried about coming back to the Register under Gannett. We won’t have the resources.” They cut here, they cut there. I had called Warren Buffett, who was a friend of a mutual friend who ran the paper in Buffalo, and said, “I’m worried about this. Can you run a paper with a limited amount of resources, or will I just be presiding over the diminishment of a great newspaper?”
He said, “Oh, you can run. It’ll work,” blah, blah, blah.
Well, the truth is that as soon as I got there, I realized three things, and two of them are great, and one of them eventually came true. The first was, I loved the job, and I really do think I was a very good newspaper editor. The second was, I really was blessed with my relationship with my publisher. And the third was, Gannett is going to get the profit out of this newspaper that it can, no matter what it takes. Eventually, of course. that was the prevailing conclusion, and I really did feel like I was presiding over the diminishment of a great newspaper.
I said when I got there, I remember saying, “I am privileged and honored to have the stewardship of this great paper. It feels like being handed an heirloom and being told not only to preserve it and burnish its luster, but really to change it and adjust it and make it an even better paper for a different era,” which is a great challenge. In some ways, it was hard to bring about change, because everything that people saw as change, they feared was associated with Gannett. I mean, if I talked about wanting better local news coverage, because it was a great state newspaper, but Des Moines deserved a good local paper, too. It killed off the Tribune, which was the evening paper, years before when I was there under the Cowles family, and the Tribune had really been the stronger local paper.
The Register needed to be a good paper for Des Moines, and that wasn’t really where it had its sights set. It loved its national reporting role in agribusiness and agriculture. But Des Moines wasn’t even really an agribusiness town; it was an insurance town. So, you know, various things pointed toward needing to be a better local newspaper. But when I would go to the staff and say, “We need to do this. We need to be a better local paper,” they would hear, “Gannett. Gannett’s going to cut back on the state,” and it made change very difficult.
When I would say, “We need to do a better job of the feature section,” my fear would have been that they said, “Oh, see, she’s a girl. She wants to do a better job with features.” They heard, “Gannett.” So it really, in an ironic sense, made it harder to change the paper than it would have been otherwise.
But I think we did great journalism. It was an enormous pleasure to work with the staff. There were certainly some highlights. One of them is my fifteen minutes of fame, in a sense, the paper’s fifteen minutes of fame in the current era, and that is the rape story, which I should talk about at some point.
Another one was the floods of ’93. There was huge flooding in the State of Iowa. Both the Missouri and the Mississippi flooded, and so the Raccoon and the Des Moines Rivers, both of which go right through Des Moines, flooded, and we weren’t able to publish the newspaper in our own plant. The water system in Des Moines was completely shut off, because the waters rose so high, they overtook the reservoirs and flooded the workings of the Des Moines Water Works. And so Des Moines went for three weeks without any water and for twelve days without -- I mean, for twelve days without any water and three weeks without drinking water, and we weren’t able to publish, as I said. We had to go through amazing machinations to publish the newspaper, which I’d like to talk about at some point, too. So, you know, remarkable stories, remarkable work, the pleasure of being editor of a newspaper like that.
This is one time when being a woman was clearly more of a positive than a negative, both for me and for the paper. I have no doubt, although friends of mine -- men -- who got similar positions said to me, “Are you kidding? I don’t assume it’s because I’m a man. You shouldn’t assume it’s because I’m a woman.” But I know that one reason I got so quickly onto the Pulitzer Board, for example, I’d been editor, I think, a year before I was named to the Pulitzer Board. Well, that’s very unusual. And similarly, I hadn’t been editor more than a year or two before I became chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors [ASNE], and I don’t how -- very few years before I was elected to the board and very few years after that before I was elected to what they call the Ladder. You become an officer, and then in the next four years you become president of the organization. I ended up leaving the paper two years before I would have been president of ASNE.
So I know that it helped my career, but those things also helped the paper, you know, because you bring the paper into renewed prominence when you are on the Pulitzer Board and ASNE, and also got a lot of publicity, the paper got quite a bit of publicity, especially around the rape series.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the editorial that you wrote in 1989 that ended up being the editorial that -- is it Nancy Ziegenmeyer?
Overholser: Nancy Ziegenmeyer.
Q: That she ended up reading when she was doing her research. What led you to write that editorial? Was that something that had been percolating for a while or did something happen?
Overholser: Interestingly enough, I’d like to say it was something that had been percolating, that I had thought a lot thoughtfully and carefully about rape and that I’d read -- there were books out about men, women, and rape, and I should have read them, as a good feminist, but I hadn’t. And the truth is that it arose -- you know, in much of my life I felt a kind of a warring between journalism and feminism; that is, I have felt strongly that I am a journalist and felt strongly that I’m a feminist; but when I was among journalists, the feminism was sort of an odd fit, and when I was among feminists, the journalism has always been an odd fit.
So, this was one case where it was the journalism that drove it. I had, as you know, only recently returned to the Register from The New York Times, and I got a call one day from Alex Jones, who was then the media writer for the Times and whom I had gotten to know, of course, at the Times, and he was asking me to comment about a story he was writing about a Florida newspaper that had used the name of a rape victim, and there was a supreme court case in Florida, the state supreme court, had ruled that the newspaper was within its constitutional rights to use the name. And so Alex was writing about this issue, which, as you know, at the time was almost universally true, which is that rape victims’ names were not used, and it was the only case of adult victims of crimes in which we did not use the name.
So he asked for a comment, and I’ve always joshingly said to Alex, “I know you call me because you thought I, being the good feminist I was, would say, ‘Well, here’s why we don’t. It’s a special, cruel stigmatization,’” which I did say. I said, “You know, I think we don’t, because I understand why newspaper editors have made this one exception, because it’s a terrible stigma and we re-expose women to a feeling of lack of safety.” But I said, “It also has always worried me that this would be an aberration and that this one case of not naming adult victims of crime has, has it not, I’ve asked myself, contributed to the notion that rape victims cannot be seen nor heard from, that they must not speak up, that they must hide in dark corners, and that therefore we really don’t talk about rape.” And, boy, did we not. Talk about the under-covered crime and the under-noticed crime. We just did not talk about rape. So I said, “I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant. I believe that truth has its victims. I believe all those things. But I know for a fact that not talking about it is also not good for either rape victims or society’s understanding of this crime.”
So he quoted me briefly, saying something like that, in the Times story about this Florida Supreme Court case, and then the op-ed editor of the Times noticed that and called me and said, “You know, it’s interesting that you would think that. Why don’t you write an op-ed piece for the Times.”
I said to the op-ed editor, “I’ve got to tell you, I haven’t even read -- ”who was it, Phyllis Chesler’s book on men, women, and rape [it was Susan Brownmiller's]? There was a book at the time about rape, and sort of any self-respecting feminist would have read it. I said, “This is really not my issue. I don’t know a whole lot about it.”
She said, “Well, that’s all right. The fact is, it’s interesting that you, as a journalist, would have this view. So why don’t you write about it.”
So I thought, okay, I’ll write about it. I wrote this op-ed piece for the Times, and I thought, “Why run the piece only in the Times? It should be in my own newspaper, right?” I really do remember thinking, “I don’t want anyone to think, ‘Oh, great, she’s come back to the Register, but she really just cares about the Times.’” But I also thought, “Who’s going to give a damn what I think about this issue, rather arcane issue, among my readers in Iowa?”
But thereby hangs the tale, because Nancy Ziegenmeyer’s husband, actually, happened to notice the piece, and Nancy Ziegenmeyer, who’s this housewife in Grinnell, a small town about an hour from Des Moines, was agonizing about these very questions. “Why do my rape victims’ counselors keep telling me I shouldn’t talk about this? Why am I supposed to hide?” First of all, she lived in this little, bitty town. Everybody in town knows when someone’s been raped. I mean, you know, let’s face facts. And she thought, “Why am I supposed to pretend this didn’t happen to me, and why do I have to worry that people are going to think I asked for it? I didn’t do anything. I’m sitting in my car in Des Moines waiting for a real estate exam. I did nothing.”
So she was furious about this. If you’ve ever been broken into, you want to tell everybody about it, “Do you believe what happened to me?” you know. So her husband told her, “It’s funny you think this. This editor at the Des Moines Register seems to think the same thing. So, read this.”
One day, I’m sitting in my office, after this piece has run, and the phone rings. My secretary happened to have gone away, as I recall, for lunch or something, and I picked up the phone, and this woman was very -- you know, this very tentative voice on the other end of the line, and she said, “Are you that editor at the Register?”
I said, “Yes.”
She said, “May I come see you?”
You know, on any given day an editor might say, “Oh, I’m really sorry. Can I put you in touch with the right desk in the news room?” But for some reason I thought, “Who knows what this is about, but this woman sounds like something very powerful is going on in her life, and so what the hell.”
So we made a date for her to come see me. I had no idea what she was going to talk about. She walked in and sat down, and she began in a very shaky voice and said, “I was raped, and I want you to tell my story.”
So it was an extraordinary experience. I mean, it had so many aspects. The first was her courage. The first was her extraordinary courage. The second was the remarkable skill of the woman who ended up writing the story, Jane Schorer, who is just a beautiful writer, and took it and made something out of it that I think none of us would ever have imagined.
You know, it was one of those things. It was kind of the time had come, and that’s the third element, because when we did do it, it was noticed so much nationally because it just happened to hit history at the right place. People were ready to talk about this crime, I think.
So it was a great privilege to be associated with that, and certainly one of the moments of my life for which I’m grateful, because I think it really did make a contribution. I think people really -- it was one element, of course not the only one, but one element at that moment in the nation’s history which contributed to a very different climate around rape. People began to talk about it more. It’s amazing, if you look, in the months after it, there was a Newsweek cover on rape, you know, just a lot of things. One element was Patricia Bowman and William Kennedy Smith, which took place right after that.
I could go on about this for more time than we have, but I should go on to some elements of it. One thing I’d like to talk about is the building of this story, because it took a long time to bring to fruition because the case was only then going to court when Nancy Ziegenmeyer came and sat in my office. And I said, “One thing I have to tell you is, we wouldn’t be able to do any reporting on it until the trial has completed, because it would be prejudicial, and we can’t do that.” And she was really disappointed. She wanted us to tell her story right then.
Q: So how long did you wait for the first --
Overholser: Months. Well, what I did is, I said, “I’ll tell you what I’d like to do. I’m going to go out and talk to an editor in the news room, and then that editor will select a reporter to be in touch with you, and I would like someone to start being in touch with you now.” I thought the trial might be a matter of weeks. The trial ended up being a matter of months.
So I went out into the news room and talked to an editor named Cynthia Mitchell and told her what had happened and gave her the name and number of this woman, and Cynthia went to Jane Schorer, S-C-H-O-R-E-R, of her staff. It was an interesting choice because Jane had been the secretary to the editorial page editor and was spotted as a really gifted writer. She was untried as a reporter and very gifted as a writer. I was a little worried about the choice at first, because I thought it was a great choice in terms of the writing, but I was worried about the untried as a reporter. But it was Cynthia’s choice, you know. I would not have, as editor of the paper, decided who ought to report on something. That’s not really my role, I think.
Then, you know, we almost forgot about it. Jane, the reporter, got in touch with Nancy, the subject of the article, and was in touch with her for months and months as the trial went on, just an extraordinary experience for Jane, and she really got involved in Nancy’s life. Months and months, as I said. And we sent a photographer to the trial, which I want to tell. That’s another story, an amazing story, about the photographer.
So then Jane one day, when all this was over -- you know, I knew she’d been working on it -- she said to me, by electronic message, I think, “I want to send you what I’ve got so far. Is it all right with you if I send you what I’ve got so far? No one else has read it.”
That’s a very unusual thing at a metro daily, of course. Usually you would go through several editors first. I wasn’t sure, but I was very curious. I said, “Sure.”
So she sent it to me, and I was floored. I was absolutely floored. I really do think that -- you know, people say these things later. I really think that I thought then that we’d make history with this, because it was so powerful the way she had written it. She had written it in what is now called narrative journalism, but this is 1989, right. I don’t think we even knew the term. You knew new journalism, and that was sort of what we were getting at, but it was so different from anything the Register would ever have done. It was really sort of, you know, “On the morning of, Nancy got in her car.” We didn’t do reporting like that. Plus, it was very long, and we ended up cutting it and then running it for five days. And it was very forthright, “after he had ejaculated,” blah, blah. I mean, it was very forthright, which I knew immediately was what I wanted to do, because I didn’t want to meet Nancy’s courage with our timidity and therefore sort of strip it of the force. The point is to bring rape alive to people who’ve never looked at it and never wanted to confront it. But Jane just did a phenomenal job. It was a tour de force, tour de force.
But I also knew I was going to have trouble with my editors, her supervisors who reported to me, because it was so untraditional and a very different form of journalism from anything we’d written. And I also knew that Jane had gotten very emotionally connected to Nancy, and I could see that it was kind of a complex situation.
Anyway, went through some very interesting things in the editing process, but fundamentally it was Jane’s original vision that was published, and it was a hell of an original vision. And it was Nancy’s courage that came through, and it was a hell of a courage.
A five-part series ran, and, as we were discussing a while ago, one thing, it was my managing editor, now my husband, who -- he was away at APME [Associated Press Managing Editors] or some other national convention when we actually ran it, and he was reading it electronically. He said, “You know one thing I think you should do? I think you should write kind of an -- just go out of our norm and write an editor’s note, essentially an explanatory letter,” which ran on the front page of the Sunday Register, saying, “Dear Reader, this series may disturb -- will contain difficult passages,” and explaining why we were doing it so it didn’t look like a gratuitous slap in the face, because it was a very forthright piece of writing, “And here’s why we want to do this. We really have felt that this is a fact in our lives, and because of this one woman who wanted her story told, that we could bring you a piece of journalism that would tell it as it really hasn’t been told in American newspapers.” So I tried to explain it that way.
Q: So it ran for five consecutive days on a Monday through Friday, Sunday through Thursday? And then did you immediately get a response with the first -- what happened right after the first segment was published?
Overholser: It was phenomenal. It really was phenomenal. The first one was a Sunday, and at this time the Register was in three out of five Iowa households. It’s very different now. But it was a very powerful voice in the state.
We had told Nancy Ziegenmeyer to expect this. I mean, I had called her and I said, “I need you to understand, your life is going to change. Everybody in this state is going to know who you are and that you were raped.” We had sort of talked to her about this through it, but I wanted, the night before it ran, to call her and tell her this.
I had also gotten very involved -- I mentioned this “ejaculated” thing. One reason I know it said that is that I had been looking over the shoulders of this very good copy editor who was putting the final touches on it, and he had changed “after he ejaculated” to “when he had finished,” and I immediately went out and I said, “Restore that wording. This sounds like he might have had lunch. We’re talking about a rape here. Let’s describe what happened in the rape. The guy ejaculated.”
But I mean, it was forthright, so I said to her, “This is going to really affect your life.”
She said, “I’m ready.”
I don’t think you could have been ready. I mean, it was just a huge -- it was the main -- front page of the story, and the photography was very dramatic, because our photographer had done -- I should save that for next time, but I do want to talk about that, because it was an extraordinary story.
Anyway, absolutely hit right away -- people began calling the office, the Register’s office, to say, “I’m only a Sunday subscriber. Can you tell me what happened.” I mean, this, in a sense, was like old-fashioned serialized journalism, right? Part one, part two, part three, part four. It was really amazing. And before it ended, we were getting phone calls nationally.
But it wasn’t until the next Sunday, or it might have even been two Sundays later, when The New York Times put on the Sunday Times front page a piece about the story, that it really took off. I mean, that was literally our fifteen minutes of fame. It was terribly unsettling, because every little radio station in the country, it felt like, was calling us. We got book offers. We got movie offers. We got, you know, “Please be one of Esquire’s Women We Love.” Somebody asked me and Jane and Nancy Ziegenmeyer to be -- or “Go on the Today Show,” and, “Come to New York.” It was just overwhelming.
It made me understand something about journalism that I hadn’t understood before, which is actually quite disconcerting, and that is, we really have sort of one attention span in this country, and we just all go there. I knew we were herdlike, but this is ridiculous. It was sort of the Elizabeth Smart of that moment, and it was as if there was nothing else to talk about. So it was phenomenal.
And there were all sorts of questions, which we also should talk about next time, because the man who raped her was black. He was convicted, of course, before we did the story. But I was very disturbed by that, because that contributed to an unfair picture of -- you know, almost always rape is white-on-white or black-on-black, and so that was an element that was distressing. And, of course, what happened later is it got all hung up in this journalistic question, were we forcing rape victims -- were we “outing” rape victims? I felt like what we had been doing was really doing journalism that brought an untold tale to the fore, but it kind of got turned into a, “Oh, you’re doing this in order to change what happens with rape victims.” So that became the discussion.
But anyway, I guess I should pack. I’m so sorry.
Q: All right.
Overholser: But we could also go downstairs and continue this.
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: Okay, we are back on. Before we broke off, we were saying we were going to talk about -- Geneva was going to talk about the photographer and then the race issues related to the race of the rapist.
Overholser: Great. I wanted to tell the story of the photographer who, a wonderful guy, took Pulitzer Prize-winning photos for the Register -- actually, won Pulitzers on a couple of different occasions -- and we assigned him to get some pictures of Nancy Ziegenmeyer during the trial.
But as it happened, I had been involved in working with the legal system in Polk County, which is where Des Moines is in Iowa, to try to keep the courts open for reporting. You know, there are always tensions between letting cameras in the courtroom and letting reporters in the courtroom. So we had reached what I thought was a very amicable settlement that mostly left things open, but that really did have a fairly -- harder than I had wanted, but I had to give somewhere -- proscription against cameras in the courtroom in certain trials, and sexual assault was one of the trials.
Much to my amazement, when Dave Peterson, the photographer, came to bring me these photos for the rape series, he threw these photos on my desk, and they were very dramatic. They had Nancy Ziegenmeyer pointing at the rapist and they had him being led away and they had her crying. Very dramatic photos, which were obviously taken in the courtroom. So I said, “Pete, how did you get these photos?”
He said, “Through the glass window in the door.”
So I thought, oh, no. When the series runs, this judge -- the judge who was presiding over the trial happened to be the one with whom I had negotiated these painfully negotiated agreements -- is going to know that David Peterson just thumbed his nose at the rules. And so I thought, what do I do? Do I not use the photos, because, you know, we shouldn’t have gotten -- they were ill-gotten goods? Do I use them and just know that the judge will say, “No fair,” or at least risk that the judge would say, “No fair. Now we’re going to shut down -- the agreement is ruined. We’ll shut down everything else, and you won’t have access in the courtroom”?
I decided to take my hat in my hand and go down to the courtroom and talk to the judge in his chambers, and I did. I took the photos, and I said, “Our photographer broke the rules, and I regret that. But now we’re left with, can we use these or can we not?” Obviously, we were in our rights legally to use them, but by agreement, it wasn’t really fair.
I showed them to him, and, thank goodness, he said, “Go ahead and use them.” So that’s another piece of the story.
I was going to talk about the racial issue. It was very troublesome to me that the rapist was a black man and Nancy Ziegenmeyer was white and that that kind of perpetuated a prejudice that rape is frequently a case of a black man and a white woman. It’s just really not true. Most rape is white-on-white or black-on-black, and I hated to contribute to that prejudice. On the other hand, it’s not as if this opportunity comes along all the time to tell a story like this. So we did decide to go ahead and do it, but another of the things we did was do a note that talked about the statistics about rape and pointed out that, in fact, most of them were intra-racial. But that was another piece of the controversial reaction. Later, when it became a national story, there were people who said we shouldn’t have done it because it perpetuated that stereotype.
Q: Could I just ask you to go back a bit to the negotiations with the judge? I’m really intrigued by what you had to do to talk to him about how this would be covered, and if you would say more about that, I think people would be really interested.
Overholser: Well, in fact, the negotiations I had had with the judge preceded our rape story. They were just a matter of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council dealing with the local legislative authorities to work out general rules for journalistic access to the courts, so they covered broadcast and print. I was, as editor of the Register, one of the leaders of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and so I had been talking to that particular judge in that capacity, and then it just happened that he later was presiding over this trial. But one of the crimes that had been excluded from cameras in the courtroom had been sexual assault, so it really kind of came back around.
Q: Now going back to the race issue, the preamble, the introduction that you did for that, was that in the middle of the series, or where did you write about the statistics?
Overholser: You know, I’d have to go back and look. I think we did it the first day, but I’m not completely sure. The series ended up being published in a tab form, but there are very few copies of it around, and it’s not online because it predated the online journalism. But I have a few precious copies of the tab, so if you come to Washington, I’ll show you one.
Q: They’re sending me one, but that would be great.
Overholser: Are they sending you one? Good. I’m surprised they have them still. They tell most people they won’t. That’s good.
Q: It’s probably going to be here in a few weeks.
Overholser: That’s terrific.
Q: I think also we started to talk about the reaction. You said you got a lot of phone calls. When did the letters start coming in?
Overholser: Well, the reaction was really powerful, because some of my colleagues had said, “I think it’s going to be very hard for Iowa to take,” and I remember one of the editors saying, “Blue-haired ladies and twelve-year-old girls aren’t going to like this.” And I thought at the time, “I don’t think it’s blue-haired ladies -- ”
[END TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE; BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE TWO]
Overholser: I think partly because of this piece that we ran, that I told you about that explained why we were doing it, the reception within Iowa was very warm, and we really didn’t get much criticism.
The kind of negative responses came later, mostly focused on -- there were some focused on the race issue, but more of them were focused on, “Are you trying to ‘out’ rape victims?” Rape victims’ counselors wrote letters. Many of the letters that we received in criticism were from counselors who said, “This will set back the cause.”
Because Nancy Ziegenmeyer decided to really speak out nationally and did go on many morning TV shows, you know, came out to New York several times, and Jane Schorer did, as well, some, it became more and more known nationally, so that we started getting letters from victims’ rights groups nationally criticizing the decision that we had made, even though we had done this -- I mean, Nancy Ziegenmeyer said she wanted to do it.
We sort of began to feel like people were mistaking what had taken place and that we had never said, “Now we think all rape victims should be identified,” although I have to say it is true that my initial approach had been to say, “I think that if rape victims were identified, then the crime would be better understood,” because we all know that when you put a face on something -- this has been one of the themes of mine. It’s hard to tell the truth about things, but when we really do confront the truth, we learn a lot more.
Later on when I was at the Times -- no, earlier. Actually, that had really affected me. When I had been at the Times and AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome] was just coming to the fore and people were dying of AIDS, and you would see the obits in The New York Times and they would say they died of pneumonia. All these young men were dying of pneumonia, you know. It was pneumonia brought on -- pneumonia killed them because they were HIV[Human Immunodeficiency Virus]-positive and their immune systems were wrecked. But we didn’t say that. And when the Times finally did start to begin to list AIDS as a cause of death, you could see the difference. People who had thought, you know, “Oh, this plague abroad in the land,” were then saying, “Oh, that gifted set designer. What a tragedy that he died, was taken by this cruel disease.” You began to see the change.
I mean, understanding the realities around us is an important part of how we grow and learn and make change and make law. So I had felt strongly that it would have been better originally if editors had not agreed to do this, and I also felt that some of the editors who didn’t do it -- then editors began to stand up and say, “Oh, I would never do that,” you know, and some of them sounded very paternalistic to me, “Oh, those little girls need protection,” you know.
So I would say things like that on panels, and feminists would often -- here again, I sort of felt like my feminism and my journalism were clashing, because feminists would often take me to task for not understanding properly that it was very difficult for rape victims, and they would raise all these figures about rape victims won’t report the rapes if they’re afraid they’re going to be in the newspaper. So I started looking into the figures, and, in fact, often the rape victims would say they didn’t want to report the rapes because they were worried about how they’d be treated by the police or because they didn’t really want to go through the judicial system. I mean, it was one of several factors. We worked on the police, and we didn’t say, “We’re not going to take it to court.” I mean, we needed to confront the fact that it might be good, nonetheless.
But that did bring a lot of people into clashing with what they thought we had done, and when Patricia Bowman charged William Kennedy Smith with rape in this case in Florida, because Smith was a Kennedy nephew, it became very famous, she was televised with -- do you remember the blue blob in front of her face? They ran this blob in front of her face so nobody could see her because she wasn’t being named, because she was supposedly a rape victim, although he later was convicted; and after he was convicted, she came out and identified herself.
But in the meantime, Michael Gartner, who had been a predecessor of mine as editor of the Register, was now president of NBC [National Broadcasting Company] News; he was then, that is, president of NBC News. And he decided to take up the cause, so to speak, and he “outed,” or identified, Patricia Bowman, which infuriated a lot of people, and they associated that with us, and it just gradually became a big, you know, “They’re trying to get everybody to name rape victims.” And when the paper won the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service, the Pulitzer Board cited as -- you know, the Pulitzer likes for gold medals for public service to go to papers that have had some effect with their work, not just published a great piece of journalism, but there was some discernible effect. Well, obviously there was discernible effect in this case, and the most obvious discernible effect for journalist was about kicking up this huge discussion about whether or not rape victims should be named. I have to say, I have always thought the most valuable effect was in raising the profile of this crime and really making people confront the cruel reality of rape.
So people say to me, “Oh, well, you know, you must feel that it was a failure because, in fact, most papers still don’t name rape victims.” At first, I was puzzled by that, but people perceived that I had been on a campaign to get rape victims named, which is never what I had thought was happening. So I have not ever felt it was a failure. I’ve always thought it was a great contribution and that we were privileged to be able to make it.
Q: You know, this may be a little bit off the track, but as you speak about it, it reminds me of the abortion debate. If a woman chooses to have her name printed, if a woman comes to you and says, “I want you to tell my story,” it’s very much like a woman who makes the decision about her body, and nobody else should have anything to say about that.
Overholser: That’s true.
Q: And so somehow, because you responded to her, those who might not have responded the same way warped what you actually did.
Overholser: Well, that’s interesting. I think there is some truth to that. I think rape, like all subjects in any way associated with sex -- this gets again to my theory about America being such a puritanical place. Rape is a sex crime. People like to say it’s not a sex crime, it’s a crime of violence, but it’s a crime of violence associated with sex. And I think a lot of people just don’t want to hear about it. They sort of hide under the cloak of, “We can’t ‘out’ this poor woman,” but they really don’t want to hear about it. So, yes, we sort of carried all that around with us, too. It’s unseemly to talk about rape, you know, just as if you’ve had an abortion, it’s unseemly to talk about an abortion. If you’ve had a rape, you ought to be quiet about it. I don’t like that. Who are we to tell somebody not to talk about it? Indeed, I think we’ve made real -- in some ways, had a disservice over the long run for rape victims by not naming them, because I think the crime had not been as well attended.
Q: When she walked into your office, did you immediately decide you were going to meet her request, or did you have any hesitation? And can you talk about whether you could have foreseen any of the responses?
Overholser: I did immediately think we should tell the story, because, you know, if nothing else, I realized that what I had said was I wished that rape victims were willing to be named, and here was a woman saying, “I am.” I couldn’t turn around and say, “Oh, well, no dice.”
It’s true it had happened before. Actually, there had been cases of rape victims wanting their stories told, and the newspapers would say, “No, we don’t use rape victims’ names.” I mean, it was a terrible situation for people who really did want to be able to talk about it. So I knew that we would do it. I knew we would tell her story. I didn’t know how we would tell it, and I knew it would be very complex, because the trial, we couldn’t do it during the trial.
I did feel at the time that it would be historic if we did it. I didn’t know, until I’d seen what Jane Schorer wrote, that it would be as historic as it was. I actually have a copy of an e-mail I sent to the managing editor that said something like, “I believe this story is going to go down in history,” or something like that, because I could see -- and you will, I think, when you read it, although it’s a little hard to realize this, because this is fourteen years ago, so a very different landscape now about rape, but I think you will see that it was a very different kind of story, and I thought it would -- but to tell you the truth, even though I thought it would make a real mark, I didn’t think it would take off the way it did. I mean, for one thing, I wouldn’t have known that it would get on the front page of The New York Times, the Sunday Times. Once something gets on the front page of the Sunday Times, you know, we’re talking about a whole different league.
I actually have some regrets. My first thought -- and this is my own preacher’s kid puritanical stuff, I guess. I just turned down everything at first. I said, “No, I’m a newspaper editor. This is what we do. We don’t want to make money off of any of this. It would be unseemly to sort of milk any of it.” So I just said no.
Q: To all interviews?
Overholser: To everything. Well, not to all interview requests, because I think we’re in the business of, you know, -- but to the movie, to the book, to be Esquire’s Woman We Love, to go on the Today Show. I stayed there and I talked to -- I mean, I certainly talked to the Times when they called. But I just felt, generally, “I’ve got a newspaper to edit, and let’s move on.”
I would actually make a different decision. I would have -- Peter Osnos, who’s a very respected book publisher and who’s a friend whom I’d known because his kids went to Packer, well, Peter called me and said, “You know, I would really like to do a book, and it wouldn’t take a lot, and it would be a very appropriate book. We would use essentially the series, and then you could write an introduction.”
You know, I think that was dumb of me not to do that. I mean, that would have been an important and valuable book. As it was, a book was written, and it was kind of, you know, dramatic. And similarly with the movie. I was later told -- you might know some of these names. I don’t know names. But some of the best names in documentary film making had called, because it was such an extraordinary situation, and said, “We’d really like to do a thoughtful film.” They even prepared special things to show me they weren’t about to sensationalize this. And some of them were feminists. They were interesting offers, and I said, “No, no, we don’t do films.” Then they turned out making this ridiculous made-for-TV [television] movie that every now and then runs, and this woman sits there and goes, “Hello, I’m Geneva Overholser.” And people call from across the country, “There is this movie on,” and it’s just a ridiculous film. First of all, they asked if they could film it in the news room, and I said no.
Jane Schorer had some difficulties in association with all this. She’s a very, very richly emotionally person, had done this beautiful job on it, had gotten somewhat involved, I think, emotionally with Nancy Ziegenmeyer, and it was hard when it broke, because Nancy Ziegenmeyer got all the attention, correctly, and then the attention that went to the Register often went to me because I was the editor, and, in fact, Jane was the one who had committed this remarkable journalism. I think she very quickly developed a difficulty with Nancy, and they just had a real break. So it was a very painful situation, and I thought that it would be better not to keep on having -- but again, I think that was a mistake. I think we should have just gone ahead and full-throatedly known that we were part of something special and, you know, done a good movie and a good book.
So, this terrible script for this crummy TV movie, they sent it to me at one point, even though we weren’t really associated with it. But, you know, it’s public. I mean, my name was public. I was a public figure. Nancy Ziegenmeyer. It had all been very public, and the Des Moines Register’s flag and everything could all be used even in the pictures of the building. So they did all this and made this movie, and the script was just awful. They sent it to me one time, as I said, and one scene is me sitting in a news room, I’m having a news meeting with my top editors, I’m sitting there, and all of a sudden I go, “Stuff the soybeans, gentlemen. We’ve got a hell of a story,” because apparently coming across the news room is Nancy Ziegenmeyer. I mean, nothing like this ever happened, of course. Stuff the soybeans? I mean, supposedly because we’re Iowans, we’re talking about soybeans at a news meeting. It’s just so low-brow.
Q: It seems to me the drama of her making this decision to call you is so much better, and it’s real life.
Overholser: This is how good the movie was. Anyway, it was really something.
Q: You’ve taken some positions. I don’t know how recently this was printed, but I was reading it in preparation. You’ve taken some strong positions about journalists and celebrity, the culture of celebrity. Do you think that that was part of what was going on in your mind back then, that you really didn’t want to be the star, the story was bigger than that?
Overholser: Well, I hope so. I think that’s very valid. Most of the times that I actually consciously voiced those were later, especially after I moved to Washington and saw that so many people were becoming celebrities and saw that, in fact, it was distressing for readers. Readers were having a hard time putting this together with what we told them about objectivity and “We’re really doing it for you.”
There is some consistency there. I like your point. I didn’t at the time think that so much as I thought it would be unseemly for us to, A, make any money off of it, but we could have given the money to, you know, some rape victims’ fund or something. But also, yes, for us to become more famous, I was uncomfortable with the level of attention. I can’t really convey to you adequately how weird it was. All of a sudden, literally the whole nation’s media attention was focused on the Des Moines Register and Nancy Ziegenmeyer, because we had done this thing, and it sort of felt like all the air was being sucked up, and I felt like I needed to get on with editing the Register, and we would do other good journalism. It just didn’t seem right to do it.
But I think I made a mistake about that. I talked to Ben Bradlee about that later, who has said that doing All The President’s Men and having it filmed in the news room was just a great experience for everybody, and the fact is, I think it would have been a good experience for the news room. I mean, they’re going to make a movie and do a book anyway, and they were crummy.
Q: Right. So you could have had control over --
Overholser: Absolutely. Both cases, both cases. But, yes, I think that was sort of a part and parcel of the same thing. It wasn’t appropriate for us to -- I certainly felt weird being featured on big TV shows over it. I didn’t do it. I mean, Nancy Ziegenmeyer, that was her call. She should feel free to.
Later, too, it became more controversial, and I would go to panels and discuss it, because I thought that could be useful, let’s have these discussions about the effect of doing this. I was on one with Patricia Bowman at one point, and she pointed across the room and jabbed her finger and said, “You’re the one. You’re the reason that rape victims now have to confront all this.” And I thought, “That wasn’t exactly the point.” But it’s true, it’s a very heated issue, and it still is.
Q: In the midst of all this turmoil and the journalism and feminism clashing, there was something going on in your personal life that created more tumult, so maybe you can talk about how that was happening in parallel, if it was, or the romance that began there.
Overholser: Yes. Well, at that point it hadn’t begun, although I certainly felt instantly on working with David that he was one of the most wonderful men I’d ever met, but our romance didn’t begin till much later.
Q: I’m sorry. I apologize.
Overholser: No, that’s all right. This rape series was remarkably early after I got to the paper. I came in late ’88, and I think the reporting was in ’89, so it was really remarkably early.
I don’t even know that I would have said that my marriage was pretty flat, but it certainly, in retrospect, was. Whoever knows what all makes up the trends in our lives like that? I’m not sure. I would have said that one thing that was going on for me was that my life was much more consumed with my work than it had ever been. It was exceedingly work-driven. I mean, being editor of a newspaper is just kind of -- talk about sucking up the air. I spent so much time at work. I certainly could leave to be in my children’s lives, but certainly our marriage was not a commanding presence in my life.
I think that my first husband and I had a very decent relationship, but it was never a passionate relationship and it was never very compelling for me. We did compelling things and we had our children, which was compelling, but it wasn’t a very rich marriage. I would never have had any premonition at that point that I’d fall in love with David, but I probably would have said -- I know I said, I did say, as a matter of fact, to friends, your marriage can’t be everything. You make up for it with your children and your work. People who really expect their marriage to be very much of their lives are probably looking to their marriage to be -- I mean, I had all kinds of ways of justifying why my marriage was such a thin thing in my life, but I wouldn’t have thought much about it at that time, because what I would mostly have thought was being editor of the paper is so rich and amazing and time-consuming. But I think, in fact, that was contributing to the breakdown of my marriage, partly because Mike and I shared very little by then, except the kids.
Q: How was it for your two daughters? They were young. Probably they were starting to turn into young women at the time. How old were they?
Overholser: Let’s see. Well, in ’88, Laura would have been twelve. No, I’m sorry, ’88. Laura would have been ten, and Nell would have been four, so, yes, growing into young women, very much independent in a lot of ways. That’s what I thought about them as being, anyway. Lots of athletics, and I would sort of go away. I wish you could interview them, because what they’ve always said, I think Nell would have said, “Oh, I just knew I had a great life, and we had this big, beautiful house and I liked that.” She went from kindergarten right on up through seventh grade living in Des Moines, had all this stability.
I think Laura would have said, “It’s cool having your mom be editor,” but it was much more problematic for her. Within the next few years, she was really growing up, of course -- fourteen, fifteen, sixteen -- and she would have experiences where -- well, one, for example, a prominent neurosurgeon was operating, and this guy was famed for having a hot temper. He left the operating room. He threw instruments on the ground, and the left the patient open, just this total temper tantrum. And so word of this leaked to our health writer from the nurses. Then later there were malpractice suits, and we were covering this.
It turned out that this surgeon -- I mean, it didn’t turn out; I knew this -- the surgeon was the father of one of one of Laura’s friends, and the lawyer who represented the surgeon was the father of another of Laura’s friends. You know, being the editor of the paper, these were very prominent families in Des Moines, and there are more sympathies that go toward the people in those cases, no matter that, in my view, they are the problem; we’re not the problem. But that was very hard for Laura, because her friends really felt like her mother was doing this terrible, invasive thing, and so that was hard.
But I would say she still would have said she was proud of me, and she felt like I was very much in her life, I think, although every now and then I’d come to a diving meet and I would just have missed her favorite dive out of twelve, you know.
I think our family worked well. Our marriage didn’t. Mike never came to things like the ASNE meetings or Pulitzer. Other people’s spouses would come. Of course, other people’s spouses were all wives, so I always thought, well, that’s why. But I think maybe it was there were other reasons that I didn’t really examine, I don’t know. I must surely have been aware then that my marriage was pretty empty, but the main thing I would have said was, I was so enjoying my life, my children, my work, that was a very happy time, for the most part.
But a big theme there is definitely that increasingly -- and this one will deserve practically a whole interview in itself -- increasingly, I was feeling like every decision made was being made for the benefit of increased profit, and that the impact on the newspaper was so visibly detrimental, and that I was in a constant struggle at meetings to bring the voice of the newspaper -- that is, the readers -- into a stronger position up against the voice of the advertiser, who obviously was -- my publisher used to jokingly say, “We need to hear from the revenue-producing departments, Geneva,” and I would say, “I am the revenue-producing department. These advertisers, you know, they can go be in a Shopper. They’re in the Register because of my department. My department is the revenues.”
But, of course, my department was also the one that zapped up all the -- it’s expensive to run a good newspaper. We had, in the first three years of Gannett’s ownership, gone from very small profit margins, like 3 percent, to something like 21 percent net income before taxes.
So it was a very different environment economically, financially, and he really did -- I mean, I was one of eight people on the operating committee -- that’s the publisher and the head of the advertising and the circulation and the production and the financial, all the different departments, my department being, of course, the newspaper, the way I saw it. But I was only one voice of eight, and while the publisher often was in my camp emotionally, he was under increasing pressure from Gannett for the paper to perform better. And while my being as prominent as I was nationally helped protect the Register from some of the squeezing, and certainly that Pulitzer helped, I think, protect it, there was only so much, and in many ways the clock was running out, in terms -- I mean, Gannett owned the paper. They have every right to do what they want to with it.
I think that one of the main stories of my seven years, six and a half years, six and three-quarters, whatever, as editor of the Register is that it was kind of a gradual realization that -- the way it first looked to me was, I couldn’t save it. I always felt like I was holding my finger in the dike or I was trying desperately to bridge this incredible gap between the editorial side and the financial side or between corporate and our news room. I would say things, like corporate vice presidents would come out, and I’d say, “It just feels like greed to me when we need this much,” and they would just scoff at me, you know. I mean, I was always outspoken.
The first time they named me Editor of the Year at Gannett, you can give a three-minute speech at this large meeting, where all the board of directors are there and all the publishers and all the heads of the different newspaper divisions, and The Editor of the Year gets to give a three-minute speech.
So I carefully crafted this three-minute speech, which I’d love to show you sometime, which I thought was very -- I honestly thought was very collegial. I paid respect to -- I said, “This is a risk-taking, innovative company. You have launched USA Today in an era when very few people are voting for newspapers. And, you know, what I wish would be Gannett’s next innovation would be to worry about all their stakeholders as much as they, of course, need to worry about shareholders; that is, to worry about the citizens in the communities they serve, to worry about their employees, and to worry about their advertisers, but all equally with the shareholders.” Because I had already come to understand that the kind of relentless quarter-to-quarter profit pressures were really driven by this need to return better and better for the shareholders. And so I said, “I wish this could be our innovation.”
You’d have thought I stood up and said, “Fuck everyone.” I mean, it was as if I’d said the most unacceptable thing in the world. People came up to my publisher and asked him if he had approved my remarks. To his credit, he said, “I don’t ask my editor to pass her remarks by me.” And it was the only speech by a Gannett Editor of the Year not to make it into the in-house publication.
One of my friends who was our columnist, Donald Kaul, joked that it was like samizdat. Do you remember under the Soviet Union there was certain kinds of information that became very precious and it couldn’t be published, but it would be mimeographed and passed around hand to hand? Well, that’s what it was like. It wasn’t published in the publication, but it was put up on bulletin boards in all the Gannett news rooms and stuff. It was if I had said absolutely unmentionable things.
Q: Maybe for the next interview, you can bring it and read it into the tape recorder so we’ll have it for the historical record.
Overholser: I’d love to. It’s been in CJR [Columbia Journalism Review], later when I left.
Q: I’m just astonished to hear that. I don’t even know how to follow up. I mean --
Overholser: It’s amazing.
Q: It’s such disrespect for the people who create the product and the people who support the product by reading it. I’m astonished.
Overholser: But, you know, 80 percent of a newspaper’s revenues are advertising, and, really, that is one of the problems. Readers don’t contribute much. So when people in charge are making business-based decisions, readers’ voices are really not very powerful.
So I sat there at this table always trying to represent the reader’s voice, in an environment where -- again, it’s not that anybody was a terrible villain. I mean, the publisher was doing his best. The advertising manager was trying to produce the dough. But all of them were directed by, “We have got to return Gannett’s expectations,” and the expectations were unreasonable. You could not return them and still pay decently and train decently. Now, this is a nationwide, industry-wide issue, not just this industry, as you know, and now people are finally realizing it.
I was talking a while ago about the rape issue coming at the right time. I do believe that to everything there is a season, and that that was right for the rape issue. I do not believe that my thoughts about these profit pressures came at the right time. Alas, they came too late, really, for me to be effective in protecting the Register from the worst of the profit pressures, and they came -- I mean, my thoughts were out of sync with where the nation was about this, and the Register was going through a worse -- you know, it had been a better paper than most that are bought suddenly, and the impact for it was worse, therefore. I mean, it was more dramatic what we were going through in terms of squeezing the profits out of it and reducing the news hole in the newspaper. I had to fight so hard to be able to take the paper up by a sheet, even if it were the biggest news day in the world. Other editors didn’t have to go and, you know, abrade their knees with their publishers to try to get -- but it was because he was under such terrible pressure.
Q: Can you explain that term, the news hole? Is this the newspaper term for cutting down your space on the front page?
Overholser: No. The news hole is that portion of the newspaper that is used by the editor as opposed to the advertising director. So if you look at a newspaper, the news hole is all of the news and editorial content, and the news hole -- you know, newsprint is second only to employment expenses when it comes to a newspaper company’s expenditures. It’s a very precious commodity, as well it should be, environmentalists would say, because we’re chopping down a lot of trees. But it’s what’s very expensive, and particularly -- this is all so complex, you don’t really want to hear it all.
But the Register had really been a statewide paper, which meant that it was distributed throughout the state, which meant we were producing a lot of copies of newspapers for readers, who really wanted the paper. But the advertisers were not interested in those readers, because you’re not going to live in Davenport and buy a car in Des Moines. You’re not going to live in Sioux City and buy a house in Des Moines. So advertisers wanted to be in the newspapers that go to the logical market area for Des Moines, so the readers who were not of interest to advertisers become, you know, not of great interest, unless you care about the civic responsibility of the newspaper. And if the papers are still profitable, which they were, but they’re much less profitable than the interior what we call the “golden circle,” these are the arguments we were having all the time, and we would regularly lop them off, 10,000 readers here, 20,000 readers there, because they didn’t make economic sense if we were trying to reach the budgets we needed to reach, and we wouldn’t have to use all that newsprint to send the papers out there.
Similarly, if I wanted to take a paper up a sheet, that’s a lot of money to put news in the newspaper, but it would be adequately supported by advertising? But every decision we make here, and I cannot tell you, it was like a constant daily thing. You’d get people who’d go on vacation. You were supposed to have dark time. People would be on leaves. You’re supposed to have dark time. That is, nobody’s in these jobs, so you’re trying to put out the newspaper without being able to staff up to what you’re accustomed to being able to staff up to. You’re supposed to increase the dark time. Somebody leaves a position, you can’t fill the position for six months. Well, you’re essentially down a reporter. You know, increasingly you just can’t put out the same quality newspaper.
I would argue that what we’ve seen in the Pulitzers, which is now almost nobody wins but the big four -- The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the L.A. [Los Angeles] Times. This is really not rocket science. They’re the ones who are putting the resources into it to do Pulitzer-quality work. It takes time, it takes training, it takes news hole, and these papers are just not able to do it anymore. We were always, always feeling as if we were just hanging on by our fingernails, or at least I was.
Finally what I realized is, I really had a vision of the paper as it had been, and that what had been seen as a strength when I came -- that vision of the paper as it had been -- was, in fact, inappropriate for these times, because we couldn’t put out the same kind of newspaper, and they needed an editor who wasn’t going to try, I think.
Q: So do you think that this was -- it sounds like this is a pivotal time in the history of newspapers, because you had mentioned that it was a family-run newspaper that then got sold, and so the bottom-line and quarter-to-quarter thinking of Wall Street was kind of finally trickling down during your tenure there. Is that the explanation for why this was happening in the nineties?
Overholser: Yes. Well, interestingly, the company that made quarter-to-quarter profit improvements the mantra in newspapering, was Gannett, because Al Neuharth, who’s a great visionary in many ways, had been able to make Gannett more and more -- I’ve forgotten how many quarters running he increased the profits every quarter for year after year on end. And so public newspaper companies, that was setting a new level of achievement, and so other public newspaper companies wanted to copy it.
So now we have Knight Ridder doing this. You know, even papers that were supposedly good papers, enlightened newspaper companies, are doing it. They all want to be like Gannett. At the point this was happening, Gannett was sort of seen as the greedy one, the inappropriately profit-driven one, and it just happened that Gannett bought the Des Moines Register, which had just happened to be an exceptionally good regional newspaper. Other papers were being bought, and it was an era of increasing corporatization. In 1948, out of 1,500 daily newspapers, something like 95 percent were privately owned, privately held, mostly by individual families. By this time, only 300 of the 1,500 daily newspapers are still individually held, and a lot of them are little bitty papers. So, yes, corporatization was a big thing anyway, but in this case it was a particularly big gap between Gannett’s vision, which was really profit-driven, and the Register’s vision, which had been really journalism-driven and civically driven.
Now there are all kinds of conversations about this, and happily enough, my having become prominent in this topic then, although it was widely derided then, it was seen as inappropriate, has been fruitful and now part of many discussions on this topic -- you know, the Carnegie Commission and the Aspen Institute. And so I have been able, I think, to help lead some discussions with CEOs [Chief Executive Officers] and with board members. I’ve been involved in all kinds of projects recently. But it really does feel as if all this came too late to really -- I mean, the Register is a perfectly fine newspaper, but it really is a small-city newspaper now, which is, you could argue, where it ought to be. But in these days, when I went there first, it had one of the preeminent Washington bureaus in the country, and that made a difference. It was doing agricultural reporting that I would argue was of great national import. Now almost nobody is doing agricultural reporting like that. So, you know, these losses are real. Because of profit pressures, newspapering is a lesser thing in too many cases.
Now, the best newspapers are better than they ever were, I think. I think The New York Times is better than it was. But a lot of good regional newspapers like this one and like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer that used to be real contenders year after year for the big prizes because they were really doing great journalism, they’re not anymore. They’re really not. Some of them are doing perfectly good journalism and some of them are serving their communities, but I really did, in the end, feel that I was presiding over the diminishment of a great newspaper, and it was heartbreaking.
I’ll never forget the day I had what I think of as my epiphany. I went to a meeting, and we were discussing yet another round of turning neighborhoods in Des Moines into end-of-the-driveway delivery. Now, this may not sound like a big deal, but it’s very cold in Iowa in the winter, and we had a circulation director who had come from San Bernardino, California, and he realized that we could save some measly fee like $30,000 -- I mean, it’s measly in the scheme of things, you know -- by delivering the newspapers at the end of the driveway in Des Moines’ wealthiest neighborhoods, which had long driveways, as wealthy neighborhoods often do.
Well, of course, the elite of Des Moines were all furious at us, because they don’t want to walk down the driveway in the ice in their slippers, and so a whole bunch of them got together and canceled, and I, of course, was the one arguing against this. I said, “We will lose more goodwill.” And sure enough, they all call me. Nobody knows the circulation director. People know who the editor is. I found myself going to Rotary Club meetings, and people would stand up and yell about the paper. You know, after all these years of hearing from readers in Davenport and Sioux City and everywhere saying, “Don’t you get it? You’re more than just a business,” and I’m kind of going, “Yes, I get it.” But publicly I’m saying, “Well, let me explain.” I got tired of “Let me explain.” I would stand there at Rotary Club meetings and say, “Yes, I think it’s really crazy,” and I realized, “I’ve got to go.”
I’m sitting at one more meeting like this, and they’re discussing yet another round of this, and I sort of looked at Charlie and I got up and left, and I wrote -- I actually wrote what was essentially a resignation, but it said, you know, “You once told me that you thought that we would come to a time when I could no longer accept the direction the newspaper had to head in, and you were right, and this is that time.”
I felt like demons had been lifted from my shoulders, because I didn’t have to try to save it. I couldn’t save it. Somebody else needed to come who had a new vision for the paper. It couldn’t be what it had been. And it was just wonderful, because at the same time, my personal life really had gotten extremely complex, and I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do, because I was in love with the managing editor. I think, in fact, I would have left sooner had I not, in the final year of being there, fallen absolutely irrevocably in love with him and not knowing what to do. I think I would have left sooner because I realized at least a year before I left, that there was nothing I could -- I couldn’t save it. I wasn’t even supposed to save it. It was Gannett’s paper. But, man, it was sad. It was so sad.
Maybe it’s too personal a story. Some people would say the paper’s fine. I mean, if you were to talk to a lot of the people who were really -- I don’t even like hearing about it, because people will write me and say, “Now they’re doing paid obits,” and I think, “Oh, paid obits.” But all these fights we fought, they just sort of, you know, the barriers have fallen one by one. Anyway.
Q: How was the managing editor reacting to what was going on?
Overholser: Oh, it was breaking his heart, too. But in all honesty, the editor’s role is harder in that way, because, again, back at that table of eight, you’re the one who sits there. The managing editor is really running the news room.
I later wrote a piece for AJR [American Journalism Review] called “Editor, Inc.” about how editors increasingly are spending their time in marketing meetings. You know, you go into this because you want to do journalism, and then all of a sudden not only are you a business executive, you’re not making smart business decisions. I mean, that’s the way I felt. People say, “Well, the paper’s got to be financially healthy,” like I needed instruction on this. I’m saying, “I get that the paper has to be financially healthy. I’m all for financial health. My argument is, we’re running it into the ground. We’re eating our seed corn, and over the long haul, we are not going to be financially healthy. If you’re going to make me be a business executive, then let me have a voice about it.”
It is so profit-driven, and it isn’t just Gannett now by any means. It’s sort of short-term emphasis returning 25 net income before taxes, 25 percent, 30 percent, and not reinvesting. There’s no training. There’s no R&D [Research and Development]. It’s the ultimate “milk it while we can” philosophy. And this is journalism. This is a democracy. We really believe people need to know things in order to govern themselves, and then we’re just squeezing their newspapers.
And newspapers are more important than people know in terms of other media. When I first came back to the Register as editor, I went on these little small plane trips all over the state, because the Register was still delivered in all ninety-nine counties for daily home delivery. I would go to all these towns, and in every town, at every newspaper, or television, or radio station, wherever the news was being gathered, there would be the Register sitting on the desk. It’s sort of what the Times is nationally. And now, of course, we have CNN [Cable News Network] on in the news room all the time. But what a newspaper does locally makes a huge difference -- you know this -- in terms of what’s reported on in other media. And the Register was really a great newspaper, and the life of the state has been affected by its not being the newspaper it was.
When I first came back, I remember Bob [Robert D.] Ray, who was then governor, who had been governor when I first came to the Register and he was then a retired governor and the new governor was Terry Branstad. But Bob Ray said to me at a dinner party, “Of course, we were always mad at the Register,” because of things like when his wife was arrested for driving while intoxicated, we put it on the front page, stuff like that. But he said, “The truth is, whenever I would gather with other governors, I realized how lucky I was, because I always knew what people knew, because the paper was so powerful throughout the state. And I always knew if I needed to get word out about something, the Register would get it out.” Well, it’s just no longer true, and of course it affects the state.
Q: So what people don’t realize is that when you strangle a newspaper, you’re strangling the political life, really, the give-and-take between politicians and their voters.
Overholser: Yes. You’re really, really constricting the civic life of the state. Fewer people will be able to vote intelligently. Fewer people will be engaged in their communities in all kinds of ways. Fewer people will be activists. I mean, newspapers really are both creatures of and creators of their communities. The people who took the Register throughout the state were the postmaster and the banker and the high school coach and the high school teachers. These were kind of the pillars of the communities throughout the state, and they wrote great letters to the editor. It was a circular thing. It was great being editor of a paper in that state because of the civic engagement and because people really were involved, and then people were involved and engaged because the paper was so good. It was a constant feeding and replenishing.
And, boy, did people miss it when we would cut them off. They would call me and howl, and I had to just act like, “Oh, well, you know, important business decisions,” and what I felt like saying was, “I know. It’s heartbreaking.” I would weep when the budgets came out, just weep. It was heartbreaking, and it’s criminal, is what I really think. So, you know, for seven, six and a half, whatever the hell it was, years, I felt like, on the one hand, we were doing great work, and I felt like, on the other hand, every day we were diminished. I was the one who was supposed to be fighting, and I kept finding myself falling short, so I hated myself for falling short. But what could you do? You can’t be -- heroism, you know. I mean, I was perfectly willing to fall on my sword.
In fact, I was well situated because my degree of prominence, being on the Pulitzer Board, becoming chairman of the Pulitzer Board, being elected officer of ASNE. Stuff like that matters in the newspaper biz, and so Gannett did, I think, treat me with -- give me unusual leeway among its editors. And I kept being named Editor of the Year twice, and the Register would win all the Gannett prizes and everything. So I think we actually had more leeway than most any Gannett paper, but it only put off inevitability.
Q: Did you talk to your colleagues on the Pulitzer Board and other editors to see if they had any solutions? So you didn’t feel isolated in that way?
Overholser: Well, it was a growing problem, but I was really -- I hate to say this, because it’s no distinction, but the Register was really in the forefront of it because of what I’ve said about the gap between how good the paper was and how much Gannett emphasizes the profits. So my colleagues on the Pulitzer Board were, more of them, from papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post, and they weren’t experiencing it.
Q: They were cushioned.
Overholser: They were cushioned. I would say I did feel really isolated, and when I did talk about it, a lot of editors said, “Oh, you know, these are just economic realities.” A lot of people have changed now and feel really strongly that we need to speak about it and that there may be solutions. At the time, people felt sort of discouraged, as we were talking a while ago, about people not wanting to acknowledge problems.
[END TAPE TWO, SIDE TWO; BEGIN TAPE THREE, SIDE ONE]
Q: We were talking about the other editors being cushioned at the other newspapers. So I guess we should really name the year when that last straw occurred and what you did after you had that epiphany about the drive -- the epiphany was the driveway deliveries, right?
Overholser: Yes. It was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Q: And then you decided to take action.
Q: What year was that?
Overholser: ’95. I came in ’88, and I left in ’95. I mean, I came back in ’88, and I left in ’95.
It seems funny to cite the driveway one, because, of course, my heart had been broken far more by budget pressures in the news room. But I knew it was one more way in which we were just going to make people mad, and, in an odd sense, the very fact that I was supposed to care about the business, and then the business side would make these dumb mistakes, these dumb, not smart business decisions, I thought, “You know, I’m going to have to hear more about this at Rotary Clubs,” and blah, blah, blah, and I thought, “I just can’t stand it. I always lose. We’re making dumb decisions.”
So I wrote Charlie this note, and I think he probably thought it was time. You know, he got tired of my arguing about everything, and so did my colleagues on the operating committee. They wanted to respond to Gannett’s requirements that they make more money.
I was named vice president, as well as editor, and I said, “You know, I really don’t want to be a vice president. Editor is a great title. I just want to be an editor.”
And my colleague, you know, was the vice president and comptroller. She was comptroller before. Now she gets to be vice president. She was thrilled to be vice president. She said, “Don’t detract from this great thing that’s happening for the rest of us.”
I mean, everybody else wanted the paper to do well financially, and do well, to me, we weren’t doing well. We were running it into the ground. So I realized increasingly I just needed to get out. I also knew the publisher would probably leave if I left, and he did. He left just shortly thereafter. I mean, some months, but it was finished for him, too. The dream that we both entered into this with, that he’d be publisher and I’d be editor of a great newspaper, it was over.
Q: Was that Charlie?
Overholser: Charlie Edwards. Yes, he was publisher. We had really had a great ride. I don’t for a minute regret having done it. It was a great, great experience. Charlie was a really good publisher, and he supported me just as he said he would, and when Gannett’s pressures were too great, what could he do? So I needed to get out of there.
I had been talking to my sister about this paralysis, the emotional paralysis, because I was in love and I was enormously depressed about the paper, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt totally stuck. She had said, “You know, when I have confronted difficult times like this, I just have sort of felt like I needed to pull one thread, just pull one thread so you can move forward. You’ll disassemble the whole knot, you know.”
So, for me, I realized I hadn’t even said it to myself consciously, but when I sat down and wrote that memo to Charlie, saying, “You have said there would come a moment when I not be able to go in the direction that the newspaper has to go in, and this is really that moment,” I realized I was pulling a thread. And so I told him I’d like to stay for some weeks, because I hadn’t begun looking for any job or anything, and he agreed. And then when he told Gannett that I was resigning, they said, “No, we want her to go now,” because, understandably, I mean, it’s not good to have a lame-duck editor. But, I mean, they really said, “We want her to go now.” I think it was an uncomfortable relationship for them all along. I was always talking about profit pressures. Anyway, so that was in February, I think.
Then, of course, we had the complexity of the fact that Charlie was considering David, who was the managing editor, my then-to-be future husband, as the editor. David told Charlie he didn’t want to be editor, and we both said we were leaving. We began looking for work, and I ended up taking a position as ombudsman of the Washington Post, and David became bureau chief of McClatchy newspapers. Revisionist history will have people telling you they knew, but I really don’t think they did, but who knows? I would be the last to know. But I know people say they did. Maybe a few, way fewer than claim it, I’ll tell you that.
Q: You mean staffers, reporters and stuff?
Overholser: Yes. Frankly, most people in a news room are really worried about, A, numero uno, and I do think when we left, it was exceedingly jarring, because, first of all, we left, and then not all that long after, Charlie left, and so it was just the end of an era in a very definitive way, and it was an exceedingly difficult time. Plus, your editor and managing editor falling in love. I mean, no way.
And it turned out that The Wall Street Journal was working on a piece. Originally, they thought the piece was about what they thought to be a conflict between me and John Curley, who was the CEO of Gannett. It wasn’t even really real, although of course there had always been tension, because I was always talking about profit pressures, and Curley was always talking about profits. And there had been some tension, partly because John Curley had put a lot of pressure on Charlie, and, in fact, spoke about Charlie, the publisher, my publisher, in very disparaging ways. He didn’t have any respect for him. He thought he was the son of a rich family, born to ease. He would take me aside and say, “Oh, god, Charlie’s out running, and we can’t -- “ I mean, how inappropriate is this? The CEO is talking to me about my boss. It just was so inappropriate. So there certainly was some tension, but, you know, Curley and I had always managed to keep that back.
But the Journal thought that that was the story they were writing, and then all of a sudden all the rest of this stuff kind of opened up. So the Journal actually put -- you know those little drawings they put on the front page? They did one of those, and I was in the center column on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, essentially for a story that was, as I’ve said to people, not many people make it to the front page of the Journal based on romance. You know, I can say that now, but at the time, I mean, god, I just thought, “What in the -- ” And people would say to me, “Well, I don’t get why is that such a big deal? Why is it on the front page of the Journal?” and I’m going, “I don’t know.” Anyway, so, yes, complex.
I am certainly happy to talk more about that. That’s probably not a bad idea. You know, I was falling irrevocably in love with the man who was reporting to me as my managing editor and who had a family, and I had a family, and our families knew each other. It was remarkably difficult. I mean, as you can imagine, each of us did everything we could to end -- at one point, I remember David, probably after I’d been there five years or something, we realized we were really becoming involved emotionally, and he said, “I need to leave, “ and I said, “No, you can’t leave.” So, I mean, it was just terrible. But, of course, it ended up being a great blessing. I mean, I can’t believe how much I love him and how wonderful he is. But at the time I thought, “There is no way out of this.”
Really, it felt paralyzing for both reasons, that I was in love with this most inappropriate person for me to be in love with that there could be, and, B, that the paper, increasingly it was clear I was in the wrong job. There was no way I could do what I really wanted to do, and that it even -- I needed to get out, you know.
When we left, there wasn’t any publicity, but later on the Register kind of figured it out and assigned somebody to look at the real estate records, as well they should have, in Washington. After we’d been there for a while, we bought a house together, so they put a story in the Register about the fact that we’d bought a house together. No duh. It took them a while. [Laughs]
Q: We have fifteen more minutes. Should we continue with the story of deciding to leave together and the, you know --
Overholser: It’s up to you. I mean, I’m happy to talk about it. It kind of depends on what is the goal of the oral history, isn’t it, to be of interest to women journalists. It wouldn’t hurt.
Overholser: It’s not central to my journalism life, except insofar as it certainly took an interesting turn. I mean, we needed to leave. Of course, I would have wanted to leave Des Moines when I left the Register. I had to look for work from not having work, and so did he. We both, essentially. We both decided, well, where do we want to go live, and we made a list of cities, and Washington was the only one that was in both of our top three. So we both looked for work and we found good jobs, and we were out of there by May.
His son, Paul, was graduating from high school then. My daughter, Laura, was going into her senior year of high school, and Nell was in sixth grade. So it was very tumultuous and very difficult. It was very public, later when it became public, very public, because we had been figures of some consequence in Des Moines, of course. And very painful and hard on our kids, especially, I thought, on Nell, my youngest, but, in fact, I think, as we’ve discussed, she ended up being the one who reacted most healthily, being really angry and talking about it and telling me how I was this most selfish person in the world. But I would have to say I think we’ve all come through it, even the very difficult times for our former spouses, and I hope that they feel they have, too. It’s been eight years.
Q: So Laura stayed, and then Nell stayed, but then eventually came to Washington a year later.
Overholser: Nell wanted to stay because, of course, her sister was there and her dad and she knew Des Moines, and she was furious at me. So she stayed. And then Laura came out to Connecticut to school, and Nell came to Washington to live with us.
Nell’s trajectory has been very interesting, because she moved from Des Moines, where she really had this very stable life insofar as she remembered, because, you know, the early sort of New York -- early on, she went from Des Moines to Cambridge to New York. But then by the time she was in kindergarten, she was situated in Des Moines, and all the way through the sixth grade and then seventh grade.
When she came to Washington, people said, “You’ve got to go to a private school.” A rich -- I mean, rich? A smart white -- they didn’t say white, but I think that’s what they meant -- kid does not go to the public schools in Washington.
We kept thinking, “Is this about race? We’d better find out.”
And Nell kept saying, “I don’t want to go to a private school. They seem real snooty at private schools.”
So we checked it out, and, sure enough, there were people who were very pleased to be at public schools, and so she went there for junior high and then stayed with it and graduated from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in the District of Columbia Public Schools, and now she’s at Dartmouth [College]. She has had a really interesting high school time.
And now Laura is in Utah. She graduated from Wesleyan [University] and then went right out to work for the Olympics and stayed in Utah and is the assisstant public relations director for Snowbird, a ski area just outside Salt Lake City. And Paul finished at the University of Northern Iowa and got a degree in music and music education and is kind of finding his way, and he has stayed in Des Moines.
They’ve all confronted various difficulties at one time or another, and we, of course, have asked ourselves, “Are these because we got a divorce?” And we realized that half the time you don’t know, and the best way to do it is to think carefully about it and be sorry for pain you’ve caused, and also not assume that everything in the world that happens to your kids is because of something you did. As one friend of mine says, “Geneva, it’s her life. It isn’t your life.” [Laughs] Anyway, it’s hard.
Q: Maybe we should stop.
Overholser: Yes, maybe so. It’s a good stopping point.
Q: Yes, it’s the end of a chapter and the beginning of another one.
Overholser: Yes, exactly. An important end, yes.
Q: Okay. Thank you.
Overholser: Thank you.[END OF SESSION)