USA Today editor visits campus

By David Valdes

Editor and founding member of USA Today Ken Paulson wants the First Amendment to be used in a positive manner.

Paulson spoke at a lecture called “Land of the Free and Home of the Easily Offended: The State of Free Speech in America.” The University of Missouri journalism graduate, University College of Law graduate and Daily Illini alumnus covered topics ranging from his background and rise to success in journalism to the complications of covering recent high profile news stories.

Paulson shared a story with the crowd gathered in a Levis Faculty Center conference room about interviews he has given in the past. He said he noticed a growing negative trend in news.

“Too often, we go for the heat rather than light,” he said, referring to news organizations’ tendency to favor provocative and controversial spins on news rather than truthful representations.

Paulson described the difficulty of covering the Michael Jackson child molestation trial.

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“We lose sight of where the journalism ends and the hoopla begins,” he said, describing the media’s coverage of the Jackson trial.

Paulson briefly discussed the Terri Schiavo case’s fall from a fascinating story of life and death and human rights to a media circus.

“How low can you go?” Paulson said, referring to one publication’s inclusion of a quote that compared Schiavo’s husband to Scott Peterson and O.J. Simpson.

“Most American institutions are held in a lower regard than they were 30 years ago,” said Paulson. “Press has lost the high ground.”

Paulson said in the past, his message has elicited negative response and misunderstanding.

“You could say that I’m concerned about the loss of credibility of the press,” he said. “Just to be clear, I’m not blasting the media for irresponsibility.”

Paulson said he believed the First Amendment should be used in a positive manner.

“We should use freedom of the press to make a difference in this country,” he said. “It’s about protecting the nation – the heart of the nation – the kind of country that had never been founded before and has thrived.”

Paulson described journalists’ job as a fight to “keep the public’s business public.”

He told the crowd that he and his top editors at USA Today are very in touch with their readers’ opinions.

“Every single morning we hear what our readers have to say,” Paulson said. He added that if any USA Today article is ever questioned or challenged, an investigation as to its accuracy begins in less than fifteen minutes. “Getting it right is most important,” Paulson said, as a message to future journalists. “We can rebuild trust if we use the diverse newsroom to capture what’s going on out there – and do it accurately.”

As for the future of print journalism, Paulson’s predicts that advances in the way Americans receive their news will push print news publications to the back burner.

However, he said he believes newspapers will survive.

“I see a future for newspapers, but it’s going to be a different future,” he said.

Late in the presentation, College of Communications Dean Ronald Yates asked a question that all of the prospective journalists in the room were afraid to ask – “How do I get a job at USA Today?” Paulson listed intelligence, passion, and commitment as the three most important characteristics in a person he would employ.

“Be the best reporter in that newsroom,” he said. “You’ve got to hit the curve at double A before you can play the majors.”

Paulson named many inspirations for pursuing a career in journalism. He said that more than anything else, Superman’s Clark Kent was his main inspiration. He also mentioned a film starring Humphrey Bogart named Deadline USA as a major inspiration.

Brittany Bekas, freshman in LAS, said she enjoyed hearing Paulson speak.

“I think it’s really cool that alumni come back and share their success stories. It gives me motivation.”