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Home > Publications > Quill > 10: Ken Paulson


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Friday, May 1, 2009
10: Ken Paulson

Amy Guyer

So, what’s a day as president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum, Newseum and Diversity Institute like?

That’s a really good question. You know, I’ve been on the job for a grand total of 60 days. It’s not that different from my life as editor of USA Today. Every day is a little different. The museum moves in tandem with the world’s events. And instead of focusing on circulation, I focus on attendance. It’s still a job about developing content that will resonate with the American public.

I talk about the need to protect the First Amendment. Only 3 percent of Americans can tell you what the five freedoms are. We try to raise awareness about why they are so pivotal to democracy.

What prompted your dedication to preserving the First Amendment?

I’m dating myself a little. I saw extraordinarily positive social change throughout my life, particularly during the 1960s. I saw [great advancements made] in rights of both minorities and women, all fueled by the five freedoms of the First Amendment. I also saw an entire generation take to the streets and share its concerns about American foreign policy. It was invigorating and inspiring and I never lost sight of how critical those freedoms are.

What drew you into journalism?

The real answer is not anything as lofty as a commitment to public service. I could not get enough of the Superman TV show. I may have been the only kid in America whose pulse quickened when Clark Kent came on the screen. I knew I was never going to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I thought I might be able to make a difference as a reporter.

If it was a reporting aspect that drew you in, how did you become an editor?

I began writing professionally when I was 16, as a rock critic. So I spent about eight years freelancing while I went to high school and college and law school. As a professional reporter, I was actually a reporter just two years before I became a city editor. It was a ridiculous leap of faith to let me run a newsroom, but it worked out in the long-run. There are reporters that may have viewed being editor as the worst possible fate, but I loved the chance to roll up my sleeves and be involved in everything. Being editor of a newspaper was the most exhilarating job, and an honor to boot. To have the responsibilities for what people see and read the next morning — it’s a significant responsibility and one I took very seriously.

What brought you to the Newseum?

Throughout my entire career, I’ve had one foot in journalism and one foot in law. Over the last 15 years in particular, I’ve gone back and forth. I loved being editor of USA Today. But the chance to be president of an organization and museum with a 42-foot-high engraving of the First Amendment was too big an opportunity to pass up. I was fortunate to go from one great job to another. And I’m glad to be at the Newseum now.

How have you balanced journalism and law?

Journalists have much more fun than lawyers. There’s a lot that overlaps. When you think abut it, both professions attract people with strong verbal and writing skills. And in both professions, people gather information, distill it down to its essence, and then present it to an audience. The only difference is journalists present that information even-handedly to the public, and lawyers present that information with a spin to a jury. They are tremendously compatible. I think a law degree is a tremendous asset if you’re a journalist. The best thing you learn in law school is critical thinking.

Do you have any advice you’d give to journalists?

First of all, to anyone entering the field, you should really shake off the doom-sayers; the notion that newspapers are dying is a myth. There are literally hundreds of newspapers in this country and, especially [those] in smaller markets, they are weathering the recession just fine. We’ve seen some high-profile closings of papers, due to debt issues more than anything else. But there’s a reason newspapers have been around in this country since 1690. They are a tremendous information [platform] and serve their communities well. They [may] never be as profitable as they were in their economic heyday, but newspapers continue to be viable and valuable.

But if someone is going to enter the field today, they need to be prepared to develop as many skills as possible. There was a time when a reporter could walk into a newsroom and the only requirement was the ability to type. But the root of the job remains the same: to keep an eye on people in power and to fully reflect what’s going on in the community you serve.

You launched some online newspapers in 1993, before online journalism really exploded. Where do you see newspapers in the future?

I think we’re eventually going to see a hybrid that looks and feels an awful lot like a newspaper. We won’t have to cut down trees to publish newspapers. I believe there will be products that look an awful lot like newspapers. They will be thin. They will look like ink on paper. They will look very much like a modern newspaper.

Tell us about your first professional job?

I was hired as a reporter for the Fort Meyers News Press, and I was the police reporter/newsroom attorney/rock critic, all for $250 a week — and you could not ask for a better job than that.

What was your favorite story you ever wrote?

My favorite story as a professional was an investigative report I did in 1979, 1980, when I reported that the severity of a convicted person’s sentence was determined in a larger part by the county in which the crime occurred. The basic premise was that justice was sometimes a function of geography. The reason I’m proud of that story is it was the most primitive form of database journalism. I had to go to the courthouse and, on note cards, write down every case in the judicial circuit in southwest Florida, including the nature of the crime and the outcome. I spread these note cards throughout my entire house, and counted and collated them. This was to database journalism what rubbing sticks together was to creating fire. It was primitive, but it had a huge impact, and it was my first award — a reporting award from the Florida bar. This is a project that took six months to complete and now could be done in six minutes.

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