In suburban Chicago of the 1960s, two boys grew up dreaming of becoming newsmen.
Ken Paulson, JD ’78 LAW, and Joe Urschel ’74 MEDIA didn’t know each other then, nor could they have dreamed that their futures would intersect professionally time and again. But that’s what life had in store for them.
Both went to the University of Illinois, then hopscotched each other at news organizations around the country. Over the years, both developed a deep love for and belief in the value of news. At the height of their careers, both would land at the same building – the Newseum, which opened in April 2008 – one of Washington, D.C.’s newest monuments and the public arm of the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation devoted to free press and free speech. It’s a place befitting lifelong newsmen.
Amid a chaotic year in the news industry, the two men talked to Illinois Alumni about the path from Urbana to Washington, the prospect for journalism in changing times and the role of the First Amendment – with its protections for press, speech, petition, assembly and religion – in preserving America as we know it.
Chasing a Paper Revolution
One could never fault Ken Paulson for waiting too long to make a decision. At age 6, he dreamed of black ink and gray newsprint. And instead of those childhood dreams falling away, they solidified as Paulson saw the pervasive influence of journalism.
“I was able to watch the civil rights movement unfold, the women’s movement unfold,” he said. “All of these positive forces, including the free press, came from the five freedoms of the First Amendment.”
By high school, Paulson was already dating his future wife, Peggy, and had answered an ad in a Chicago magazine looking for a writer with a youthful perspective. At age 16, he got hired as a rock critic.
Paulson would go on to attend the University of Missouri for a journalism degree, then come to the University of Illinois to study law. “Two of the greatest forces for positive change were lawyers and journalists,” he said. “What appealed to me about both of these fields was to call attention to injustices and remedy that.
“The law school was extraordinary,” Paulson said. “But the big surprise was how good the student media was at Illinois.”
“He spent way more time in The Daily Illini than in the law library,” wife Peggy remembered. In addition to occasional disk jockey duties at WPGU, one of the DI’s sister media outlets, Paulson began Revue, a music magazine published by the DI.
It was on the Urbana campus that he developed a management style of regular, hands-on meetings that sustained itself throughout his tenure at USA Today. “What I learned to do as a 23-year-old at The Daily Illini, I applied for my entire career,” said Paulson, who today keeps an orange-and-blue cap above his desk at work.
“On the day I was named editor of USA Today, I talked to the staff about what we had to accomplish,” he said. He remembers a former DI staffer standing up to tell the staff that she’d worked for Paulson back at The Daily Illini and that he was worthy of their trust.
From Copy Editing to Campus
Just like Paulson, Urschel found his profession early.
In high school, he worked for the Chicago Heights Star, part of the local Star Tribune publications. “I started out reading proofs from the linotype operators,” he said, and eventually worked his way to a position as copy editor, which became his summer job when he was off from the University of Illinois.
While at the U of I, Urschel also found a second home at the Illini Media offices. While he tried his hand at The Daily Illini and WPGU, he found his niche as editor of the Illio yearbook, which he helped transform into a magazine-style publication.
“It’s the 1974 Illio, and it won huge awards,” said Urschel’s wife, Donna Vasilion Urschel ’73 MEDIA, who now works in public affairs at the Library of Congress. “It was a real turning point in the Illio, and it just sold so many copies.”
Urschel, who sometimes wears an orange-and-blue tie at work, also took lessons from his days at Urbana. He said he left Urbana-Champaign “particularly well-suited to do what I wanted to do.”
Black and White and Read All Over
After graduation, while Paulson worked at papers from Wisconsin to New Jersey to Florida, Urschel went back to the Star Tribune papers, during which time he started dating and then married Donna. Eventually, both went to work at the Detroit Free Press. In a city with competing papers, Urschel thrived.
Less than a decade later, however, he joined a bigtime, brand-new experiment in journalism – a paper that would cover the entire country. “Most of my friends thought I was crazy, that it would never succeed,” Urschel recalled, but the experiment – USA Today – has become a mainstay of the news world.
Paulson was there, too, helping configure a newsroom that could break news from around the globe. “It was the toughest working environment I’d ever been in,” he said. Despite the competitive atmosphere, Paulson said both he and Urschel brought a friendly tone to the paper.
“That Midwestern sensibility is something Joe and I both share,” Paulson said in a joint interview with Urschel. “It also involves a respect for readers. … We both buy into the concept that the news is whatever is current.”
Jack Hurley, who worked with Urschel both at “USA Today on TV” and at the Newseum, says his friend’s laid-back energy can be deceptive.
“Initially people might think he’s a little low-key, but it’s because he’s assessing them and not making snap judgments,” Hurley said. “He treats people with respect and dignity – even when they’re wrong.”
At USA Today, Urschel developed a knack for stories that gave the readers – and himself – glimpses into unique worlds, ranging from the American archaeologist who found what was then the largest tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings to the entomologist who doubled as a roach exterminator. Urschel’s work won him notice, including an Emmy Award for a documentary on campus crime.
In early 1997, Paulson took a hiatus from daily newspapers and spent seven years as executive director of the First Amendment Center, part of the Freedom Forum that is housed at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He returned to the newspaper, however, to serve as its editor from 2004-09. During a time of upheaval, both in the news industry and at the paper, Paulson brought a sense of engaged leadership and committed ethics – and those meetings that hearkened back to his DI days.
“People can see how honest he is and how principled he is and approachable. He made the staff understand they were going to do what was right,” said Charles Overby, who has worked with Paulson on and off since Paulson’s days at USA Today. “He immediately infuses the newsroom with excitement. He cares deeply about what he’s doing, and he shows an interest in everybody’s work. I think that’s the quality of a real leader.”
At USA Today, Paulson changed the paper’s policy so unnamed sources were excluded from nearly all scenarios. “Online journalism is driven by speed, and it takes time to check something out,” he said. “There’s too little recognition that getting it first is not as important as getting it right.”
The phrase “the media” was – and is – another peeve of his and a phrase he worked to strike from the paper’s lexicon, especially when “the media” is thrown out “like it’s one big club,” Paulson said. “It just reinforces the stereotype that editors, publishers, news directors are not independent thinkers.
“I entered the news business because I believe it can be a tremendous force for good,” Paulson said. True journalists, he said, “are not out to ‘get’ anyone. They’re out to get the truth.”
Telling the Story of Free Speech
Paulson’s first connection with the Freedom Forum took place from 1997 to 2004 as head of its First Amendment Center, where he embraced the opportunity to bring national attention to First Amendment issues. The second time that Paulson connected was in 2009, following his return stint at USA Today, when he became the Forum’s president and chief operating officer.
In its mission to promulgate the importance of free press and free speech, the Freedom Forum includes several entities. While the Newseum serves as the most public arm of the nonprofit organization, the forum also includes the aforementioned First Amendment Center and the Diversity Institute, which aims to increase minority participation in newsrooms.
Overby, who serves as chairman and CEO of the foundation, called Paulson the human equivalent of the 74-foot inscription of the First Amendment on the exterior wall of the Newseum. “He looms large in the fight for First Amendment rights,” Overby said.
But how could Paulson get people passionate about words written back in 1791? “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment …” doesn’t sound exactly catchy. And so, about a decade ago, he launched Freedom Sings.
“I was looking for a way to tell the story of free speech in America,” said Paulson, who attends approximately 50 concerts a year, usually with his wife, to keep up with the music scene. “I never felt like I could engage college students as much as I’d hoped to.” To that end, he developed a concert of sorts, with diverse songs illustrating how music can be an instrument of free speech and catalyst for social change. The program offers songs originating in the 1700s to present day, from “You’re A Grand Old Flag” to “Where Is The Love?”
Even the musicians are drawn into the mission of the chorus. Grammy winner Don Henry, who has been part of the Freedom Sings touring band, wrote in an e-mail, “I think that young people who never gave the [First] Amendment a second thought walk away as reborn Americans. I see it actually happening during every show.
“I’m not belittling our part as musicians in the show, but in the end it’s the writing, pacing and timing in Ken’s performance that leaves you with a full heart.”
“We’ve played campuses all over America, including the University of Illinois,” said Paulson. “It’s quite an experience to look out at an audience of 18- to 22-year-olds and see many tear up.”
Starting at Square One
And so, Paulson’s and Urschel’s professional paths were to cross again. At about the same time that Paulson was getting started at the Freedom Forum for the first time, Urschel also received an offer to join. His task, however, was different: Create a museum from the ground up that focused on news. In planning it – first at a smaller venue in Arlington, Va., then the 250,000-square-foot version in D.C. – Urschel could apply his storytelling skills to show how journalism reports, reflects and sometimes shapes history.
“He transcended kind of the usual Washington reporter and editor,” Overby said of Urschel, who serves as the museum’s executive director and senior vice president. “He knew issues big and small, serious and lighthearted. It was that scope that helped him be a real leader in the building of the Newseum.”
Overby credits Urschel with helping to get at least two of the museum’s biggest draws: the words to the First Amendment writ large on the building’s face and a communications tower from the ruins of New York’s World Trade Center. “Joe really used his personal skills and his news instincts to get that,” he said.
‘The Killer App of the First Amendment’
Both Paulson and Urschel, of course, eagerly engage in any discussions about news. Paulson’s face, like his stance, is always on, the kind of guy who walks across the hall to talk, rather than call. Urschel has light brown hair and a face-crinkling smile. He leans back when he listens and tells stories like a reporter: broad theme, tiny illustrative details.
At their posts within the Freedom Forum, Paulson and Urschel try to show the world that news matters, that the ability to express opinions – no matter what they are – is legal, that Congress can’t make a law against it. They try to show that those opinions are essential for the country’s democracy.
Paulson looks at the Internet as a place of possibility for journalists and a place where First Amendment rights flourish, though inaccuracy and meanness can also take up virtual space.
“The Internet is the killer app of the First Amendment. It amplifies free speech,” he said. “[If he were alive today], James Madison would blog. Thomas Jefferson would Tweet – so the interesting dynamic is that free speech has never been more free, but the potential consequences have never been greater.
“The marketplace [of ideas] has never been more vibrant, more uninhibited or unrestricted. That’s a good thing for democracy,” Paulson said. “It doesn’t free you of the consequences of what you may say.”
Urschel points out that the credibility issue in the digital age is much larger. “If you make a mistake in a newspaper that a million people are reading, one of those people [is] likely to catch you,” he said.
Paulson worries that online reading means people won’t learn much beyond where their interests already lie. Will they come across that Page 3 story on Rwanda if they jump straight to a specific topic? “The irony is that, though we use the browser, so few people actually browse,” he said. “We never browse the Web like we browse the newspaper. Serendipity disappears.”
One of Paulson’s disappointments has been how that widening arena for speech has been used. When USA Today enabled reader comments on stories, Paulson hoped for great debate. But often what ensued was slamming one party or another, he said.
Urschel sees the movement of reporting and commentating from people without journalistic training or job experience as something of a return to the pamphlets of early print journalism, which often skewed toward one point of view or another. All those new voices may be good for journalism, Urschel said, but “it just hasn’t been good for the business model.”
The common practice of news sites making their content free online – along with a lessening of advertising revenue – is also forcing industry changes. Urschel remembers a story from his Detroit days, where a reporter traveled the country to uncover how harsh discipline resulted in the death of a sailor. As money becomes tighter these days, “that’s the kind of thing that gets done less and less,” he said.
Both Urschel and Paulson say that eventually news media will have to start charging for online content, perhaps in subscriptions or perhaps in iTunes-style micropayments. That could start any day, Paulson said. In fact, he said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened tomorrow.”
When it does, the Freedom Forum and Newseum will document the change – most likely within moments. “The Newseum is the only museum in Washington that changes every day,” Overby said.
“The leadership of Ken and Joe will ensure that the Newseum will continue to stay on top of the news as well as providing perspective on history.”