Start Here / Never Stop Podcast: Walter Hussman, Jr. '68

Journalism is in 1968 graduate alumnus Walter Hussman, Jr.'s, blood. He began working for his family's newspaper business at age 10, and today he, with his family, owns multiple daily newspapers.

The core values he adheres to and prints each day in his newspapers are ones he learned as a UNC student and journalism major: objectivity, impartiality, integrity and truth-seeking. These core values have influenced his stewardship of the fields of journalism and media from an early age, and they compell the Hussman family to secure the future for innovative and trusted sources of information today.

With a $25 million gift in unrestricted endowed funds, Hussman, his wife Ben and their family make a significant investment in not only students, faculty and staff at the Hussman School, but also in the future of a profession which has the power to shape the world for the better.

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00:00:08 Dean Susan King: Hello, I'm Susan King, the Dean of while I'm so honored to say for the first time, the Dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it Walter Hussman?

00:00:20 Walter Hussman, Jr.: Sounds good to me.

00:00:22 King: This is such a big moment for the school. And I hope for you, you have made an amazing gift to the school and its future. Why?

00:00:31 Hussman: Well, we really, you know, we love the University of North Carolina, and we love the school of journalism. But we also love journalism with a passion and I certainly do. Our family really does. And it's an important time in American journalism. And it's an important time to renew the principles and the standards and the values that have stood the test of time in journalism. And it's so important to me that the school has adopted that type of statement of core values, to not only teach its students, but to stand up and show the rest of America to lead in this regard.

00:01:09 King: We're so honored to be able to be part of this at this moment — and also you’re a graduate — so so is your daughter, masters of our school and undergraduate. So this is a real tradition in the school. And to say, though, that you'll put your name on the school really is, it's not something one does without deep thinking,

00:01:29 Hussman: Exactly. Well, I wouldn't be putting my name on the school if you weren't the dean.

00:01:34 King: *laughs*

00:01:35 Hussman: And if the school wasn't willing to adopt a statement of core values that they are adopting, that I think is so important to the future of journalism, and America — which I think is so important to the future of our country and our democracy.

00:01:49 King: And those are the core values you learned at our school. So let’s talk about that. I remember our...

00:01:53 Hussman: Yes.

00:01:55 King: ... earliest conversations where you started to craft those core values that are in your newspaper every day.

00:01:59 Hussman: You know, I was thinking about that. And I learned those things in the School of Journalism from 1964 to 1968 —not exactly the middle, but a little past the middle of the 20th century. And it was really the 19th century in America, journalism was a very partisan endeavor. And it really changed around the turn of the century. And interestingly enough, it changed for some business reasons, because a lot of the publishers then — we have to remember, there was no radio or television or any other medium besides newspapers, then —  they realized that if they were not partisan, and they were more impartial, they would get more readers and newspapers got a lot of their money from subscriptions, then. So for most of the 20th century, there was a great tradition of trying to be as objective and as fair as possible. And those are the things I learned in Howell Hall and the journalism school and early to late 60s. And those are the things that I think make journalism so valuable to America.

00:02:50 King: Well, I'm excited that we're going to have those core values etched in stone in our lobby in the school now at Carroll Hall. And to me, there's so many pieces of those values we could emphasize — but for me, you're really saying that the public matters that we serve the public, as journalists, as communicators.

00:03:22 Hussman: Absolutely, we should serve the public. And we should have more confidence in the public, that they are smart enough, intelligent enough to sift through all the facts, and determine what they believe to be the truth. So yes, I think we do serve the public — journalism certainly serves the public. And that's, that's our mission.

00:03:44 King: And you believe that the public can make their own decisions if journalism gives them the facts and the information they need to make decisions.\

00:03:51 Hussman: Right. I think as long as we cover both sides, we let both sides speak for themselves. We don't need to take sides; we shouldn't take sides in reporting. Of course, that's the important part of journalism is reporting news, there is a part of it that's providing opinions. And that's fine to take opinions and try to decide which side you favor. But in reporting the news — know, your job is to report the facts and let the readers decide for themselves.

00:04:20 King: Let's talk about this moment, the news industry has lost a lot of America's trust. That seemed to be important for you right now that you emphasize the importance of journalism, because you're worried about this moment in the field.

00:04:33 Hussman: Yes, have really thought about a lot about that it really hurts to see that the news media has lost so much trust among the public. You know, shortly after I got out of journalism school in ’68, and the early 70s to mid 70s. Journalism was probably more highly regarded that at any time that I can remember  — because of Watergate, and because of the courage of newspapers — like the Washington Post and the New York Times, and others, who not only covered the news, but tried to uncover what was going on. And students flocked to journalism schools, mainly because of that. So there was great credibility there. I've thought a lot about how we lost so much of the public trust. Some of it is because we're constantly being attacked — either by politicians, or even some in them, the media themselves — there's constant attacks on “the mainstream media” well, they're obviously some of the mainstream media have made mistakes, etc. But we published newspapers were over 100 years, I guess. We're definitely mainstream media, and we're trying our very best to be objective and fair as we possibly can. So I'm not sure there's a lot we can do about others criticizing us. I do think it's worth us in the news business, trying to look at — re-examine — and look at ourselves and try to say, “are we part of the reason maybe we've lost some of this trust?” And if so, why? And, and try to say, if we just go back to the principles, the values and the standards that have stood the test of time in journalism, we can re-earn the trust of the public. That's why I think that's so important today.

00:06:27 King: And there's also so much change technologically. We have now all the digital opportunities. That's a challenge as well as the economic disruption — so the journalism schools glad to be on the cutting edge of this kind of change.

00:06:40 Hussman: Yes. Well, tech technology generally, I think is a good thing. It generally lowers costs and provides people more options, etc. But you know, it's interesting, because today as newspapers — well, beginning about 20 years ago — many newspapers developed their own websites. And so now there was a new format for newspapers presenting news, as well as television and other news organizations — and that became the website. But lots of other people could create their own websites and say they were news. And but did they really have the same standards, principles and values that got taught in journalism schools? Some did, but obviously, some didn't. And what a lot of people would see those websites where they didn't have those values, and they look pretty much exactly like, the websites of newspapers or television stations that did have those values. They start to get a little the public gets a little bit confused. And I think they start sometimes thanking the people who do have good professional journalistic standards are kind of mixed in with the people who don't. And I think that's eroded some of our credibility. If it was a newspaper, you know, or it was a CBS Evening News or something that had a reputation. It was a unique format that other people couldn't easily replicate. It was easier to trust that I think, but once we started having the exact same format, as people that didn't have those values, I think it that's part of the erosion in the Trump public trust.

00:08:20 King: You're going to be making a big statement to our students who are optimistic and young and choosing journalism as their field. What do you want them to know that you're saying to them? What do you want them to think about?

00:08:31 Hussman: Listen, I don't know which mediums are going to endure. I don't know how well newspapers will endure. I don't know how well TV stations are going to endure in the future, but one thing is going to endure — and that's journalism — because people want the facts. They want to make up their own mind. They want to be given the facts by people who adhere to standards and core values and principles of good journalism — like being impartial, being objective, being as fair as possible, being even-handed. And those are the kind of people they're going to trust. And there's always going to be a demand for people who do that. So I think the future's bright for journalism and whatever form it's going to take in the future.

00:09:19 King: I love that. That is optimism. That is hope. And that's what this moment marks. So Walter at this time of change — when you're being an optimist, you see all the questions being raised about our industry. But you're willing to invest in it in a way that other people have not what is making you put your money where your values are?

00:09:39 Hussman: Well, you know, I was thinking about this recently. I just read a book by David Brooks; It's called second mountain. And he talks in there about four different commitments people have. The first commitment he talked about is a commitment to a calling, or a vocation. And he made an interesting point, he's said, you know, your calling may or may not be your career, it may be something else. And I really thought about that. And I thought, you know, most of my career has been newspaper publishing. But that's not really been my calling, my calling has been journalism. And so I think, you know, the thing that is so important — not only now, but in the future. Is not how the news is delivered, and what format or what way, but the fact that it's done in a fair, objective, even-handed way. And that to me, is the importance of journalism. And I think we've got to invest in that, to try to emphasize that to encourage young people to do that. Because it'll pay big dividends for our whole country if we do it.

00:10:50 King: And what do you mean by that? What kind of big dividends?

00:10:52 Hussman: Well, what I mean by that is, if young people decide — hey, look, let's just try to advance our own personal opinion or personal biases or personal thinking. That's not what we need. We need people to go out and report news report facts, let readers decide for themselves. And sure, it's fine to have people who are opinionated, who let people know what their opinions are. But if we don't have the people who are trying to report news in a fair, objective, unbiased way— we're going to be in big trouble in this country.

00:11:33 King: What do you want the public — I may not be as close to the whole profession of journalism to think about this gift you are making to UNC?

00:11:41 Hussman: I think they need to know that there is a journalism school — one of the leading journalism schools in America — that's taken a position to reinforce the core values that have been the strength of news organizations in America: being impartial, being fair, presenting both sides. And, you know, those are old time-tested principles. And I've often heard people say, “Oh, well, you can't be objective everybody's got some biases. So why should you even try?” And I turn them around and say, if I ask one of our readers, what do they want me to say? “Hey, I'm not even going to try to be objective, because I can't be objective,” or do they want me to say, “I'm going to be as objective as I can and try as hard as I can. And, you know, I know I can't be perfect, but I'm going to strive for it.” I think our readers feel a lot more comfortable with the latter argument than they do the former.

00:12:40 King: And I know you believe in a kind of field reporting that says, here's where the facts are. I may think “x” happened, but I've learned “y” happened. And I report why.

00:12:49 Hussman: Absolutely. You know, we've had reporters that work for us. I can remember a time we had an investigative reporter. And he came in and told me the story he was working on. And it was a significant story. And it had to do with a company that was incinerating hazardous materials. And he thought he had a source telling them that these people are overriding the safety standards — intentionally. And he thought he had a story. And he came back later. And he said, You know, I really felt we had it. I've not been able to corroborate it with anyone. And I've now found another source says — that I really trust it says that's just not the case. And he said, I hate it. I've spent a lot of time on this. I kind of got a lot invested in this. But I —it just wouldn't be fair to run that story. So that, you know, that, to me is good journalism. Not only what you publish, but what you don't publish if you think something is not correct.

00:13:45 King: And that's also called courage.

00:13:47 Hussman: Absolutely. You know, and I think it's important for newspapers to show courage. You know, eight all fox said, you know, many years ago to publish the new without fear or favor. It's really interesting when you think of those two words — fear and favor. You know, you shouldn't be fearful of what people in social media are going to say. Heck, they're going to say just about anything.  You shouldn't be fearful of what politicians are going to say — you shouldn't be fearful of what wealthy influential people in the community are going to say. You know, it's also and I found this is often more the case than fear— its favor. People always want you to do them a favor if you're in the news business. And you know, that's not our role to do people favors. Our role is to report the news as fairly as we can. And when we publish opinions to be sure we were publishing as many different sides as we possibly can.

00:14:48 King: I'm glad you're an optimist. I'm glad to believe in tomorrow. And I'm glad you believe in UNC.

00:14:55 Hussman: Absolutely. You know, our readers tell us that, that they love our newspaper —I'm talking about the one where I live in Little Rock, [The] Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. And they really appreciate the reporting we do — they want us to do more of it. They want us to hire more investigative reporters —we do too. We just need a little improvement in the economics to be able to do it. But you know, we get more feedback when we have the type of reporting that uncovers things. But still — even when we uncover things, we give both sides, the ability to state their position. You know, we don't need to tell our readers, okay, this ads right and this ads wrong, quote both sides and let the readers read their quotes. And a lot of times that read it. But you know, that's another thing we need to realize — a lot of our readers are smarter than I am. They're smarter than some of our editors, they're smarter than some of our reporters. I mean, some of these people are really smart, putting on are they smarter, they may have a lot of knowledge in some fields, we don't have nearly as much knowledge in. So I trust our readers to try to sort through it all and make the right decisions.

00:16:12 King: And I have to of course mention Eliza who is part of understanding that changing audience and the changing demographics of your readership. And she's our grad — and she's part of the future of the school and your company.

00:16:26 Hussman: She is, you know, when Eliza got her master's in journalism there at the University of North Carolina and was trying to decide on our career and one of our options was to come back and work for our company. And I told her, you know, you need to think hard and long about this because the fortunes of newspapers are not doing so well. And she said “look, I really believe in the mission of journalism. And I really think it's important to have a family owned business that's not looking quarter to quarter and is looking at the long run on we do.” And so — she has faith in the future of journalism. And that's very encouraging to me.

00:17:08 King: And we've got the long run. We’ll be talking in 10, 20, and 50 years about what these new generation of Hussman School of Journalism [and] Media students think about tomorrow. Thank you Walter for this amazing historic gift.

00:17:23 Hussman: Sure. Thank you.