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So What Do You Do, Michael Oreskes, AP Senior Managing Editor?

Overseeing national coverage across all AP platforms puts this media vet squarely within the changing business model for news

- March 25, 2009
At a time when many of the country's venerable news organizations seem to be headed for the trash heap, Michael Oreskes is bullish about the future of one of the oldest. Oreskes joined the 162-year-old Associated Press last summer as managing editor for U.S. news, ending a 27-year stint with the New York Times Company, where he held a wide variety of jobs as he worked his way up the editorial ladder, culminating with a stint at the helm of the International Herald Tribune. Now, after realigning the national bureaus, he has been promoted within the organization, effective April 1, to senior managing editor. He still oversees national news, but now also supervises the daily all-format and global report at the news collective. Here Oreskes talks to mediabistro.com about how he got started, the future of quality journalism in the digital age, and the continuing value of a news service like the AP.


Name: Michael Oreskes
Position: Senior managing editor at The Associated Press
Birthdate: May 26, 1954
Hometown: New York
Resume: New York Daily News (1975-1981), in various writing and editing positions, culminating in a stint as City Hall bureau chief; New York Times (1981-2005), in various writing and editing positions including Washington bureau chief, director of electronic news, and deputy managing editor; executive editor of International Herald Tribune (2005-2008).
Marital status: Married to Geraldine Baum, the New York bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times
Favorite TV show: Star Trek
First section of the Sunday Times: "The book review, but I get it ahead of time. If you're asking what I read first when the paper arrives on Sunday, it would be the news section, the front of the paper."
Education: Stuyvesant High School, City College of New York
Last book read: Lincoln President-Elect by Harold Holzer
Guilty pleasure: Homemade chocolate egg creams

Tell me a little about how you got started as a journalist.
I started as the editor of my college newspaper, and was really interested in photojournalism. I had been taking a lot of photographs in school and making extra money -- and I had sold photos to The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and other outlets. While I was there, the campus stringer job for the New York Daily News came up, and I thought "This is great, the Daily News is New York's picture newspaper, so if I take this job as a writer, I'll be able to sell them my pictures, too." The first time I walked in there with my story and photographs, they told me they'd take the story, but not the pictures, because it was a unionized guild newspaper. That's how my career got on the path of being a writer.

The thing I love about journalism is the doors that journalists are able to open -- to really see the way the world is and to help explain and describe it to people, so they have a realistic understanding of what's going on. There's so many misunderstandings and myths and falsehoods about life and the world. It's a journalist's job to go out and try to describe things accurately and honestly -- not as we wish they might be, but the way they really are. It's an incredibly interesting challenge to do that, and I think it's an incredibly valuable contribution to society to have people who go out with no agenda and try and keep their audience informed about the truth. AP is a wonderful place [in that way]. The commitment to serious journalism, to honesty and to integrity is as profound and solid as at any place I've ever seen.

"It's one of the great ironies of the digital age that one of the news organizations best situated to succeed in the 21st century turns out to be a news cooperative created in the 19th century."

You've spoken in the past about how digital media are affecting quality journalism. Where do you think we're at now?
I think what's really crucial right now is to separate out what's important to preserve and what's important to let go of. What's important to preserve is: standards, integrity, honesty, truth, and a commitment to try and tell the news without an agenda. Those are important values. What's not an important value is, "How do you distribute your news?"

In a weird way, I think we're living through a terrific age, because, in the old world, each piece of journalism was packaged together in this huge thing called the newspaper, and you had to take it or leave it. Frankly, that protected journalists quite a bit, because sometimes the work was great and sometimes the work was okay -- but you had to take the whole package. Now, every piece of work that we do stands on its own, and that puts enormous additional pressure on us. Sometimes that pressure causes us to do things that are not so great -- to be more sensational, to be more salacious. I'm convinced that this world, where everything is judged on its own, is also a great moment for us to raise the quality of our work, because I believe that the greatest quality will continue to be appreciated and recognized by audiences who are looking for a clear understanding from people and voices that they trust.

What's really been challenging so far is just the way the Internet has broken down the business models. I believe the AP is, in fact, one of the answers. It's one of the great ironies of the digital age that one of the news organizations best situated to succeed in the 21st century turns out to be a news cooperative created in the 19th century. An organization that knows how to do 24/7 news coverage in real time, distributed quickly but with high standards, is exactly the kind of organization that is set up to do well in the age of the Internet.

There's been a smattering of news over the past year about different newspapers giving notice that they will be dropping the AP. How are you dealing with this, and do you think there is anything comparable to the AP (in terms of other newswires)?
No. There are good news organizations that do what the AP does, but there is no one who does everything the AP does.

We're working very closely -- and I'm personally working very closely -- with member newspapers in the United States to address their issues. Their issues are obviously financial on one level; they have tremendous financial pressures based on what the Internet is doing to our business. But there are some substantive issues in what they're talking about, and we have to address what they're looking for -- as we need to listen to all of our other clients. AP serves a lot of different constituencies, but we're learning and changing every day. We're looking to address their needs whenever possible, and also saying sometimes, "That's not something we can do." And of course, the AP has substantially reduced rates for member newspapers this year.

Given these pressures, is there any talk about changing the AP's business model at all?
The truth is that what the AP does -- and the way it does it -- works pretty well. The model of creating journalism which we then sell to those who distribute it, whether they are Web publishers, or television stations or newspapers, has been and continues to be a very successful model. The AP has obviously got to work with its members and its clients because of all the changes in the industry, but this model has worked well, and I think it can continue to work well.

Before you took your current job, you realigned the AP's Washington coverage ahead of the new administration. Explain a little about what's changing and the thinking behind that.
Obviously, we recognize that the "Washington story" and all its elements is going to be an enormous story, so we've taken a number of steps to prepare the bureau for this. The intersection of the election of Obama with the biggest financial crisis in many many years is going to create a very big and important story out of Washington for quite a while.

So we named a new Washington bureau chief, Ron Fournier -- who is actually very well steeped in issues of the Web and where journalism is headed. We recently also set our deputy styles editor, Lisa Tolin, down to Washington to be fully prepared for us and direct coverage of all the style and lifestyle issues of the new administration -- which is stuff people love to read about, whether it's "What's the first lady up to?" or "Where's the dog going to live?" and so on.

But one big step we've taken that's gotten a lot of attention is that we took 12 reporters who had already been involved in the coverage of state delegations, and we reorganized them so that every state will have coverage of their local issues and local delegation in Washington. Just as Tip O'Neill said that, "all politics is local," most journalism is local too, and it's best built from the local up. And one of the ways to do that is to be very plugged in to the delegations in Washington. They're a great source of news both for local issues and big national issues -- because most major issues start from somewhere local. So we're trying to beef up all our coverage by beefing up our regional coverage... A lot of the focus of the media coverage in Washington is on the presidency -- and that's a natural thing with such a new president -- but the truth is that when the framers wrote the Constitution, they made the Congress the most important branch of government. And in many ways that's still the case... So you really can cover Washington very well by being well-positioned in Congress.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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