CBS News chairman talks about tackling tough journalism topics

Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” talks to students in the Walter Cronkite School’s First Amendment Forum on Tuesday evening. (Kaard Bombe/DD)

CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager discussed the future of network news on Tuesday as part of the Walter Cronkite School’s Must See Mondays speaker series.

Fager’s presentation, which was held on Tuesday to accommodate the Veterans Day holiday, focused on his work with CBS News and “60 Minutes.” Fager has been the executive producer of “60 Minutes” for the past eight years and became chairman of CBS News in early 2011.

“When I took over, in charge of the broadcast, I couldn’t believe how many people wanted to be on the ’60 Minutes,’” Fager said. He added that the news business can be too focused on what is interesting, not necessarily what is relevant.

“I came from the news background, (and) really felt we should be more relevant,” he said.

Fager accomplished this by encouraging people to report more in depth on the big stories of our day, he said. This helped the show become more current each year.

Many of these big stories were covered in a highlight reel that Fager played near the end of his presentation. It showed clips from “60 Minutes” interviews with political, economic and entertainment figures as well as coverage of recent world events.

“There’s an appetite in America on prime time and everywhere else for real reporting,” Fager said.

Audience research drives the decision makers in news today, Fager said. He explained that people are afraid to take on the tough subjects and challenge authority.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be at a place like CBS where it’s valued, and a lot of companies don’t value it as much because it’s risky, and it’s expensive, and it’s dangerous to go into war zones with your reporters,” Fager said. “Those are all things that I’m proud of because we continue to do it, and we do challenge authority, and we like to turn things upside down. To me, that’s what the news business is about.”

The news business is about challenging authority and turning things upside down, Fager said. He advised prospective journalists to cover any story they think is important and make it interesting for their audience.

Fager also addressed other aspects of network broadcasts, including the tradition of morning shows wanting to copy “The Today Show.” CBS decided to stick to its focus on original reporting, he said.

“We wanted to make sure that we would create a new broadcast in the morning that avoided all the regular stuff that seems to be on morning television, and pursued real, important stories and told them in an interesting way,” Fager said.

Journalism junior Brett Nachman said he enjoyed that Fager addressed other aspects of network news.

“He incorporated aspects of using online platforms to distribute television content,” Nachman said. “That, and the apps for tablets and smartphones makes news accessible no matter where you are.”

The use of multimedia to enhance Fager’s presentation was a good choice, according to journalism freshman Antonio Cannavaro.

“Even though he didn’t talk much about network news, because he talked a lot about ’60 Minutes,’ he seemed very optimistic,” Cannavaro said.

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Correction: Nov. 14, 2012

An earlier version of this article misquoted Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News, multiple times. His quotes previously were paraphrased and since have been replaced with accurate direct quotes.