Nancy Gibbs is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. The former editor in chief of TIME magazine, she has written two books and lectured extensively on the American presidency. She teaches DPI-600M, “The Politics of the Press,” and DPI-831M “Op-Ed Writing.”
Q: What prompted you to choose the academic and outreach work that you are focusing on at the Shorenstein Center?
I was leading a major global newsroom [at Time magazine] and it was increasingly clear to me that—even as we were working 24 hours a day to cover news and perform the critical public purpose of the press in a democracy—journalism was facing some extraordinary and new challenges. Not just because of new technologies, and not just because of competition from new information sources. There are fundamental epistemic challenges about how people consume information, what they consume, and how they decide what to believe, with significant implications for the health of democracy. And so it felt like time for me to step out of the newsroom, and I wanted to come to a place where I could take a few steps back and get a broader horizon line about our information environment and look for ways to attend to its health.
Q: How does your teaching and research connect to solutions to the pressing problems facing society and the world?
As a professor of practice, I think my value is to bring as much of the newsroom and the world I came from into the classroom. I want to expose students in real time to the challenges that are being faced by public leaders and especially public leaders in media. So even though I write a syllabus that's very detailed and I have a roadmap for my classes that I aspire to follow, it never quite turns out that way. And in every case—whether I'm teaching an intensive writing seminar or my broader class about the politics of the press—it would be a missed opportunity if I did not allow us to merge into analysis of major events in real time and how they're being covered.
Q: What are the key takeaways that you want your students to have as they leave HKS for positions as policymakers and policy implementers?
My approach to teaching presumes that the vast majority of my students are not going to become journalists, notwithstanding the fact that some great journalists, like John Heilemann, came out of the Kennedy School. I'm assuming that most of our students are going to be leaders in the public or private sector, and my goal is for them to understand how the newsrooms that they will be interacting with operate, and what kinds of pressure points exist. For one thing, the business model for media has been completely disrupted by technology in the last 10 years. That has day-to-day implications for decision making and how resources are allocated within newsrooms.
I think of journalism as a form of public service, but it's also a business, and for all the rise of nonprofit newsrooms and discussions about news as a publicly supported enterprise, most of the world's newsrooms are not PBS and they need to return a profit. That affects how they are run and the decisions that are made. And that's the kind of thing that public leaders need to have a real understanding of: Why do some topics get covered exhaustively? What has been the impact of our political polarization on the way newsrooms function? How do we explain the decline of trust in all kinds of public institutions? Exploring how those challenges—declining trust, the rise of disinformation, political polarization—play out through our media ecosystem, I think, will help our students be more successful policymakers and more successful communicators about public policy.
Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart