A Q&A with journalism legend Katie Couric – Poynter

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Is there anything Katie Couric isn’t doing?

She has a daily newsletter called Wake-Up Call. She has a podcast called “Next Question with Katie Couric.” She has her own website,  KatieCouric.com, which produces original journalism and other content. She’s creating scripted series. She has at least two other major projects coming out in the next couple months.

She just finished writing her memoir, “Unexpected,” which is due out in October. She continues to raise money for various causes, particularly the fight against cancer.

She is doing all this after an already remarkable career in journalism. Couric was the longtime co-host of NBC’s “Today” show before becoming the first solo woman anchor of a nightly news broadcast when she took over the “CBS Evening News” in 2006. She also was a correspondent for “60 Minutes” and had her own talk show.

In 2019, Couric was awarded Poynter’s Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism.

And, oh, even though she’s busier than she has ever been, she somehow found time to fill in as guest host of “Jeopardy” for two weeks. She taped 10 episodes of the legendary game show more than a month ago. I caught up with Couric, 64, by phone late last week as the last episodes with her as host were being aired.

So for today’s Poynter Report, here is our conversation, which was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You spent two weeks as a guest co-host of “Jeopardy.” What was that experience like?

I tried to make it my own, as Paula Abdul would say, but also respect the institution because “Jeopardy” is not really a game show. It doesn’t feel right to call it a game show. It is an American institution. I think it has become so a part of people’s lives that you don’t want to mess with a good thing. So I tried to strike that balance. It was a lot of fun, but it was a very tough job. And I said to many of my friends who complimented me: Thank God for post-production.

So when you host “Jeopardy,” you tape more than one episode in a day, right?

They gave me a day of rehearsal, thank God. They were delivering some clues for the first week like they were delivering the nuclear code. I basically had to promise my life savings if I divulged any of the clues to anyone. They were really very serious about it.

So the first day I rehearsed and then the second day, I did five shows. And the third day, I did five more shows. It was highly COVID-sensitive and they had serious protocols in place, which made it even more challenging because I couldn’t get near anybody and when I was interviewing them, I couldn’t move close or anything like that. When they handed me notes, they basically put them on the floor and then walked away and I had to go get them. It sort of added to the novelty of the whole experience.

But you seemed to handle it all really well.

I was quite nervous when I walked onto the Sony lot and very nervous when I walked into the studio. But right away they put me at ease. Mike Richards, the executive producer, said, “We are not going to let you look bad.” And I instantly relaxed and I knew that they had my back and I could just go ahead and have fun.

Did you get to a point where the nerves went away and you could enjoy it while you were doing it?

Yeah, of course. I got more relaxed as the shows went on. But it’s pretty exhausting to do five of those in one day — just to make sure you’re pronouncing everything correctly. They give you these complicated Latin terms. My daughters would’ve really crushed it, but I don’t really speak Latin. (laughs) And really obscure Beowulf-like 16th-century German literature and it’s like, “Holy cow!” Listen, I love “Jeopardy” and I’ve always marveled at the contestants. But this really made me appreciate and respect the contestants more than I already did.

So the million-dollar question: Is hosting “Jeopardy” something you would want to do full-time?

I don’t think so. It was a really fun thing to do. I love what I’m doing now. I have tremendous flexibility. We’re building a multimedia organization and company. I’m developing scripted projects and documentary series, doing video shorts, a newsletter, a podcast. I’m so grateful that I can play in this whole arena. I’m really happy doing what I’m doing now.

Tell me more about that.

We’ve got 30 employees and my husband is running the company and I’m kind of the creative genius — LOL. But I really get to flex my muscles and do so many different things and be the boss of me. It’s the first time I haven’t worked for some big corporation. I’m really relishing the more entrepreneurial aspects that this current media landscape allows you to practice.

When we started our company, it really aligned with the idea that people were looking to brands to take positions on big important social issues —  whether it’s environmental sustainability, gender equality, racial justice, mental health, all the big issues I care about. So we’re collaborating with huge global brands like Procter & Gamble, and Ally Financial and Sleep Number to talk about health and wellness. It’s a very different model, but it has been really successful for us.

You seem really excited about it.

It allows me to interview everyone from Kate Winslet on my podcast — by the way, I did her first American interview for “Sense and Sensibility” when she was just 20 years old — but I get to talk to people like her and then interview Anthony Fauci on Zoom or Instagram Live. I just think it’s incredibly liberating to focus my lens on things and then have it all anchored in Wake-Up Call, which is our newsletter. And now we’ve built our website and we’re producing tons of original content.

It’s just been really fun and kind of lets me do what I like to do best. And I get to do it without being tied to a television network and being on TV every day. But I still have the name recognition where people know I’m going to be well prepared, that we’re going to have an intelligent conversation. So it’s sort of the best of both worlds.

A lot of what you’re doing — newsletters, podcasts, for example — are things that weren’t big 10 years ago. You could’ve kept doing television in some capacity. What made you want to embrace these kinds of new media platforms?

I love TV and I loved what I’ve done in television. I think I’ve always been good at recognizing trends before they really become trends. When I was the anchor at CBS, it was a big brouhaha when I wanted to be on Twitter. So I’ve always been able to recognize that the media was changing right in front of our eyes. And then television was getting older and older and younger people weren’t really watching television to get their news and information, that there are other platforms that could be exploited in the best possible way.

That’s one of the reasons why I went to Yahoo — because they had such reach and I really wanted to create substantive content. And we did. I think we did some incredible work at Yahoo. But Yahoo was still a tech company and they didn’t really have journalism in their DNA. But it did help me realize how to use these platforms in really powerful ways. And I think they’re going to become more powerful and more important in the future. I mean, they already are.

I remember doing my talk show and feeling a little like I was riding on the back of a dinosaur. And that was in 2011, 2012. I don’t know, I like to be on the front end of change instead of holding on to the status quo with my fingernails.

You are doing so much. How do you find time to do all of it?

Well, that’s a good question. I’ve always liked to work hard and be productive. It’s always been who I am. I think I got it from my mom. Today, for example, was crazy.

Tell me more about it.

I did a podcast at 8 with Kate Winslet. I did Kathryn Hahn at 10. And then at 11, I had a pitch for a scripted show I’m developing. The pitch was with (two producers) and Gwyneth Paltrow. At 12, I had a really interesting conversation with a woman I auctioned off a half-hour Zoom for Mitch Albom. He was raising money for Detroit for the pandemic. It was a woman named Erica Coulston, who has a spinal cord injury. And she’s doing extraordinary work and we talked about inclusivity and diversity and why it’s not really including the differently-abled people and how we can give them more visibility, and I asked her to write an essay for me for Wake-Up Call. Then I had a Stand Up to Cancer call with Pam Williams, who is one of our co-founders. Then I did (two more interviews) and now I’m talking to you.

Is there one thing you’re doing now that you like to do especially? Or do you like doing all of it?

I’ve always liked variety. I liked when I did the “Today” show because I could interview Yasser Arafat and Miss Piggy in the same hour. And I liked that I did an online show while I was doing the evening news. I’ve always really enjoyed the mix.

I’m really excited about the original content we’re putting on KatieCouric.com. We redid our website. I love bringing a collection of interesting voices and being able to elevate them and amplify them. We’re trying to take people who have an interesting following but want to do more. I always have an eye on how we can highlight these great women doing fantastic things. And men, too.

It’s just a great time for innovation. The media in the midst of tremendous innovation and some real soul-searching about the role of media. And I’ve got a couple of other projects that I think are going to be announced in April that I think you’ll be very, very interested in, but I can’t tell you yet.

And you also just finished your memoir, too, right?

That was a huge endeavor that’s coming out in October about my life and career. I’ve been working on that for the past two-and-a-half, three years.

How did it turn out?

I’m really happy with it. It’s very honest. After years of reading other people telling my story … it’s really the unvarnished truth from my perspective. And it feels good to be able to tell your own story after reading other people’s interpretation of your story that is often colored by not only other people’s opinions, but other people’s agendas. …

It was an incredible experience to look back on your life and unearth all kinds of things that you’ve done and experiences you’ve had. Thank God I’m a packrat. And thank God for the internet because you can find virtually anything now that you’ve done, for the most part. And NBC was incredibly helpful sending me material. It’s been a journey, as they say.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at [email protected]

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