Protecting the First Amendment: Charles Overby Oversees the Freedom Forum
By Macey Baird and Robin Street
For Charles Overby, journalism has been a lifelong calling.
Overby began his self-proclaimed “love affair” with newspapers at age 11 while delivering The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger each day at 5 a.m. Then came his high school journalism class.
“On the second day of class I remember turning to my friend and saying, ‘If they pay you to do this, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” Overby says.
Today, Overby is chairman and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum foundation and CEO of the Newseum, a major museum in Washington, D.C. that informs and entertains 700,000 visitors annually about history, news and freedom.
At Ole Miss, the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics is named in his honor and funded through a $5 million grant from the Freedom Forum. The center brings his career full circle back to Ole Miss, where he finished in 1968, six credit hours short of a degree.
Overby credits his days at Ole Miss with preparing him for his career. He was editor of The Daily Mississippian and paid for his education by working for the sports information office of the Athletic Department and as Ole Miss correspondent for several news operations.
“I love Ole Miss in the sense that I have a lifelong passion for appreciating for what it has done for me and what it continues to do for so many people,” he says.
After leaving the university, Overby moved to D.C. to work for Sen. John Stennis from Mississippi before becoming the Washington correspondent for the Nashville Banner. Overby met Al Neuharth, owner of Gannett and founder of USA Today, when Gannett purchased the Banner.
“For whatever reason he gave me many opportunities both at the Gannett Company and the foundation,” Overby says of Neuharth..
He went on to spend 16 years working for Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, as a reporter, editor and corporate executive.
In 1982, Gannett appointed Overby as executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger where he led the newspaper’s news and editorial coverage of the need for education reform in Mississippi. The result was a Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
In 1989, he became president and chief executive officer of the Gannett Foundation, later renamed the Freedom Forum. The Freedom Forum promotes First Amendment and media issues, and funds the Newseum, an interactive museum devoted to educating people about the First Amendment. It also funds the Diversity Institute, which works to keep a diverse workforce in newsrooms.
Today, Overby divides his time between Washingon (the Newseum), Nashville (the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University) and Oxford (the Overby Center). He also travels around the country to speak about the future of newspapers and a free press.
“The future of newspapers is good. It’s going to have a strong future in a multimedia sort of way,” Overby says. “I think we will see print for a long, long time, but we will also see news delivered on many new platforms.”
He believes the Meek School of Journalism and New Media will be a vital part of preparing students for that future.
“Journalism is one of the recognized areas of excellence at Ole Miss,” he says. “It teaches you and prepares you for a lifetime of many different opportunities. The Meek School has the right resources and the right leadership. Now it ranks among the top journalism schools in the country.”
Overby suggests that journalism students gain a broad knowledge base early in their career.
“Pursue what you love and then the rest will fall into place,” Overby says. “It is the greatest blessing to my life and my family to find something I love doing and get paid for something as exciting as journalism.”