Q&A with 60 minutes executive editor Bill Owens
Bill Owens, a 1988 Towson alumnus, was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters Friday, May 25 at the College of Fine Arts and Communication commencement ceremony.
The Towerlight sat down with him to discuss his advice for students and recent graduates, as well as his responsibilities as executive director of CBS’s 60 minutes television show.
Towerlight: What does receiving a Doctor of Humane Letters mean to you?
Bill Owens: It’s going to surprise most of my friends and family, they’re going to have to call me doctor now, right? No, it’s an honor that I never would have imagined and I’m humbled by it.
TL: How did you transition from being a Towson student to where you are today?
BO: I was in the page program at CBS right after I graduated, which is basically like being an intern. It was 1988 and there was a political convention. At that time, CBS used to really “staff out” and hire a whole bunch of people to cover the conventions. None of the networks do it to that extent anymore. So that was my introduction. I couldn’t believe I was being allowed to do what I was being allowed to do, which was basically run for coffee and any kind of menial errand that anybody needed me to do. That was really how I got introduced to CBS and people around there saw that I could take a coffee run and not screw it up, and let me answer the phone, and I didn’t screw that up and then little by little you build up responsibilities.
Then they asked me to come and interview for a job on the National Assignment Desk in New York and I did that, but I didn’t get the job for like six months. They had too many people working there basically and they needed for there to be some turnover. So I went back to my old job of digging ditches basically. It was a summer job and it stunk. Then one day I called in and they said ‘Guess what? We can give you the job.’ So I’ve been at CBS ever since. That’s the other thing – that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve stayed in one place. I haven’t bounced around. It’s been one company and I’ve kind of grown up here, in a way. And I’ve worked every shift, every holiday. I’ve worked overnights, weekends, but it’s been a great learning experience and I’ve sort of learned how to work and how to be a professional at CBS. I was just very lucky to get in the position where I could do that.
TL: When you were in college, did you envision yourself being an executive editor?
BO: No, I can’t say that I did. I was sure that I was going to work hard enough to have a good job and be doing something that I wanted to do, and I was sure that I knew that I wanted to write. I wasn’t quite sure that it was going to be journalism or maybe even film. But I thought that if I could get a job as a producer, or a writer or a screenplay writer, then that would be a success for me. So I’ve been very fortunate to be a producer, then to be a senior producer, and now to be an executive editor of [60 Minutes]. I guess I’ve gotten a few lucky breaks along the way.
TL: What is an executive editor?
BO: I run the 60 Minutes program day-to-day. So that’s everything from OK-ing stories to when reporters are finished with the stories they show them to me and I say change this or ask a question about that. Basically it’s an editorial function and I do budgets and personnel. But the most interesting thing I do, obviously, is the stories. We do 100 stories a year. I’m in charge of making sure those are done well, right and fairly. We just finished our 44th year of 60 Minutes and we’re proud of the work we do. I’m also in charge of the social media aspect and the digital media platforms. We do a show called 60 Minutes Overtime that I oversee also.
TL: Which story that you’ve developed are you most proud of?
BO: I’m very proud of the broadcast that was done on the financial collapse that we’re still kind of stuck in. We jumped on the story very early and I think we did a lot to help educate the public as to what was happening and why it was happening because it’s complicated. So I would say that that, in recent memory, I’m proudest of that work. That’s been a lot of different correspondents and producers that have worked on those stories.
TL: What’s your advice to students trying to break into the broadcast industry?
BO: Be persistent, I know that sounds like B.S., but I mean it. I never ever, ever turn [people] down. I’ve had probably three or four people call me directly and say ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m calling you from Buffalo State University but I was just wondering how can I get an internship at 60 Minutes?’ and I’ll say, ‘You just got it.’ If you are able to find me, that’s the kind of people that I want working at the CBS newsroom at 60 Minutes. So you really need to be persistent and you need to know what you want to do, do what you’re good at, hopefully that’s what you’ll want to do. And you just need to be the person who, when the boss walks in in the morning, is sitting in the lobby saying ‘Can I just have two minutes of your time? I want to tell you why this is going to be the smartest thing you ever did by giving me an opportunity.’ Do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door because you’ll impress people. If you have a good work ethic, you’ll impress people and they’ll give you additional responsibilities and you’ll work your way up. I really do think it’s as simple as that.
TL: Where do you see yourself going within the next 10 years?
BO: I hope that I’ll be right here at 60 Minutes. It’s really an honor to work at this show. It’s the most famous show that’s ever been on television in the history of the world, it really is. In terms of ratings, in terms of longevity, and I hope that my last day here is when I decide it’s time to retire, not when they retire me.