Katie Couric On Good Content

Welcome to the week of International Women’s Day, Potatoheads! We’re celebrating strong women we admire, from all different walks of life, leading up to International Women’s Day this Wednesday. First up? Icon Katie Couric. She is someone we’ve looked up to and drawn inspiration from since we were kids, when our Mom had The Today Show on at breakfast in the morning, and since we interviewed her a few years back (Remember when she drove our Uber?) Now, the Global News Anchor for Yahoo News keeps us updated daily with her must-read newsletter Katie’s FYI. The best way to get to know Katie Couric is not by us summing up her career, but rather letting this throwback interview speak for itself…

TNP: From start to finish— you can go anywhere — what would be your ideal food day?

Katie Couric: Oh, that’s a hard question. I try to be a pretty healthy eater, though I don’t always succeed. I like oatmeal for breakfast. And I’m kind of a maple syrup junkie; I don’t really care for honey. I like blueberries, strawberries…but I’m not a blackberry person. I also like making a really good smoothie, as well as eggs over medium with really good whole grain toast. So I think probably those are my go-to foods.

For lunch, I like a great salad with all sorts of things in it, including arugula, avocados, cherry tomatoes, dried cranberries and pecans or walnuts.

For a snack, I’m a big Honey Crisp apple person – and I love peanut butter. I live to eat peanut butter. I am now currently addicted to the Whole Foods grind-your-own honey peanut butter. It has the same amount of calories as the regular peanut butter, and it’s delicious. I eat that with everything — toast, banana, apple, and Wasa crackers.

Then for dinner, I love roast chicken – especially in winter. I make a pretty mean roast chicken when I cook, though I don’t cook that much. I stuff it with lemons and use herbs and stuff. I also have a vegetable garden, so I grow vegetables in the summer. I love picking cherry tomatoes and just eating them like candy. I’ve grown eggplant and squash and all kinds of herbs. I love rosemary and the smell of lavender. I think my favorite meal would be summer vegetables and fruits and anything I’ve grown in my garden… just sitting at a table in my backyard at the beach, and grilling something, like steak (I’m a big carnivore). I think it’s so evocative for me of some of my happiest memories, doing that both as a child and as a new mom, and now in my life today.

TNP: So changing tracks a little: What are the most significant differences you see between now and when you first started in terms of how content is consumed and distributed?

KC: Well, obviously, things have changed so dramatically. I got into journalism— television journalism specifically— in 1979 when I graduated from college, and back then the number of outlets was very finite. There were three major networks, and Fox also existed but not in its current incarnation. As you might recall from my BMW commercial, the Internet was really in its infancy – if it was even that. So obviously the biggest change is that the number of platforms has exploded, and there are now so many places to get so much different content. I find it personally pretty overwhelming; I’ve never felt so uninformed and inadequate in my life, because I just can’t read everything that’s out there.

In a way, it’s so exciting because it allows people like you guys to just create something from scratch. It allows me to work in a digital space where there’s not a huge fight for real estate. I can just put it out to the world, and I don’t ever have to say to someone, “I’m sorry, we’re out of time.” That gives me the opportunity to really explore topics and have conversations with people and let them go as long as I think they need to go. So that I think is a major difference. I think that [TV] segments have gotten shorter and shorter since I was on television.

TNP: Are there topics that you’ve gotten to explore more? Topics that you couldn’t really get into on shows like The Today Show

I think I could have done a lot of these things on The Today Show but maybe not in the amount of time. And, when I did a daytime talk show, I probably couldn’t have done a lengthy interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just because it’s not traditional daytime fare. I sometimes tailor things and do a shorter version for television because my pieces sometimes run on ABC shows and sometimes I cover stories with a specific audience in mind. I recently interviewed Ken Burns and Siddhartha Mukherjee about the six-hour PBS documentary, The Emperor of All Maladies. I did five interviews about various aspects of cancer research and cancer history – so that might not find an audience on a traditional news show. For people who are interested in cancer research or cancer advocacy, I think that was interesting or exciting for them – and it was really fulfilling for me because it’s something I care deeply about. I’m passionate about it; I get excited about immunotherapy and cancer breakthroughs in general. So that is something I was able to do in my current job that might have been hard to do elsewhere.

TNP: With all the content out there, as you said, what’s your personal definition of good content?

KC: Good content comes in a myriad of forms, I think. You could have good content in a tweet that’s funny or in an Instagram posted by @thefatjewish that just makes you laugh. You can have good content from an unknown blogger who has an interesting perspective. You can have good content in a New Yorker piece that introduces you to a new topic that you didn’t really understand, or in an independent short film, a longer documentary, or a trailer. I think good content is anything that’s done well and anything that really interests the individual, right? What I think is good content, maybe you all won’t. So I think what’s wonderful is that now, you can find the content that speaks to you and ergo it’s good content.

TNP: It’s funny because I was going to ask you about The Today Show and how, for example, they’ll report on Twitter trends and read tweets out loud. Do you find it interesting that it’s basically like producing content about content? Do you think networks were always doing that in some form or another?

KC: Television is often an iteration of content that has shown up someplace else, unless it’s breaking news – it may be an article, a movie, even a conversation. I think television uses social media for a variety of reasons. I think it’s a great way to get audience feedback. When I started at The Today Show, Willard Scott had a wonderful assistant named Nancy Fields. She used to read the viewer mail, and I remember her giving me one in which some guy said that my dress was atrocious and my hair looked like a ski slope for an adventurous sparrow. And I thought that was sort of funny. Sometimes they’re not so funny, when they’re mean, but I think it’s a really great way to feel closer to your audience and to hear what people are saying. I think shows use social media for that. I remember when I was at CBS and I was covering the Gulf Oil Spill, I solicited questions from Twitter. Now this was pretty cutting edge back in 2010, but I wanted to know what viewers wanted to understand about the oil spill. I think if you cover something everyday, sometimes you forget some very basic questions, and I was struck by one person saying, “How much oil is down there?” because it was just going all over the place before they were able to cap it. And I thought, “Gosh, that’s a good question! I have no idea and it’s such an obvious question.” I’ve always tried to be somebody that asks the questions that people at home may want the answer to.

I think now it’s just much easier to quantify what people are talking about through sheer traffic or the number of people who are interested in a topic through what’s trending on various sites. It’s just an incredibly helpful tool for people. The flipside, though, is both giving people what they want to know, and providing people with the things that they should know about. Sometimes the things that we need, I think, to make us smarter and better-informed citizens, aren’t necessarily the things that are trending. So I think it can be a double-edged sword.

TNP: What do you think has been the most impactful interview throughout your career? Which have been the most memorable?

KC: I think probably my interview with Sarah Palin had a big impact, only because she was largely an unknown commodity. I think there was a big group of undecided voters at that point in time, and she had had limited exposure to the public because her team was being very selective about interviews that she was doing. So I think a lot of people watched that interview with great interest and I think in some cases, it impacted the way they voted. I think the goal of doing an interview is to understand somebody’s policy positions, their ability to think critically, and also their ability to, in some cases, pivot and answer a question without necessarily answering the question.

The other one, that I remember very vividly, was meeting Audrey Hepburn. I just loved her. She walked throughout the studio and shook hands with every single person on The Today Show. She shook hands with the cameraman, the stage manager, the prop person, etc. She was so – almost – preternaturally gracious and lovely. I was just very taken with her – more taken than I already was. I just loved her as an actress, for the same reason so many people just found her so enchanting— and that’s not a word I ever use but for her it seems appropriate.

I think maybe the other one that I’ve sometimes talked about, is the interview I did after the Columbine massacre. I went there and I interviewed a young man named Craig Scott, whose sister Rachel was killed, and another man named Michael Shultz, whose son Isaiah was killed. It was the next day and I think that it was such a raw, painful interview. I remember it was pitch dark and the snow was falling in April, so it had this almost surreal backdrop. I think their willingness to talk about something that was almost unspeakably difficult and painful, and the fact that they seemed to get some degree of comfort from each other, was just an amazing thing to witness.

I’ve had so many memorable interviews through the years. I should have kept a journal, but I didn’t, so hopefully someday I’ll write a book about all these interesting people I’ve spoken to. Katharine Hepburn was cool. I went to her townhouse in New York right after I had [my daughter] Ellie. I just never imagined that I’d be in the same room, much less conversing, with all of these enormously talented but also accomplished people.

TNP: What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self— something that I think I did, but you can probably never do enough — to really appreciate the very sweet spot in your life when your children are young and your parents are healthy. I’ve dealt so much with loss – my husband and my sister, and now both my parents are gone – and I really miss all of them. But I think that sometimes you get so exhausted from working and taking care of your kids, and it goes so fast, you don’t always take a moment and say, “This is happiness.” I think I did that, but probably not enough. And now when I see young couples with young children and maybe the grandparents are visiting, I’m like, “Enjoy this time,” because it’s such a special time in the spectrum of your life. That’s probably what I would tell my younger self.

That and maybe not be so hard on yourself. I think I’m very self-critical like most people. I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older, to give myself a break. I think striving for perfection is just a fool’s errand. I also think we’re so critical and judgmental of others, and I worry about the kind of culture we’re creating, where there’s just so much mean-spiritedness. My Mom used to ask me why I was the world’s defender, because I always stand up for the underdog for whatever weird reason. But, I always say to myself— unless somebody’s really an awful person or doing terrible things— that the person is just doing the best they can and that we should all cut people a little more slack. And maybe we should examine why we don’t. This is getting very deep. (Laughs)

I think another rule of thumb is to never write something that you would not say to someone’s face. Sometimes people say something so nasty and mean [on social media], and I’ll look back at their tweeting history, and I’ll realize that it’s not about me. They’re just awful, creepy, nasty, vicious people. And then I feel better. And then I block them!

TNP: Okay, so now talking about Fed Up, the documentary you narrated and executive produced…People have become so much more aware of health and wellness. Why do you think even though awareness has grown – it’s still such a prevalent issue?

KC: I think it’s really hard to break bad habits. And I think my generation and generations that came after me have been eating food in a way that is not particularly healthy without even realizing it. I think that’s one of the things that Fed Up pointed out. Nobody realized how much sugar they were consuming on a daily basis; I don’t think people realized how you should limit your consumption of processed foods. I think old habits die hard. I’m sort of a moderation person. I’m not sugar phobic, but I do like to know, and not have to learn how to read some kind of secret code in terms of how much sugar I’m consuming. Right now, with the way things are labeled, it really takes an effort to understand that. I also think we live in a culture where people eat on the run, and don’t eat necessarily together as a family. A lot of people don’t have time— or think they don’t have time— to cook healthy food. And I think all of us as a country are beginning to understand that. So I think it’s just going to take some time. But I do think that young people especially are going to understand that unless they want to be on this track to become a terribly obese nation – even more so than we already are – a lot of things are going to have to change. We’re all going to have to be more thoughtful about what we eat and how we eat it.

TNP: How do you personally practice beauty from the inside out in terms of health and diet?

KC: Well, I start each day with the best intentions, and sometimes I fulfill them and sometimes I don’t. I just try to overall have a healthy diet and exercise. You’re not going to find me at Flywheel everyday, but I try to do it when I can. I love to take long walks in Central Park. I feel like I do fall short on some days, but I’m usually doing something that I think is interesting or important, so I try to give myself a break. I try to get plenty of sleep. I also think that just being happy inside is important. I like small acts of kindness. I thought I would try this experiment where I would just do these little small acts of kindness everyday — whether it’s asking an old lady if she needs help, or telling someone that you work with that they’re doing a really good job and you appreciate how hard they work. I think sometimes in our busy lives we forget to do things like that, so it is something that I try to do when the opportunity presents itself because it makes me feel really good.

TNP: How has the role of women in the workplace changed since you started and what work is there still to be done?

KC: Well, I often say — and people are probably tired of reading this if they have read it — that I started in television when harass was two words instead of one.

Women were just entering the workforce in record numbers. Obviously there are so many more opportunities for women, and they are permeating all kinds of fields whether it’s science with cancer researchers, finance, business, media, marketing…almost every field has more women, certainly than it did when I graduated from college and entered the workforce. But companies still don’t have enough women, as you know. I just interviewed Ellen Pao – who sued KPCB – so I actually did a lot of reading about diversity in the workplace. We just have a long way to go before implicit bias is really erased. I think there are a lot of subtle things that happen in a work environment that can – but not always – in some fields shut women out. I still find young women are trying to have a clearer idea of how they can successfully operate in a professional environment. How feminine can you be? How assertive can you be without being considered too pushy? And I think a double standard still exists, but I think a lot of it emanates from implicit bias— just the way we’ve all been conditioned and programmed through mass media and through the way society operates.

I guess the short answer is; I think women have made incredible progress. I think in my field in particular, women are every bit as powerful as their male counterparts. I work for a female CEO and CMO and that’s really gratifying, but I still think we have to work harder to diversify the workplace both when it comes to minorities and when it comes to women. I know when I was working on my talk show I tried to make a real effort to hire people who had no connections. I think people hire people like themselves and people they know through the same social circles, so as a result it can be very stratifying. I think we all have to have honest conversations first and foremost, and just really make a concerted effort to give opportunities to people who are different than we are and appreciate the benefit of those different perspectives.

In terms of the tech industry, we’re just starting to see the results of an emphasis on STEM and encouraging girls to be interested in science, technology, engineering and math. I think we’re going to see hopefully more women gravitate to those careers and those fields, and that whole climate will change as a result. When I talked to Ellen Pao, I talked about the culture and the atmosphere of startups, and how the very environment that unleashes creativity doesn’t necessarily inhibit inappropriate behavior. I think [the tech industry] is probably going through growing pains in that way.

TNP: In the same vein as the new black in fashion, what is the new potato?

KC: Curation is the new potato. Because I think it’s impossible— to go back to my early point— to read everything, and I think we all could use a good editor to help us.

TNP: Is there someone (past or present) that you haven’t interviewed yet that you would want to sit down to dinner with and interview?

KC: Pope Francis. Maybe one day. You never know. He seems to be more receptive than his predecessors. I always wanted to interview Princess Diana. I sat near her at a lunch once in Chicago. Kate Middleton I think would be really interesting to talk to because even though she’s so photographed, I think she’s still a bit of an enigma; nobody’s really heard her speak that much. But Pope Francis is a big one.

TNP: You’ll definitely interview Pope Francis after this interview comes out on The New Potato. He reads it religiously.

KC: Yes, after he reads The New Potato, I think he may call me.

*Katie Couric, photographed at Sarabeth’s in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann. Katie wears an A.L.C. dress. Subscribe to Katie’s newsletter, Katie’s FYI, here