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Ruthless Interrogation

President Ramsey interviews Mark Hebert


During his recent visit to the University of Louisville McConnell Center, U.S. senator and former presidential candidate John McCain was introduced by the center’s namesake—Sen. Mitch McConnell—to the university’s new head of media relations.

“We used to recoil when we saw him coming,” McConnell jokingly warned McCain.

He was referring to Mark Hebert, the long-time reporter for WHAS-TV who many considered Louisville’s top investigative journalist and political reporter before he joined UofL last May as director of media relations. Some say that politicians and other newsmakers across the state breathed a collective sigh of relief on hearing that Hebert was moving to public relations.

We decided it would be fun to turn the tables on UofL’s new primary spokesperson and interview him about his switch from interviewer to interviewee. First in line to volunteer for the job? The man who had been at the other end of Hebert’s microphone for so many years—President James Ramsey.

Ramsey was eager for the task. And according to Hebert, his years of dealing with journalists taught him well.

RAMSEY: Mark, you’re famous—and greatly respected by legislators, public officials and people across the state for what you did and how you did it. Why would you leave a job you were good at and had a passion for to take on a new challenge, at a time of great financial uncertainty at the University of Louisville?

HEBERT: The timing was just right. I did love my job. I loved doing political reporting. I loved covering state government. I loved covering UofL. But the timing was right for me because the news business was struggling financially, and I just thought the University of Louisville was a terrific place to go. I respected Jim Ramsey—I’ve known you for 15, 20 years and think you are a straight shooter and a stand-up guy. So I was kind of looking down the road and said, “Maybe it’s about time to take my first real job.”

RAMSEY: Institutions of higher education are wonderful organizations—creators of new knowledge, disseminators of information to students, bastions of intellectual curiosity. Yet they are often tradition-bound and slow moving, too. Has there been anything you’ve learned in your time with UofL that was totally unexpected?

HEBERT: Something I didn’t expect, or didn’t know, was how many tentacles the University of Louisville has in this community. I’ve been living in Louisville for more than 20 years now, and I had no clue that the Brown Cancer Center was tied to UofL. And all the things we do out in the community—all the big projects and big programs down at the Health Sciences Campus and all the research being done here. I don’t think people understand the breadth of the ways the university touches this community. That was one big surprise.

The other one you kind of bring up with your question—in a newsroom, everything moves fast. Decisions are made minute by minute on what to cover. If there’s breaking news, you get out the door and often times you get things on the air within 15 minutes of finding out about it. At the university, it’s a slower process, and the slowness of some things has surprised me—how long it takes to get through all the wickets to get things done.

RAMSEY: When you and I interviewed for your job here, that was what I was most concerned about. It’s funny, because we’re doing new things, creative things, breaking new ground, but we are so tradition-bound, so process-bound.

HEBERT: And there’s turf—turf that needs to be overturned every once in a while.

RAMSEY: Now the second part of that original question: What have you found to be your biggest challenge?

HEBERT: The biggest challenge so far has been getting to know all the people who are newsmakers on this campus—the deans, the researchers, the folks who are perhaps just below the surface but are doing great work here. You’ve got 6,000 employees and a lot of them are doing great things. You can be in a casual conversation with somebody who says, “Oh, by the way, I’m working on this project that’s going to cure kidney disease someday.” And you go, “Whoa, that’s a news story!”

The toughest challenge has been just getting to know those folks and getting to know where to go for information.

This university has all these great stories to tell. It’s just a matter of finding those people and getting them to tell those stories, so that people realize what a great institution this is and how much great work we’re doing.

hebertRAMSEY: Speak to the many facets of the university, from the classroom to health care to athletics, and the communication challenges that presents to you.

HEBERT: Well, I think the overwhelming majority of folks in the state and probably the country know that the University of Louisville has a great athletic program. So when you say “the University of Louisville” to Joe Schmo in Wichita, Kan., he’ll say, “They have a great basketball team” or “They’ve got a great football team,” or whatever.

I don’t think that the University of Louisville has that kind of national reputation, or maybe even a statewide reputation, in other facets like academics and research. And I think that’s part of my job—to spread the word that we really do have a lot of great programs as far as driving economic development in Louisville, Ky., and in this region.

On the academic part of this university, we have some of the best students we’ve ever had here now. And it’s just a totally different university than it was 30 years ago. Getting that message to folks outside the Jefferson County line is part of my job, and that’s the message we have to spread.

RAMSEY: Many changes have occurred in communications and the media industry in recent years (e.g., the Internet, changes in technology, less people dependent on print media, layoffs in traditional media sources, etc.). Have these changes made your job more or less difficult, and if so, how?

HEBERT: It’s made it more difficult. Before, all a spokesman had to do was go to the local newspaper and maybe one or two television stations and their message was widespread and would get to the majority of people in that community. Twenty years ago, if there was a story in the Courier-Journal about UofL doing something and on WHAS-TV and maybe one other television station that was good enough. You were getting your message out.

Now, you’ve got bloggers, you’ve got Internet, you’ve got Facebook— you’ve got all these different sources of information, and the media is so widespread. There are not one or two or three places you can go to get your message out to a broad audience. You have to go to a hundred different places. So it makes it tougher to be a PR person and, frankly, it makes it tougher to be a reporter, too.

RAMSEY: If a legislator slipped Mark Hebert some truth serum and then asked, “Mark, as an investigative reporter what is the one thing you can tell us that we in the Kentucky General Assembly need to know about higher education as we reflect on funding and public policy issues?”

HEBERT: It’s money well spent. I also think—and my boss might not want me to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway—there are probably too many state universities for a state with just 4 million people in it. I’m not going to say which one doesn’t need to be a state university or which schools might need to be merged, but I do think there are probably too many state universities and that we are spreading our money too thin.

In terms of where you’re putting your bucks? I think everybody always says education is going to drive the economy in Kentucky. What is going to drive Louisville, Ky., in the years to come is an educated workforce. Well, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is if you’re in the state legislature.

RAMSEY: So the B-part of the truth serum question: The one thing you can tell us as an investigative reporter that the Kentucky General Assembly needs to know about the University of Louisville, as it reflects on funding and public policy issues?

HEBERT: I would say that it has been the economic driver for the city of Louisville probably for the last three, four years and maybe longer. I would say that it’s a different university than it was 20 years ago and folks who were here 20 or 30 years ago wouldn’t even recognize the Belknap Campus or the Health Sciences Campus if they visited today.

It’s tough trying to get the news media to say a bunch of positive stuff when you’ve got these negative stories, because those are always the best ones for the reporters to cover, frankly, and are the ones that are more exciting. When you have conflict, you have news.

From a reporter standpoint, I would say in the past that the University of Louisville maybe hasn’t admitted and `fessed up to some of the mistakes it made. Hopefully in the future, if I have anything to do with it when we make mistakes, we’ll say we made mistakes—we screwed up—and move on.

RAMSEY: Both professionally and personally, did Mark Hebert make a good move when he left WHAS-TV and came to the University of Louisville?

HEBERT: You’ve heard me say to others it was a great move. Was I looking to leave WHAS-TV? No, I loved my job, I was not looking to move. But yes, I have been very happy at UofL. So far the relationship with the president has been good. He hasn’t fired me yet. But if he does I might go back to working in television.

RAMSEY: Does the University of Louisville give you the same ego fix that you could receive by being on TV every evening?

HEBERT: You know, to say I didn’t need an ego fix, I’d be lying. Every TV reporter loves being on TV and having people come up and say, “Gee, I saw you on such and such a story.”

I don’t know if I need it though. I had 27 years of ego fixes every night. I was ready to try something different. I still get stopped on the street quite a bit with folks saying, ”Hey, I really miss you on TV” or “I really miss you on Comment on Kentucky.” That strokes my ego a little bit. Of course, five years from now, they’ll have no idea who I am, but that will be a good thing. That will mean that the University of Louisville is going smoothly and I’m not on the TV having to defend it.

RAMSEY: You’ve been given 30 seconds to do a video news spot on the University of Louisville. What would you tell your audience?

HEBERT: I tell them that the University of Louisville has been the economic driver for the city for the last several years. I tell them that the University of Louisville has the best students it’s ever had. I tell them that the University of Louisville has a beautiful campus—that they would be shocked if they walked on campus right now and looked at all the trees, the sidewalks and beautiful new buildings. Was that 30 seconds?

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