One-on-one with ‘60 Minutes’ Executive Producer Jeffrey Fager

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

A familiar, almost familial sound: in fact, one of the most recognizable, stimulating, yet oddly comforting aural messages in America.

It’s the sound of the legendary opening credits of “60 Minutes.” A stopwatch-produced series of clicks that not only signal the landmark program is starting, but that Executive Producer Jeffrey Fager and his CBS News team have been busy — on a program that has, quite literally, stood the test of time.

First appearing on show No. 2 in 1968, the revolutionary stopwatch represented a fresh news brand at a time when “brand” referred mostly to the likes of Procter & Gamble, Ford or Mattel. It reflected not just the swift passage of time but the importance society would continue to place on how we spend our time.

More so now than in 1968, time is a precious commodity, and we don’t easily give it away — much less 60 minutes of it.

For me, jumping at the chance to learn from the thought-full Jeffrey Fager was a no brainer, especially when compared to the large number of my contemporaries who seem hell-bent on jumping to conclusions. Fager’s world revolves around exploration, evaluation, explanation and education — admirable pursuits all.

“Our mission is to not take for granted they have given us an hour of their time, and we better damn well give them something in return,” explains Fager. “You want the viewer to say: ‘I’m so glad I spent that hour with them because I left with a better understanding of the world.’”

You also can’t separate Fager from his commitment to (today’s somewhat ailing concept of) investigation, so I jumped on that, too. Born in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Jeffrey Fager graduated from Colgate University in 1977, hopped on the bottom rung of the Boston CBS affiliate ladder (“I looked up to the interns!”), and moved to CBS News in 1982. Jeffrey Fager has seen it all, done it all and won it all—industry awards, that is. He has served as executive producer of “60 Minutes” since 2004.

When pushed for personal observations, Fager couldn’t help but respond with his “60 Minutes” hat securely in place. The man and the mission have seemingly merged into one. During our time together, he never told me what to think; he cared only that I wanted to think.

“I really do believe — in terms of [the show’s] storytelling and quality — it comes from the standards and values that haven’t changed,” says Fager. To educate. To enlighten. To tell a compelling story. “We don’t cover ‘issues,’ we tell stories that shed light on issues.” To Fager, it’s all about storytelling.

A good story requires a villain — and conflict. In today’s world, there appears to be no shortage of either one. And if you’re a fan of a requisite surprise twist, our cultural landscape always seems more than willing to deliver.

Executive Producer Jeffrey Fager with author Randall Kenneth Jones.

For Fager, the most frustrating aspect of his job must be the lack of story resolution. After all, “Happily Ever After” has never been a broadcast news mainstay. Fager and team often have no choice but to metaphorically leave viewers in the realm of “to be continued …” Nevertheless, by adding value to the national conversation, they consistently succeed.

Fager doesn’t ever rely on audience research to tell him what stories to cover. “We’re not supposed to ask viewers what they want us to cover, we’re supposed to tell them what we think is important. And then we’re supposed to make it interesting.”

Do some newsmagazine surfing and you quickly realize that so much of the “news” in prime time is about crime. That’s different from covering conflict zones — or from doing a story about the economy. That’s also why “60 Minutes” is the most-watched news program today: They celebrate “different” and “differing.”

“We fought off all those temptations of modern television journalism — to cheapen it, to pander, to do what we think the audience wants us to do, and instead, we stuck to the core values of broadcast journalism that go way back at CBS News,” he explains. “It’s still a fundamental part of us. That’s what I fight for the hardest.”

Simply by continuing to embrace the program’s original pioneering spirit, almost 50 years later, “60 Minutes” is INNOVATIVE. They stand practically alone in a sea of journalistic copycats and opportunists. Everything old IS new again.

Our nation’s news is not “Entertainment Tonight.” In truth, if it weren’t for high-principled storytellers like Jeffrey Fager and programs like “60 Minutes,” we’d likely find ourselves in more intellectual jeopardy than we already do.

And what happens when Jeffrey Fager squeezes in 60 minutes for himself? “I’m a big fisherman,” he says with a smile. “And we eat what we catch.” Next, as I transform into Mr. Metaphor and comment that “eat what we catch” appears to also describe “60 Minutes,” Fager laughs and agrees: “We’re on an adventure all the time — we’re on a hunt.” And the inquisitive public feasts on the results.

Jeffrey Fager displays the same authenticity, sincerity and effortless appeal in a one-on-one conversation that he exhibits before a large audience — the only difference: the latter is amplified. But isn’t that what “60 Minutes” does? Amplify what should be a highly personal message to a large, diverse audience in the intimacy of their homes?

Fager does not take the shows longstanding success — nor the public’s trust — for granted: “It’s very fragile. It doesn’t just stay forever because it is what it is. It takes individuals who really believe in it.” A philosophy that applies everywhere longevity and integrity are desired and achieved.

As our interview’s closing credits were symbolically rolling through my overstimulated, thought-provoked brain, Jeffrey Fager offered a final nugget of personal, yet universal, advice: “We are all made up of positive and negative. We all do some things well and some things badly. You can focus on the bad or you can concentrate on making the good better.” He then paused briefly and added: “I get accused of always looking for the bright side — and I’ll take that.”

As should we all.

#TimeWellSpent

For more on Jeffrey Fager and “60 Minutes,” visit www.cbsnews.com/60-minutes. For more on marketer, creative consultant, writer and motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones, visit ShowMeJones.com. Jones’ book, “Show Me,” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.