As far as Jim Steyer’s children are concerned, he has the worst job ever. Their friends complain that because of what he does at the office, they’re forbidden to visit some websites or watch certain TV shows.
The grousing doesn’t bother Steyer, the founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media ( www.commonsensemedia.org), because it’s proof of his success.
An educator and author, Steyer started the nonprofit five years ago because he didn’t think the entertainment industry’s rating systems adequately helped parents decide what their kids could -- or should -- watch, listen to or play. He also saw the need for a public policy organization that focused on children, parents and media.
Steyer doesn’t consider himself rigid as a parent or CEO, and the Common Sense motto is “Sanity, not censorship.” He says his approach is to help parents by nudging them to talk to their kids about the latest violent YouTube video and to teach them to become their own filters. After all, they are the ones immersed in it.
(Not that his philosophy makes much of a difference when he tells his own children they can’t buy “Grand Theft Auto IV.” Nor when he reminds them as they kvetch, “I don’t write the reviews.”)
In the last year, San Francisco-based Common Sense has seen its registered user count mushroom from 45,000 to about 200,000. Time Warner Inc., Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc. now buy Common Sense reviews and tips for parents and make them part of their cable services.
That puts Common Sense in about 50 million homes, by Steyer’s estimate. The organization’s video game reviews appear on Best Buy Co.'s website, which plans to add Common Sense movie reviews too. Netflix Inc. already has them on its site. “You need the media companies to distribute your content,” Steyer said. “But they don’t always like what you say.”
The growing reach of the organization gives Steyer clout when he speaks to Congress or the Federal Communications Commission, as does his background: He founded and for six years ran a media company, JP Kids, that developed TV programs including “The Famous Jett Jackson,” which aired on the Disney Channel.
“He has the passion for doing good but the savvy of a businessman,” said William E. Kennard, a former FCC chairman. “He figured out that if he could cut deals with the cable industry he could leverage his organization.”
Steyer credits his mother, a teacher in New York City public schools, for infusing him with a commitment to children.
“Every day she would come home and say, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’ ” he recalled.
Steyer attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire, graduating early to work with his mother teaching remedial reading at a public high school in New York.
“I thought then that he’s not going to be a normal kid,” said Steyer’s younger brother Tom, a founding partner of Farallon Capital, a major hedge fund manager.
While earning a law degree from Stanford, Steyer started a legal aid clinic called East Palo Alto Community Law Project. He worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and met his future wife, Liz, after Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, told him to look her up.
In 1988, he founded Children Now, a public policy group based in California. His experiences there and at JP Kids led to his book, “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children,” published in 2002.
Steyer laughed thinking about the relative simplicity of the media landscape back then. “There was no YouTube, no Facebook, no MySpace, no Club Penguin,” he said. “If I were to do a sequel, it would be a different book.”
When he started Common Sense Media, Steyer pitched it as a Consumer Reports-like outfit about media combined with a nonpartisan policy group along the lines of the AARP. Common Sense is financed by donations from foundations and individuals and fees from numerous media partners.
At its current pace, Common Sense posts 200 new reviews a year on its website. Critics evaluate content based on an age-appropriateness grid created by child development experts. According to recent reviews, “Raw Nature,” a show on the Animal Planet channel, may be too violent, and for anyone under 13, while Madonna’s latest album, “Hard Candy,” might be too racy for anyone under 12.
When Steyer started Common Sense in 2003, many parents were worried about the sex, violence and commercialization their children were exposed to. The solution then was to limit access to the TV or computer. Restricting children has become trickier now that many kids have their own laptops and carry cellphones.
“The laptop is a loaded communication device,” said Liz Perle, the editor in chief of Common Sense Media.
Until recently, his children didn’t own their own laptop computers. His oldest, 15-year-old Lily, just got a cellphone and a laptop.
Steyer, who describes himself as the “average clueless parent,” recently took some advice from his own organization: Parents should improve their digital media literacy. His daughter wants to create a Facebook profile for herself, so she and Dad are working together -- on his Facebook page first.
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Who: Jim Steyer
Occupation: Founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization focused on the effects of media on children
Education: Bachelor’s and law degrees, both from Stanford University
Career highlights: In 1988, founded Children Now, a public policy organization focused on children’s issues. In 1996, started JP Kids, an independent children’s media company. Author of “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children.”
Family: Married and has four children, ages 15, 13, 10 and 4
On his nightstand: “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction,” by David Sheff
What he does for fun: Fantasy baseball