The Missourian: A Unique Approach to Teaching Journalism
‘All journalism schools have trouble reconciling vocational goals and academic needs, and the conflict was felt first and most sharply at Missouri.’
Steve Weinberg’s excellent chronicle took me back to the summer of 1947 when I was a rising high school senior in Clay Center, Kansas. That’s when I first fell in love with the University of Missouri School of Journalism. It was a long distance, unrequited relationship triggered by a magazine article. In that steamy July, Collier’s published “City Without Secrets,” about the then-39-year-old newspaper war in Columbia, Missouri, between the journalism school’s Missourian and the privately owned Daily Tribune.
You don’t have to be famous to meet the press in Columbia, Missouri. All you have to do is step off a train or bus.
“Help you with your bags, sir?” The young man or pretty girl who greets you so helpfully is not a porter, you find, but a reporter from the Columbia Missourian.
A loud noise anywhere in town will bring two or three of them on the gallop. On Broadway, driving up to your hotel, your cab locks bumpers with a car backing out of a parking space. Before the dust has settled, two young men have gotten your name, birthplace and business, and you’ve apologized for remaining intact.
Weinberg doesn’t mention that Collier’s moment of fame in his detailed account of the first 100 years of the Missouri J-School. Perhaps it was a bit exaggerated. But that newspaper war is still going on. And Missouri students still learn journalism by actually doing journalism. The Missouri method remains unique with its newsroom directed by professional editors and staffed by students who do the reporting, design, copyediting, information graphics, photography and multimedia. Now we can see how it happened.
The reason that it has not been widely copied is easy to understand. The journalism deans, from Walter Williams to Dean Mills, must have had the hardest academic job in the world. In addition to the usual need to keep students, faculty, alumni, donors and the university administration happy, the dean must also work to keep an increasingly complex (now multimedia) business operation solvent. And, unlike most CEOs, deans have had to fight political battles against the privately owned competitors who incessantly complain to state lawmakers that the university-owned media are unfair competition.
This problem existed from the first day. Williams, the founding dean, had no models to emulate when he organized the first journalism school, and he faced considerable resistance from skeptical editors and publishers who thought that journalism was a craft that could be learned only on the job. Williams himself lacked a college degree and had learned the news business through a long apprenticeship like everyone else.
But building a working newspaper into the curriculum solved that problem, and the genius of Williams was that he was able to found a new newspaper and a new journalism school simultaneously. The first issue of the paper coincided with the first day of class, September 14, 1908. The university expanded the Missouri method into broadcasting with the creation of a TV station in 1953 and an FM station in 1971. More recently, an online newspaper, MyMissourian.com, featuring citizen-provided content, was added to the package.
All journalism schools have trouble reconciling vocational goals and academic needs, and the conflict was felt first and most sharply at Missouri. The model depended on faculty who had learned on the job, not through study toward advanced degrees. And so the vocational tail kept wagging the academic dog. But to maintain its standing within the university, the school needed a PhD program and, in 1931, the faculty designed one that demonstrated academic rigor by requiring “evidence of ability to translate French and German on sight.”
The advantage of having curious PhDs and their graduate students under the same administrative roof as a grown-up newspaper could have been seen as an opportunity to use the paper as a weapons lab for discovering applications and effects of new technology as it came along. Weinberg’s account makes it clear that the opportunity was there, because he shows how the paper kept up with the industry with conversions, from letterpress to offset and pagination. But unlike professional schools in other fields, it tended to follow, not lead, the profitable and self-confident industry that it served. There is no indication in Weinberg’s account of much communication between the research faculty and the Missourian management about studying the implications and effects of technological change.
That changed in the Mills administration with the creation of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and faculty like Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy, who developed links to the newspaper industry as it began to appreciate the need for new knowledge. Thus began, Weinberg reports, “a journey into the mostly unknown reaches of the profession.”
Despite being smitten by the school when I was 16, I never made it to Missouri. Family finances could get me no closer than Kansas State in the next county. But I lucked out. Smart young professors understood what newspapers were for, and they left us free to experiment as we applied our freshly gained knowledge to the college paper.
And I started crossing paths with members of the Missouri Mafia even before I graduated. Newton Townsend, who’d received his bachelor degree from Missouri in 1948 and his masters in journalism a year later, was my city editor during a summer internship at the Topeka Daily Capital in 1951 when I got my first Page One byline. He rates a mention in the book because he returned to Columbia in 1957 to run a training program for foreign journalists. Newt’s brother Robert “Bear” Townsend, also a Missouri graduate, was The Topeka reporter who introduced me to “The Journalist’s Creed,” written by Williams and memorized by students. “I believe,” it says in part, “that suppression of the news for any consideration other than the welfare of society is indefensible.”
Those words and a supportive faculty helped sustain me when I experienced conflict with Kansas State administrators as a student editor in my senior year. I doubt that there are many of us who have not been influenced, in one way or another, by the Missouri method. You didn’t have to be there.
Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His “Precision Journalism,” first published in 1973, is in its fourth edition. He is working on a memoir about the evolution of that work.