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Mastering the Missouri method

The Missouri School of Journalism gives students a baptism by fire.


KOMU gives students an opportunity to learn the craft of broadcast journalism first hand.

From the very first day it opened, Mizzou’s School of Journalism has published a daily newspaper edited by faculty members and staffed by student reporters. J-School students put out the inaugural issue of the University Missourian when classes started Sept. 14, 1908. An article reported the school brought two “leather-lunged” newsboys from St. Louis to hawk that first paper on the streets of Columbia.

The top stories? A local church had moved its contingent of Christian College girls from the balcony to first-floor pews because male worshippers flocked to the balcony seats, gawking at the young ladies. Church elders claimed that religious conversions were falling off. Columbia officials were investigating a town jailer charged with serving prisoners tainted meat. The jailer complained that his clientele, and his income, was cut in half when Columbia banned liquor. “There’s no profit in it since the town went dry,” he told the reporter.

On the third page of the four-page newspaper was this headline: “Department of Missouri University Begins Its Work Today.” That story about the J-School’s founding may have been buried inside, but articles and editorials in newspapers around the country took notice of this radical experiment in journalism education.

After years of planning, debates and funding battles, a former University curator and up-and-coming newspaper publisher from Boonville, Mo., named Walter Williams had pulled it off. He created an institution at Mizzou that would set the standard for journalism education around the world.

The entering class had 64 students, including one from Canada, two from China and six women. An article in the second issue of the Missourian explained the philosophy behind this new enterprise: “How to do must be taught by doing.”

For example, a class called Correspondence, one of the courses offered that first year, taught students about the latest technology of the day — the telegraph. Hands-on learning is still the school’s bedrock philosophy.

Over the years, that style of instruction has become known as the Missouri method and has been imitated by other journalism schools. A cadre of J-School graduates called the “Missouri Mafia” teach at other prestigious journalism programs and hold leadership positions in media and advertising industries around the world. As it closes in on its first century, the Missouri School of Journalism is ranked regularly among the top two or three programs in the world.

George Kennedy, professor emeritus of journalism, credits the J-School’s continued excellence both to the head start it had as the world’s first school of journalism and to what he calls the “arrogance” of Ivy League universities that turned down endowment offers to establish journalism programs. Those blue-blood institutions argued that journalism really wasn’t a serious subject for college instruction.

Columbia University later relented, Kennedy says, “but by that time, Walter Williams, working with the Missouri Press Association, had snuck in ahead of them, and out here in the middle of nowhere created this truly remarkable institution.

“The secret to Missouri’s longtime success and the best indicator that Walter Williams — whatever his personal shortcomings may have been — was a genius, is that the system he created, the learning by doing, has held up for darn near 100 years now, pretty much regardless of who the people were with the levers in their hands,” says Kennedy, BJ ’64, PhD ’78.

Many things have changed during the J-School’s first century, but a lot of traditions are still going strong. MU journalism professors still help students put out a daily newspaper — it’s called the Columbia Missourian now — but the hands-on learning experiences have expanded beyond newspapers to include television, radio, advertising, public relations and now electronic media.

The class called Introduction to News Reporting is still the equivalent of journalism boot camp, a dreaded but required course that initiates students into the J-School’s hard-nosed approach to news. Today’s students no longer sit behind typewriters in a dingy classroom called “The Pit” in the basement of Neff Hall pounding out deadline assignments on yellow copy paper. Instead, they write their practice articles on computers and work in teams to produce video assignments in addition to their written pieces.
The physical layout of the J-School has changed over the years as well. The journalism arch that connects Walter Williams and Neff halls still shelters the Ming dynasty lions that were a gift of the Chinese government in 1931. The Missourian offices and newsroom, though, have moved to Lee Hills Hall, north of Peace Park.

In September 2008, the school will dedicate its newest addition, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, where professionals will study new approaches and innovations in all branches of media and study the future of journalism. The institute, funded by a $31 million gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, will be housed in a building now under construction that will link historic Walter Williams Hall with the Sociology Building at the northeast corner of Francis Quadrangle.

One constant through the years is the influence that founder Walter Williams still has on the school’s philosophy and curriculum. During the nearly three decades that he ran the J-School’s magazine sequence, nobody ever accused Don Ranly of sentimentality. But when Ranly, PhD ’76, talks about Williams’ gospel, the Journalist’s Creed, he gets a little emotional.

Williams wrote the creed in 1914, and early J-School students were required to memorize it. His mantra of journalism ethics begins this way: “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public …”

“I’ll tell you, that thing can bring tears to your eyes,” Ranly says. The founder’s idea of training young journalists by having them work in a newsroom has paid off. “Learning by doing — it just makes so much sense in this field,” Ranly says. “Other journalism schools do not do it; they play at it.”

That firm grounding in the professional world means Mizzou remains ahead of the curve as journalism changes. “We’ve been on the cutting edge every time,” Ranly says, and points to some examples: Expanding the curriculum from print to radio and television. Establishing the first journalism master’s and doctoral degree programs. Embracing the idea of “convergence journalism” where print, broadcast and electronic media blend into one product. Pioneering the practice of computer-assisted reporting and incorporating the use of computers in the newsroom. Attracting national media organizations — from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers to the National Newspaper Association — that have established their headquarters at Mizzou. “Success breeds success,” Ranly says. “Reputations are not gained easily, but they can be lost easily.”

A few afternoons each week, Rod Gelatt visits with high school students touring the J-School to see whether it would be a good fit. “I try to get a sense of what brought them here and what they know about us,” says Gelatt, professor emeritus of broadcast journalism. “Usually the answer is, ‘Well, I know you’re the best.’ ”

Gelatt was hired in 1963 as professor and news director for KOMU-TV, the school’s commercial TV station that is a laboratory for students. Station staffers had to make a nightly run to the post office to pick up news film from United Press International. They edited film with a razor blade on an editing block.

“It’s gone from clicketyclack teletype machines to doing everything on a computer,” Gelatt says, “but we still very much try to teach good writing skills and how to be a good listener and interviewer.”

Techniques and technologies might change, but the underlying principle of the Missouri method does not. “As other journalism schools have come along, I don’t think there is any other one to exactly copy what we do,” Gelatt says. Other schools might require their students to take internships in real-life media positions. But those internships, he says, “simply give their students the same kind of opportunities that ours get almost every day in their junior and senior years.”

Roger Gafke, BJ ’61, MA ’62, compares the school’s success with a powerhouse college football program that draws top high school players from around the country.
Once talented students arrive, the J-School challenges them with deadline-driven, reader-driven media production, says Gafke, professor emeritus of broadcast journalism. “We get very good students, and in many cases what they take away with them is what they brought to the school.” Nearly 10 years ago, as the J-School was closing in on its centennial, Gafke started an archival project to interview scores of journalism alumni.

“What I wanted to do was collect recollections about what it was like to be a journalism student at Missouri from those of us in the school’s first century as a gift to those people who are going to be here in the school’s second century,” Gafke says. In each interview he asked graduates to describe the essence of their Missouri journalism education.

They didn’t talk about abstract notions about freedom of the press or journalism’s role in history, Gafke says. “People from across seven decades answered the question more or less the same way. They answer in very personal terms — about being honest with your sources, or the hard work involved or a responsibility for fairness and balance. My interpretation of that is the Missouri method is so intense in terms of its relationship with faculty members and the real work that you’re doing that what stands out are the personal things.”

Since he joined the journalism faculty in 1986, Byron Scott has lectured and given workshops in 47 countries. Except for the number of countries he’s visited, Scott’s international expertise is nothing unusual among J-School faculty.

“Three-quarters of our faculty have had overseas assignments connected with the school just within the last three or four years,” says Scott, a professor emeritus of journalism who directed international programs at the J-School until 2001.

The school’s international connections began with Walter Williams, who encouraged students to consider working and teaching in Asia. A Missouri graduate taught the first advertising course in China in 1917, and early J-School alumni helped train the modern press corps in China, Japan and the Philippines. In the 1920s, Williams convinced an indifferent student named Edgar Snow to make a trip to Asia, where he became one of the first Western reporters to interview Mao and explain his rise to power.

The world’s first school of journalism is becoming the first world school of journalism, Scott says. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 changed the world and also had a profound impact on the J-School. “When something new and difficult crops up in journalism, people tend to think of Missouri,” Scott says. “All of a sudden we were teaching workshops from Bratislava to Ulan Bator. Now a third of our graduate students come from outside the United States.”

The school has always had an international flavor, says Bill Taft, BJ ’38, MA ’39. Taft taught History and Principles of Journalism at MU from 1956–81, a required course that was one of the common threads of the J-School experience. Students called the class “H&P” and said it stood for “Hell and Purgatory.”

“I always told my H&P students, ‘Look up and down your row. There are probably students from four or five countries and at least 10 states.’ I always said my students could learn more from each other than they could learn from me as a professor.”

Another common denominator has been the school’s insistence that students have a solid foundation in a wide range of academic disciplines before they concentrate on their journalism studies.

That has become even more important as the education level of potential readers and viewers increases. As news topics become more and more specialized, reporters have to understand what they’re reporting on, Taft says. “We journalists are not the most popular people in the world. Journalists reveal the truth, and most of us don’t want to be told the truth. It takes a lot of guts, it takes a lot of nerve, but above all it takes a lot of training to be a journalist.”

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