Dateline, today: MU's 'J school' celebrates 100 years, looks to a less turbulent future | St. Louis Public Radio

Dateline, today: MU's 'J school' celebrates 100 years, looks to a less turbulent future

Sep 10, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 10, 2008 - In Columbia, Mo., this week, students, journalists and alumni step into a future enclosed in the past.

Inside an 1892 Victorian building on the University of Missouri's School of Journalism's campus sits a new glass structure. That building is part of the new Reynolds Journalism Institute, which opens both as the journalism school celebrates its 100th anniversary and as newspapers around the country cut costs, staff and newsprint.

About eight years ago, people at the school began plans for RJI.

"Things were getting interesting," says Dean Mills, dean of the journalism school. "But we had no idea of the changes that were ahead of us."

Those include frequent newsroom job cuts -- 150 at the Los Angeles Times reported in July, 100 buyouts at the Washington Post reported in May, 100 at The New York Times reported in February, two rounds of buyouts and layoffs at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over three years  -- a crumbling business model and declining readership.

RJI's timing collides with what many at the school see as the worst time journalists have ever faced. Or the most exciting.

The institute hopes to build on journalism's basic values while seeking to bridge the gap with readers and dream up new ways of delivering the news. It's a little like the new building inside the old one.

"What we're building in the institute has the roots of the values of the school and the journalists' creed that we all adhere to," says Pam Johnson, RJI's executive director. "So the old inside the new is very symbolic of our story."

CANARY IN A COAL MINE

MU's campus is buzzing with students again, Johnson says, that upbeat, excited feeling new semesters bring.

According to Jill McReynolds, senior academic advisor, enrollment at the journalism school is up. Some "high-ability" freshmen are being admitted into the school now, unlike in the past, but in all sequences there are 1,084 students. Of those, 97 are in the convergence sequence and 130 in the newspaper sequence.

McReynolds says enrollment has always been on the rise, but more sharply so in the last four or five years.

That's quite a contrast with the feeling in many newsrooms around the country. There's panic and depression, drama and trauma, says Tom Warhover, executive editor for innovation for the school-run daily newspaper, the Columbia Missourian.

"It's certainly the most traumatic time in my short career of some 25 or 30 years."

And the Missourian isn't immune to that trauma. The 6-day-a-week not-for-profit newspaper serves as a learning lab for journalism students who spend a semester or more working for the daily paper.

The Missourian, like the school, celebrates its 100th anniversary this week, and there's nothing like it anywhere else in the country, Mills says.

But like newsrooms around the country, the Missourian shares an unclear future.

In June, Warhover wrote a letter to readers explaining the paper's current situation. The Missourian had lost advertising and circulation, the paper's main sources of money. Coupled with major budget cuts, some at MU floated the idea of axing the paper. So Warhover floated a few other ideas -- working with a commercial partner, another newspaper, to cover costs, and going online exclusively.

"If the Missourian were to disappear completely, it would break my heart," says Sadie Gurman, a 2006 graduate who works as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I feel like that is really the cornerstone of MU's journalism school, and it really prepared me for real-world work."

With fewer opportunities for internships and a changing job landscape, her feelings could be right.

The journalism school has trouble tracking graduates becausereporting is voluntary, says Phou Sengsavanh, assistant director ofcareer services. She cites an annual survey from Grady College at theUniversity of Georgia, which reports the job market for journalismgraduates unchanged from the year before -- about 63.3 percent findingfull-time jobs.

“Our students have fared better because of the new technology andthe school’s emphasis on convergence and telling stories acrossmultiple platforms,” Sengsavanh says. And learning labs provide space for that.

Recently, WEHCO Media, which owns the Jefferson City News-Tribune, wrote a letter expressing interest in a partnership with the Missourian.

And Mills says news of the paper's demise is nothing new. "Despite all the rumors, the Missourian will always be around in some form for sure," he says. "The question is in what form."

That's the same question other newsrooms face, and again, not for the first time, Warhover says. Problems include a broken business model, he says, and people's mistrust of the media.

Mills agrees, saying some perceive that the press lets the public know what it needs to know and they have an imperfect understanding of what journalists do to ensure fairness and accuracy.

"In many aspects," Warhover says, "the problems we're facing we should have been dealing with for decades and haven't."

IF IT'S BROKE, FIX IT

With a broken business model, lost trust and severe job cuts, what's next for journalism?

RJI hopes to discover that. The $31 million institute wants to experiment with new ways of delivering and producing the news, not just with students, but journalists, the public, scholars and people in an industry in flux. Already, the various mainstream media -- newspapers, magazines and television -- are increasingly emphasizing their websites and experimenting with presenting stories. And other news publications, such as the St. Louis Beacon, live on the web only. 

"We need to be so much more open and inventive, especially with the new technology, on how to make our journalism relevant and indispensable," Johnson says.

The industry has lost its edge, she says, "because we've been too sure of ourselves or our business, and now we're seeing that we've got a lot of bridge building to do with citizens."

Journalists need to help the public understand what they do, Mills says, and that serving the public and democracy is critical. At the same time, he says, journalists need to open up and look at the public as partners.

With a sea of bloggers and information overload, Johnson sees the role of journalists as more important than ever. They should be a trusted source, she says, and help people sift through enormous waves of information.

To figure out journalism of the future, RJI plans on using programs, forums, symposiums and fellowships, and an experimental newsroom equipped with every new technology imaginable.

But how will the product be delivered? On a doorstep? In an i-Pod? From the tail of a blimp? 

Right now, Johnson says, journalists find themselves between the old and the new, and the solution will come from working through it.

SCRIBBLES IN A NOTEBOOK

Now, as the Missourian's future is debated and the industry in unsure times, the air is still electric in the Missourian's newsroom, Warhover says.

"The profession of journalism is under great threat as an industry," he says. "But the practice of journalism has great potential."

Johnson believes the school can help the industry as a whole by exploring what comes next while preserving journalism's core.

Young reporters in newsrooms might be particularly helpful in that, as well, if versed like Gurman in the many ways to tell stories -- digital, audio, video and print.

And, Gurman says, young reporters are prepared not just to do their jobs, but also for what they'll find.

"We don't really have any false notions about what the industry holds," Gurman says. "Things are changing..."

Professional journalists get that as well.

In a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, journalists' biggest worries were business and financial, coming in at 55 percent for national journalists surveyed and 52 percent for local. In 2004, quality of coverage was the biggest concern. At the same time, the majority felt good about the increasing participation of citizens and the possibilities the internet offered.

Regardless of what comes next, Gurman sees one constant.

The public will always need someone to go to city hall and crime scenes, scribble into a notebook and tell them what happened.

"And that's what I want to do," she says, "and that's what I've always wanted to do."

Kristen Hare is a freelance journalist in Lake St. Louis.