Editor's Weekly: Why A News Organization Is Like A University
Forty two years ago this week, St. Louis Public Radio began broadcasting from its home at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Coincidentally, those of us from the St. Louis Beacon, which merged with the station six months ago, are about to complete probation and become full-fledged UMSL employees.
At first glance, a news organization may seem to be an odd duck in the university family. We don’t enroll students directly. We don’t give PhDs, and few of us have them. Some critics even assert that we might have a conflict of interest working for a state university and reporting on state officials.
But look deeper. While the university and St. Louis Public Radio operate in different ways, we have much in common. Here’s how:
The university teaches through classes. We teach through reporting. Our beats, like departments, are organized by topic -- politics, education, economic development, health and science, the arts and so on.
The merger in December created one large newsroom from two smaller ones. With more than two dozen staff, we can cover more topics at greater depth. Reporters can specialize, developing deep knowledge of the beats they cover. We focus on news that matters to St. Louisans, and that coverage provides an ongoing education in our region's issues and opportunities.
University studies often take years. Our research is urgent. Yet both professors and reporters aim to figure out the "why" behind what’s happening, to understand who is affected and to explore what might or should happen next.
In May, education reporters Dale Singer and Tim Lloyd produced more than thirty stories, most of them about school quality and student transfers. They not only covered what happened in Jefferson City and local districts, but circled back to analyze the roots and implications of developments. Like academic experts, Dale and Tim mastered a complex topic and used that knowledge to enlighten others.
Some of our research is investigative. Disclosures by Chris McDaniel and Veronique LaCapra on Missouri’s secret lethal injection procedure sparked debate and a change in drug supplier. That track record should allay the fears of those who wonder whether we can report aggressively on state officials.
The university works directly with students to develop critical thinking skills. St. Louis Public Radio works by asking tough questions and challenging assumptions. Through commentaries and St. Louis On The Air, we encourage thoughtful discussion. In these ways, we nurture the critical thinking you need to make up your own mind.
Both the university and St. Louis Public Radio have been swept up in the digital revolution. Its opportunities are profound, but so is its disruption of business as usual. We can – we must – reach people in ways that have changed dramatically in only a few years. Radio and our website may be our main channels, but we also connect through social media, email, partnerships and in person. We tell stories using data, video, graphics and many other tools.
Considering how much UMSL and St. Louis Public Radio have in common, this bond between the university and the news organization makes sense. The University of Missouri – St. Louis is a public university. In a different way, St. Louis Public Radio is a university for the public – accessible to everyone and entirely free. Each in its own way helps St. Louisans address key questions: How can we learn? How can we grow? How can we make good decisions? How can we lead fulfilling lives? How can we make St. Louis a better place?