J-School luminaries preview the school's centennial celebration

With the school about to celebrate its centennial, the first article in a three-part series looks at the history of the School of Journalism.
Walter Williams founded the MU School of Journalism in 1908, the first such school in the world. This bust will be officially unveiled next week during the dedication of the newly constructed Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Next Wednesday will mark the beginning of the School of Journalism's centennial celebration, an event that will attract hundreds of alumni whose education encompasses a century of journalistic tradition.

In 1908, more than 20 years after the idea first appeared in the state legislature, a journalist named Walter Williams received the state funding necessary to establish the world's first journalism school at MU.

Joseph Pulitzer, then the publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, both advocated for a journalism school at MU and tried to fund one at Columbia University in New York. Columbia's journalism school did not open its doors until 1912.

"The idea popped up in a couple of places, and we were the first to pull it off," said Associate Dean Brian Brooks, who attributed the school's success to Williams, its first dean.

Working alongside the Missouri Press Association, Williams strongly advocated the notion of a journalism school, despite his own lack of college education. He received hands-on training, as was the custom of the time, working for both the Boonville Topic and the Columbia Herald.

Learning by experience, however, became a major aspect of Williams' Missouri Method, the curriculum he and a committee wrote for the journalism school. It's the educational technique used to this day.

The Missouri Method aims to blend an appreciation for the principles of journalism with hands-on education from a faculty who has experience working in newsrooms across the country and world. As journalism professor Charles Davis put it, students do real work with a professional faculty.

"It's a cornerstone formula that has really proved itself over the years," he said. "Walter Williams was really smart, ahead of his time."

Williams demonstrated his real-world philosophy on Sept. 14, 1908, as the University Missourian (now named the Columbia Missourian) debuted on the first day of classes.

The Missourian, as well as newsrooms at KOMU/Channel 7 and KBIA/91.3 FM, are the feature of that hands-on philosophy.

"We get them involved in the real world of journalism before leaving," Brooks said.

A multitude of firsts have since followed the conception of the Missouri Method. The school gave the first bachelor's and master's degrees, as well as doctorate, in journalism. Other firsts include the first photojournalism program, the first newspaper to edit articles with computers, the first newspaper published on a local area network and the first newspaper to use computers for layout.

Williams also worked to bring journalism education to the rest of the world.

"He had an international view of the world," Brooks said. "He took at least three trips to China, which was a lot for the time."

Williams' ambition led to the first international school of journalism, established in 1917 at St. John's University in Shanghai, China.

Williams' efforts resulted in a school that, Brooks said, has not been ranked less than first in the last 15 years.

Aside from a No. 1 rank given by US News and World Report, the program has received its No. 1 status from surveys conducted by organizations including the Radio and Television News Directors Association and Foundation and Associated Press Managing Editors.

"They are the people doing the hiring," Brooks said. "We put a lot of stock in that."

Dorina Rasmussen, assistant director of student life at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, said Medill has a similar philosophy. Before they graduate, students complete an 11-week residency with a newspaper, magazine or broadcast station during the academic year.

"We offer them opportunities to gain real-world experiences," Rasmussen said. "These allow students to step out of their campus comfort zone. With the Medill curriculum, students are able to launch off of traditional skills classes into newer, more advanced skills in storytelling and audience engagement."

Las Vegas Sun Managing Editor Mike Kelley said he has to hire people who have worked in a real newsroom, like the Missourian.

"We don't have time to teach," Kelley said. "Our writers are hired with a level of experience."

The journalism school, Brooks said, provides this experience.

A compliment to that experience, essential in Davis' eyes to maintaining the top status, is the school's living, breathing curriculum.

"We must be leaders in helping journalism professionals redefine their missions, goals and responsibilities so they can serve their ever-changing communities more effectively," states the school's mission statement.

This includes the school's more recent history of adding programs such as convergence journalism and emphasizing multimedia, some of which are experimental.

"It's clearly the future," Brooks said. "Journalism isn't dying, because someone still has to gather information. The industry is shifting, which is why we built the Reynolds Institute."

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute is the school's newest addition, combining Walter Williams Hall, the old sociology building and a new "link" building.

"Its mission is to connect journalists with the public," Brooks said.

The dedication of the Reynolds Institute coincides with the centennial celebration, which will take place Sept. 10-12.

One of the events scheduled alongside the dedication of the Reynolds Institute is the unveiling of a bronze bust of Williams, which will include a reading of the Journalist's Creed, penned by Williams in 1914.

"When I look back, Walter Williams, whether he knew it or not, did all the right things," Brooks said. "He was very farsighted, and we're lucky to have a founder with vision."

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