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UPDATE: Missouri School of Journalism introduces new documentary program

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 | 9:59 a.m. CST; updated 10:13 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 11, 2014

COLUMBIA — The School of Journalism received a $6.7 million gift Tuesday to create a degree program in documentary journalism, educating students in the history, business and production of film and other nonfiction multimedia.

Students, faculty and university administrators packed the Reynolds Journalism Institute at 2 p.m. to learn about the program and meet Jonathan Murray, the journalism school alumnus endowing the program.

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Murray is a writer, producer and pioneer of reality television, developing "The Real World" series, "Road Rules," "Bad Girls Club" and "The Simple Life," among others.

Murray credited the School of Journalism with teaching him the skills he has used in his career since graduation.

"I'm very excited that at the University of Missouri, we'll be training people to be documentarians, and they will be telling stories that will open our minds and make us think of things in ways we haven't thought of them before," Murray said.

The gift will establish a new Documentary Journalism Center in the School of Journalism. The school will hire three faculty members, ideally with professional documentary film experience.

A bachelor's degree program for undergraduates will begin in the fall 2015 semester, with a master's degree program to follow.

Under the current plans, students will write scripts, shoot video, record audio, edit short documentaries and possibly begin work on full-length films. They could have opportunities to enter their work in film festivals and distribute it online or through a broadcast channel.

In addition to degree programs, faculty plan to offer a week-long workshop every summer beginning in 2015. This summer, faculty will introduce a documentary journalism symposium, said Kent Collins, chairman of the radio-television journalism faculty.

He said journalism faculty have discussed the possibility of offering documentary journalism courses for about eight years.

A year ago, Murray began a serious collaboration with the radio-television faculty to offer a documentary experience to MU students. He had served as a panelist for a reality television symposium at MU and maintained an interest in the journalism school ever since, Collins said.

Murray attended an April 1 planning meeting and, afterward, told Collins he wanted to give a monetary gift.

"He said, 'I'm going to fund this, you know,'" Collins said.

In August, a group of faculty sat down and discussed the issue for several hours.

"That was real magic," Collins said. "We had people with good ideas, and Dean Mills did an absolutely marvelous job of synthesizing those ideas and beginning to form sort of a vision of what the journalism school would want to teach."

Faculty from all areas of the journalism school, as well as film studies faculty, are working together on the program.

"Everybody wants a piece of this action," Collins said. "Everybody is at the table."

Although the students' documentary films will not have a news outlet like KOMU, KBIA or the Columbia Missourian, the program will employ the "Missouri method" of producing content by undergraduates, said Stacey Woelfel, associate professor and news director at KOMU.

The curriculum will cover business models of filmmaking and give students experience in budgeting, management and fundraising.

"Part of the curriculum should be the business of marketing your film and getting it out there where people can see it," Woelfel said.

The center will also offer segments about advocacy documentaries, which will lead to ongoing ethical discussions about how advocacy can coexist with traditional journalism principles, Collins said.

"It's just a challenge we have to live with in every discussion of every film," Collins said.

He said advocacy filmmaking can be compared to work in advertising and public relations.

"That's what they do in strategic communications faculty," Collins said. "They advocate some position or point of view or framing, and the j-school has long embraced this."

Both Collins and Woelfel said documentary production fits well within the framework of existing journalism programs at the journalism school.

"We're going to talk about what is documentary journalism and how to put the two — documentary filmmaking and the principles of high-quality journalism — how to put them together," Collins said."

Woelfel said it mirrors the processes of news gathering and delivery that have been in place for decades.

"I think we're doing much of what we do in the journalism school now, collecting and disseminating information and building interesting characters into the way we tell our stories," he said.

"Television stories often start out by humanizing around who's affected by what the story is about, and documentary films take that up several notches."

Collins said he expects Mills' successor to be fully on board with the center. Mills announced his retirement last week after 25 years as the journalism school's dean.

"I think a new dean will find that a fully endowed program is a pretty nice thing to have," Collins said.

Because Mills articulated the vision for the center, the planning committee intends to ask for his advice after his retirement, Collins said.

Murray also will continue to contribute advice to the program, and said he hopes to visit the school again. 

"I'd love to come back with another documentary that I've been involved in and talk with the students," Murray said in an interview after the announcement. "And I'd love to see students make their own films and take me into worlds I don't know."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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