It feels like time compresses at the Columbia Missourian.
Students feel the pressure from Day One. They aren’t expected to be proficient someday. They are expected to publish now. The next City Council meeting won’t wait for them to be ready. The next weather front won’t take a break.
Students know their work isn’t for practice. I tell them it isn’t even for a grade, even though they get one. Real people are impacted by the words and images we produce or fail to produce. It’s a call to service, and the people they serve are the people of mid-Missouri.
On Tuesday, another group of students will experience the thrill and fear and determination of making the Columbia Missourian. Every day.
I hope you don’t notice the changes of semesters in what you read. Because behind every photo and information graphic and article and page are faculty editors with decades of journalism experience and many years living and working in Our Fair City.
They make sure that what you read meets professional standards. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Week One, when students are still trying to figure out the computer systems, or Week 12, when you can marvel at their incredible growth in skill and confidence.
Time compresses for faculty editors, too. We kid about equating Missourian years to dog years, neither of which follow the calendar year. By any of those measures, I’ve been in the executive editor’s seat for a long, long time. It’s time to let someone else have a crack at things.
And so I have.
It was a minor miracle that I got through the campus visit and interviews for the job in 2001.
I was sick the weekend before, held that low-grade fever throughout the visit, and even managed to lose a false tooth the first morning of my interviews for the executive editor’s job.
The on-site routine included a public presentation. I don’t think I wowed the crowd with a sparkling delivery. The content carried the day. I defined the Missourian three ways.
The Missourian is, I told the group: first, a community newspaper that serves the people of mid-Missouri; second, a place to experiment with best practices for the industry; and lastly, a student laboratory — knowing that if we accomplished the first two goals, the third would naturally follow.
Since August 2001, I’ve given that message at most every Reporting class orientation.
Future editors may have different words to define this news organization. But unless some tectonic shift happens with the Missouri School of Journalism, you, dear reader, and all the mid-Missourians who don’t read or have never even heard of this publication, will remain at the heart of the Columbia Missourian.
By the standards of the industry, the Missourian is the little newspaper that could. Awards from the Missouri Press Association’s annual contest have grown from a handful in the early 2000s to 57 last year.
An association member paper even suggested we be put in our own category, presumably because we won too many awards. I remember the response of another member editor, who said she wanted the high bar that the Missourian sets for others to try to achieve.
There has been national notice, too, such as 15 awards over five years from the Associated Press Sports Editors competition.
Journalism awards have value. But they don’t measure the ability of a news organization to serve its community day in and day out. Fostering civic dialogue, holding public officials and the public accountable — those kinds of things are just as important. Students learn to turn outward to something else besides themselves.
One of my favorite projects: 100 Ages. Two awesomely talented photojournalism students had this astoundingly audacious idea: Take photographs and hold video interviews with people from age 1 to 100. They found the stories, the voices, that make mid-Missouri what it is. I can’t imagine doing that kind of project at any other paper.
And then the Missourian brought the participants together for a party. To celebrate what? All of us who work and play in this place that we call our community. In this place that we call home.
The question was the theme of that executive editor's job presentation back in 2001.
What if we could imagine a newspaper that was different, not just better? What if we could imagine a news organization as we would want it to be, not simply one that mirrored other newspapers?
So, we tried stuff, such as an edition designed for tablets five years before the iPad hit the market; mymissourian.com, the second of its kind in the country devoted to reader submissions; and, perhaps my favorite, NewSunday Missourian, a weekend edition that eschewed traditional newspaper sections for in-depth analysis and utility information.
Enough worked that, by 2005, a trade publication named the Missourian among the “10 That Do It Right” for its innovations.
By 2007, the editors declared the Missourian would be a web-first publication. In 2011, a talented group of students told us we were still trapped by print routines. So, we “quarantined” the print desk and made sure our daily meeting focused on columbiamissourian.com, something The New York Times would get around to in 2016.
We moved into Twitter and Facebook, Periscope and Instagram, if not on the cutting edge, certainly as early adopters. Some things we tried a little too early — like e-newsletters a decade ago — are coming back. (You can sign up at columbiamissourian.com/newsletters.)
Through it all, the core of public service journalism didn’t change.
I was never more proud of our students, editors and newspaper than in fall 2015. The Missourian and Vox produced more than 150 pieces about the protests by MU students as the cry for social justice moved from a local story to a national debate. It was a trying time emotionally, mentally and physically for our young journalists, but they responded in ways that still amaze me.
It has been neat, and sometimes illuminating, to hear from former students this week. One, Cristian Lupsa, wrote something that I think speaks to all the Missourian faculty editors and not just me:
“Thank you for teaching me that we'll always do better journalism if we aim really high, and compromise as we get closer to deadline, instead of starting from getting the bare minimum a story needs, and settling for that.”
The big ice storm was about to hit Friday morning when I stopped in to move out a few things. The campus was empty. The newsroom was full. There was energy in the room. Journalists, students and professionals alike, were responding to the next big moment affecting our community.
I immediately began thinking of dozens of questions that needed to be answered during and after the ice storm. Then I realized two things: It wasn’t my job anymore, and the editors working the story would have it covered anyway.
I shall miss it. Already do.
At the same time, I’m looking forward to more time with my family. I was home with them when the ice fell.
I’m also looking forward to new challenges. I'll teach new classes at the School of Journalism and work with the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
Brendan Meyer is a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He said he keeps a quote from me on his wall at work. It was as he was leaving MU in 2013 to go out in the world beyond.
It’s advice I will repeat to myself as I look beyond the Missourian:
"Keep learning. You aren't done yet. Remember your work is for others, not you; that telling their stories is a privilege.”
It has been an honor.