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MU's State Government Reporting Program

What follows is a personal account about the University of Missouri School of Journalism's State Government Reporting Program that I, Phill Brooks, founded and directed for more than four decades.

The program was the vision of a former dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, the late Roy Fisher, who was passionate about public policy journalism. That passion was demonstrated when he took over the school's Washington Reporting Program after he left as dean.

As a former editor-in-chief of the Chicago Daily News, Fisher fully understood the growing concerns about inadequate coverage of the country's statehouses.

At the time, many journalism observers concluded more successful public policy initiatives were arising in statehouses than from Congress. A leading journalism magazine article described statehouse journalism as the "stepchild of American journalism."

In 1973, Roy created the country's first higher education program located in a state Capital dedicated solely to statehouse journalism.

He made me was his agent to make it happen. I was an obvious choice.

When Roy recruited me, I was covering Congress for National Public Radio. I had worked my way through graduate school covering Missouri state government for Columbia's leading radio station. My graduate courses concentrated on government administration, constitutional law, public policy and political science.

With as many as three dozen reporters in some semesters, the program became one of the largest full-time statehouse news bureaus in the U.S. -- if not the largest.

Besides teaching students about statehouse journalism and demonstrating the school's commitment to statehouse coverage, Fisher also shared the belief of the school's founder Walter Williams (a longtime Missouri newspaper publisher) that the school should serve Missouri news outlets.

Initially, the State Government Reporting Program began with radio journalism students whose stories were distributed to Missouri's public radio stations and shortly later KMOX Radio in St. Louis, then owned and operated by CBS.

In 1975, Roy expanded the program to provide statehouse coverage for Missouri newspapers in a partnership with the Missouri Press Association with a service supervised by Keith White, a newspaper journalism MA graduate of MU.

Despite Roy's vision for a converged newsroom, Keith and I initially ran independent newsrooms, although we were close friends and regularly coordinated.

We also held reqular seminars in the statehouse for our students.

After Keith left to become the statehouse correspondent for the Springfield News Leader (later a top editor for national publications including CQ Roll Call), I eventually accepted Roy's challenge to take on responsibility for both print and broadcast students.

As Roy kept telling me, content was more important than medium and besides knowing the subject matter, I also knew print because I'd been a stringer for Missouri's two biggest newspapers while in graduate school.

Later, I agreed to take on direct responsibility for assigning and supervising KOMU-TV coverage of the statehouse, creating the school's first fully converged newsroom that produced stories for print, radio and TV.

Integrating KOMU-TV into the statehouse newsroom was easy. As a former TV journalist, I already had been working with TV student reporters.

Besides, the news director of KOMU-TV at the time, Dick Nelson, was the son of the former director of Missouri's Legislative Research and an invaluable resource for me.

So, Dick shared with me the same passion of Roy Fisher about the importance of state government.

Over the years, the program developed an even more intense focus on public policy. A partnership was developed with MU's Political Science Department to provide internship credit for students reporting in the program which allowed MU students to report for the program before formal admission to the Journalism School.

The Public Administration School's David Valentine accepted my request to provide customized seminars for the program's student reporters.

David had been the research director for the Missouri Senate before joining the MU faculty where, as research fellow, he conducted extensive research into state public policy and founded the Missouri Legislative Academy which provided training sessions on government for entering freshman legislators.

The school's statehouse program expanded to new media when it partnered with a non-profit organization I founded, Missouri Digital News, one of the world's first all-news websites that distributed the program's stories and databases to a worldwide audience.

Subsequently, the program began assisting for several years production of "Jefferson City Journal," a weekly one-half-hour public affairs program on the legislature for all of Missouri's public TV stations.

Roy Fisher passed before the emergence of the program's internet and public TV partnership, but they reflected his vision of a fully converged newsroom where newspaper and broadcast students collaborated to produced stories regardless of their media concentrations.

After my retirement from the University of Missouri in 2016, Mark Horvit was appointed as the program's director.

Mark had been the executive director of the world's leading organization for investigative reporting, Investigative Reporters and Editors.

One of Mark's first accomplishments was to include coverage for all of Missouri's broadcast stations under a partnership with the Missouri Broadcasters Association. It was another expansion of Roy's vision about the program serving all of Missouri news outlets.

Logistics History

Before the web, radio stories were distributed to Missouri's public radio stations by phone through an automatic call-up system invented by KBIA's chief engineer, Roger Karwoski -- a device nicknamed the Karko Box.

When a station called the Karo Box, it automatically would begin playing over the phone an analog recording of the program's radio stories for the station to record off the phone.

Transmission of deadline newspaper stories in the early days of the State Government Reporting Program was just as primitive. The program initially had no computers. Even FAX technology did not exist back then.

So stories had to be typed out on manual typewriters. Then to get them to Columbia, we used a device journalists called the Mojo Wire.

The term "mojo" came from Hunter Thompson who described how he used the Mojo Wire to file stories on the road for the Rolling Stone.

Supposedly, Thompson used the word "mojo" based on the African-American term to refer to a magical charm.

For those of us dependent on mojos, it wasn't very magical.

Instead, it was painfully slow taking more than six minutes to transmit a single page. And because the phone transmission produced pages so fuzzy, even more time had to be spent conferring on the phone with Columbia editors to verify the copy.

For stories produced for Missouri Press Association newspapers, the time delay was even worse.

The "mojo" text was copy edited at the Columbia Missourian, then printed out in multiple copies to be mailed to Missouri newspapers by snail mail.

It was an a time-consuming and expensive effort that could not meet the daily deadline needs of newspapers. As a result, we temporarily suspended service to MPA newspapers.

After I developed the school's first newsroom microcomputer network in the statehouse bureau, we were able to have a BBS (bulletin board phone system) that gave Missouri newspapers immediate phone-based modem dialup access to the digital copies of the stories written by statehouse Journalism Students.

Not too many years later with advent of the internet, I developed an MDN system to provide on-line access to digital versions of all of the stories produced by my students.

The web-based portal also allowed inclusion of links to legislative roll-call votes, journalistic written bill descriptions and lobbyist contacts.

It continues to provide a resource for news organizations to track a local legislator's activities including sponsored bills, votes and well as campaign contributions and lobbyists expenditures received.

The resources to make that possible and training for me to develop those computer programs came from a grant from IBM to computerize the entire Journalism School based on the micro computer system I developed for the statehouse program.

Other Complications and Controversies

I would be remiss as a journalist if I did not include some of the more difficult and controversial issues in the history of the State Government Reporting Program.

One involved the sexual harassment some of my female students experienced in the statehouse.

When Claire McCaskill wrote about the the sexual she encountered as a Missouri legislative intern by legislators in one of the smallest elevators in Missouri's stathouse, I knew immediately the location because it was the same place where some of my female student reporters were subjected similar inappropriate behavior. j

It was serious enough that a female member of the Journalism School suggested we shold stop sending female reporters to the statehouse program.

My instant response was part of our job as journalism educators was to teach our female students how to deal with those instances.

One of the lessons I taught was when confronted with such an unwelcome approach, simply take out your microphone or, if a print reporter, take out your pen and note pad. As they learned, that had an immediately result.

Although, I would be remiss if I did not confess that for some of the few persistent legislators, I raised the concern with top legislative staff. That helped control the situation.

One of Roy Fisher's directives to me led to a series of struggles with some in the Journalism School.

Roy was firm that he did not want his new statehouse program to simply cover what the school's Columbia-based newsrooms wanted or demanded.

"Hell, it's not worth the money for the program if it's just a Columbia newsroom," is what I still clearly remember Roy telling me.

He had a good point. I remembered reading about the near historical newsroom arguments that continue to this day pushing the idea that local focus enhances readershiop.

But maintaining an independent focus on statewide issues generated a lot of hostility from Columbia newsrooms who wanted the statehouse bureau to be an appendange of their newsrooms.

Even terminology became an issue when one of my reporters covering a meeting of the Legislative Black Caucus converted the name to the Legislative African American Caucus.

As I advised my student, except for unusual circumstances, we should not change in our stories the official name of an organization.

For heaven's sake, the name of that Missouri legislative caucus is defined by Black legislators and as I write this page, it remains the "Missouri Legislative Black Caucus." Phill Brooks