I turned in all of my paperwork and the final copy of my dissertation to the Graduate School here at Missouri, so I am finished. It’s a rainy and uncharacteristically cooler day here in Columbia, so I didn’t get feel the warm sunbeams of approval washing over me as this newly minted Ph.D. exited Jesse Hall. But that’s OK; I was never in this for the title or adulation.
I’ll blog about the dissertation some other time, but not today. This post is more retrospective of the journey I’ve just completed and full of gratitude for how I got here. Indulge me or skip it, it’s up to you.
I left Los Angeles to come to Missouri back in the summer of 2004. It was not a well-received decision among some of my newspaper colleagues. I left behind a pretty good paying job at the Daily News that, for all its headaches, I enjoyed doing. I also left behind some outstanding colleagues for a five-year commitment of no pay and student living. My new life in Missouri was not the high life compared to my previous life in Los Angeles, that’s for sure.
Why did I do it? Because I could feel change in the air. I couldn’t articulate what exactly what it was, but for a couple years I’d had a sense that the Web was about to bring a tsunami on an industry that I still love a great deal. I wanted to try and get out in front of it. We were giving away content for free on the Web while circulation was falling every year. Staff cutbacks in the form of job freezes were the norm, although managers at the DN swore we’d never have layoffs because it left an irrevocable stain on a newspaper for future job hires.
In 2006, two years after I left for MU, they began gutting the newspaper. An editorial staff that was around 150 or so when I left in ’04 is down in the 60s at last count (and I have lost count). More maddening, most of the cuts make no sense; they’re cutting people based on what they make, not the value they bring to a product that thrives on being unique. But they had to cut in a way that makes twisted sense. It’s the same story that has played out across the country among countless chains: greedy corporate media ignored the prevailing winds and overleveraged themselves, decimating publications that have been the community builders in this country historically. And the sad truth is I probably would have been laid off sometime in that frame. Getting out in front of it saved me at least that grief.
In some ways I feel like the guy who didn’t get on that plane before it crashed. There’s no joy in surviving, really, or being prescient even if the articulation wasn’t there. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that “with knowledge comes grief.” I hate the fact that I was on target, to be honest. And in some ways I hate the fact that my next chapter in life is based in part on research I’ve done to show I was right. For all its benefits, my new phase in life is based on finding out something sad: people don’t want to pay for news anymore, and the business I love so much is responsible for decreasing their appetite because we didn’t think to charge for it until it was too late.
I arrived in Columbia on a humid August afternoon. I unloaded my car full of my stuff at 11 p.m. in a heat index of about 95 degrees. Great decision. I had my reasons for returning to grad school – the aforementioned change, the fact I’d gotten a taste of teaching as an adjunct and liked it, etc. – but I didn’t really have a plan other than getting my master’s and Ph.D.
All that changed the afternoon of orientation. The grad school staff assigns you an advisor based on what they think you are interested in, and I drew Dr. Clyde Bentley. It was one of those moments where the twisted logic of fate works. Clyde ran newspapers for a long time and they figured someone of my experience was interested in studying management (I wasn’t). But in our conversation, I learned of a project he was working on in a new area called “open-source journalism” and was invited to take his Online Journalism class.
That semester we launched MyMissourian, an open-source project that became one of the first attempts in the U.S. at what was later re-termed “citizen journalism.” I fought it a little at first – the professional in me had trouble with unfettered citizen access to the discussion – but realized its benefits over time. Much of what I had done in my career had been about avoiding conversation with my audience; now I was learning to embrace it.
We were roundly accused of trying to wreck professional journalism (which was doing that quite well on its own, thank you), including by some here within the j-school. One of my great joys over my five years has been in seeing the skeptics slowly embrace what we were trying to do. We were trying to elevate journalism, not destroy it. Citizen journalism was a companion, not a replacement (nor could it be). The audience has expertise – tap into it.
Some were believers from the start, and I credit folks like Jake Sherlock, Joy Mayer, and Rob Weir at the Missourian with helping us try new things. We needed believers in that newsroom, and they saw the potential quite early.
In Clyde I found someone to help me find my voice for that practical bent to my work. I want to research things that matter. Clyde has been my sherpa in the mountains of academia, keeping me focused on research questions and projects that are interesting while constantly challenging me not to forget my background or why I am doing all of this. In the pressure to publish and get noticed in the academy, that can be really easy to do. I’ve met some purely theoretical scholars who wouldn’t seem to know practical reality if it was standing right next to them. Needless to say, I don’t relate to them well even if I like them as people.
From Clyde I also have learned to rewire my brain when it comes to media and technology. All those wonderful gadgets and publishing platforms are just tools. They are not communication. It still takes human beings to make all that stuff tell us stories. It takes a journalist (even more so today) to cut through the clutter of information overload and be a guide to people trying to navigate the landscape. Don’t fear it – embrace it.
I worked with Clyde and the MyMissourian gang, including my friend and collegue Hans Meyer (a new Ph.D. as well!), throughout my five years here. Clyde chaired my master’s thesis committee, and so he is an important scholarly footnote on my academic record. But more than that, he has been a good friend. There are days I think about my pending move and don’t know what I’ll do without him around to make my mind percolate.
My first class at Missouri was Mass Media Seminar, co-taught by the Missourian’s John Schneller and Esther Thorson, dean of our graduate program. If working with Clyde has been the practical yin to my work here at MU, Thorson has provided the research yang.
I don’t know how to describe Esther as something other than brilliant. Sitting in MMS, I was immediately amazed at her gift for talking about research in such plain and easy-to-grasp terms. She has always been good about seeing the “story” in reams of data, so good that I am hoping some of it has rubbed off on me. Had she attempted it, she would have made one hell of a journalist.
Early on, I learned from Esther that the Missouri way was to connect theory with practice. We always go back to theory to explain mass media phenomena, but we apply it the extra step to make sure that what we find makes its way into the industry. Believe it or not, this is not how it’s always done at j-schools.
Esther has such interesting ways of thinking about research problems. Maybe it’s the fact she doesn’t bring biases from having worked in the profession, but I learned quickly that she was my Yoda: I had to unlearn the things I had learned. Let them guide me, but don’t let that be the only way I think about research puzzles. I wanted to blame bad management and planning on the demise of newspapers; Esther’s way is to say, “Yes, but there are a lot of other factors. Consider these ….” And when I was done considering those, I was challenged to consider more.
One of the things I love about Esther is her ability to push you to be your best without being pushy. She clearly lets you take responsibility for your own education, but she is a great resource and leads by example. She never turned down a meeting with me because she was too busy (and good Lord is she busy) and never failed to give her insights when a teaching moment arose.
The minute I finished my thesis I knew I wanted Esther to chair my dissertation committee, because I knew she’d encourage me to swing for the fences on that research. And we both knew at the outset that I was not only swinging for the fences but (if I may extend the baseball metaphor) also calling my shot. This thing was going to be great, or it wasn’t getting done.
I worked my butt off on that research. The mark of a great leader, to me, is someone that makes followers want to be their best. I want my work to please Esther, not because she makes her approval some sort of unattainable thing, but rather because I know that if she’s impressed with the work then it is good. There is a tendency to be either over- or under-effusive with others’ research in the academy. Esther won’t be mean to you if something sucks like some in my field, but she won’t tell you it’s great either. I respect that a lot.
I’m returning to Missouri in December to graduate, and at that time Esther will “hood” me. That will be one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever been able to be a part of; I respect her that much.
So five years of work. What did I learn? Some of it was reinforcing of stuff I knew all along. Be kind to people. Strive for excellence. Work hard.
Other things I’ve learned along the way. The process of becoming a scholar (and independent of the title, today I truly feel like a scholar) can be mind-bending. You have to learn to challenge your assumptions and rebuild them in theory and logic while not ignoring the face validity of the real world. Sometimes, yes, everything you “know” is wrong. Other times you know things but don’t have the right reasons.
Becoming a scholar means breaking down your biases and preconceived notions of the world and building your world view based on reason and real knowledge, not cliche and platitude. It means that just because you think you know something doesn’t mean you can’t listen to another view. And not only listen to it but actively consider it.
In life we construct these mental shortcuts for things that represent knowledge but are not knowledge itself and when unpacked are sometimes wrong (“Cutting taxes always leads to economic growth,” “Journalism always promotes democracy,” etc.). Becoming a scholar means junking all of that as often as you can, learning to say “it depends,” and giving a nuanced and complex view of the world rather than a simple one. Scholarship, then, is a lifelong process that includes the constant deconstruction of things you think that you think, constantly testing and retesting your worldview to see if it squares with what you know now.
There’s a reason why not everyone takes this journey; it’s hard. There’s a reason too why scholars sometimes get isolated; when you begin to understand what a complex organism the world, society, and even individuals are, you have a hard time going back to shorthand or reasoning with people who have no interest in seeing the world as complex.
I try to keep my footing in all worlds. I’ve learned Clyde’s lessons. Some days are better than others in that regard.
The start of this journey was about trying to figure out why my beloved newspaper industry was in peril. Thanks to Clyde and Esther, among others, I’ve unpacked some if it. Newspapers are an information source, and that was great for a time, but the past 15 years have been about the growth of interactive and connective media. Information was never enough, but the tools of the past were much more limiting. Now newspapers are competing in a media world centered around conversation and are struggling to catch up when so far behind. Journalism itself is about interactivity now, not merely the simple delivery of information.
That wave I sensed back in 2004? I had scholarly ways of assessing something I merely used to sense. In scholarship, I found a voice for my real-world musings. As I said before, the process can be bittersweet.
In two weeks we leave for Pennsylvania. I’m going to be an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Communication and Lehigh University, and I’ll be specializing in online media theory and production.
This is an exciting time for Amy and I as we embark on this new phase, but I don’t want to let it get away without saying thank you to Missouri and all the folks that make it great.
The Missouri School of Journalism is everything people say it is. Amazing faculty minds, top-notch students, and a real desire to make the industry better. This place oozes brilliance and is a rich environment for students truly interested in learning. I’m struck that it won’t be the same at Lehigh, but I’m at peace with that one. If all experiences were just like Missouri, then these five years would not have been unique. I am a fan of unique.
I’ve known folks who came and went here that regretted things they didn’t do while here. Not me. Sure, there are some things I’d do differently, or more, or less. But I got the most out of my education here, so I have no regrets. I wasn’t cheated by MU or by myself, and that’s enough for me.
And I leave full of gratitude. Dr. Don Ranly, one of my favorite professors here, who once remarked in my Literature Of Journalism course that “there’s nothing like being a doctoral student” with an emphasis on “doctoral” in that breath-taking awe voice of his that only he could pull off.
But Ranly was right, just as always. I’m sure gonna miss this.
– Dr. Jeremy J. Littau (not sure I’ll ever get used to that)