Let us suppose: The “heretic” Malcolm MacLean and journalism today

Off the bike

A few words and links about journalism:

In the early 1970s, the University of Iowa School of Journalism was denied accreditation and lost a good bit of its reputation. This sort of thing happens sometimes when innovators are involved.

It is a complicated story, which is conspicuous by its absence from this timeline.

Some of it was documented in the Iowa Journalism Review several years ago (albeit very poorly, to judge by the subsequent comments from Brent Ruben, Richard Budd and Ken Starck). I have not read the book mentioned in that story, but I will be looking for it. I suspect there are good lessons to be learned.

I met the central figure, Malcolm MacLean, just once, when I visited the university as a high school senior.

Much of what he said, I readily admit, went right over my head. As a school newspaper sports editor and aspiring Hawkeye journalism student, I was focused on what we were having for lunch at the Memorial Union, the blizzard my mother and I had just driven through, and on what I thought of as journalism’s nuts and bolts – writing a good lede, the inverted pyramid, and getting the facts right.

Except for the lunch, the blizzard and, to some extent, the inverted pyramid, those things are still important.

But so, as we’ve come to see more clearly in more recent history, is imagination.

One of my favorite phrases, which I have used more times than I can count in just as many contexts, I learned from Dr. Joe Ascroft, who taught one of my freshman journalism classes in that soon-to-be non-accredited program:

“Let us suppose.”

Let us suppose we are trying to build a strong team of journalists for a thriving organization today. What lessons might apply? What skills would we look for?

I’ll propose a few basic principles:

  • Get the basics right, of course. Write clearly.
  • Learn and use the many tools of the trade.
  • Value diverse experience and perspectives. If the best minds in publishing have brought us to our present circumstance, cast the net wider.
  • Find ways to involve people with content. Look for connections between information and people, and show those people the connections.
  • Acknowledge your biases and let the community judge.
  • Be a part of the community.
  • Have no fear.

MacLean might not have seen the Internet coming, but he and the J-School staff of the time had us thinking beyond the printed page. We were learning about film and broadcasting and interactivity as well as typography and writing newspaper stories and headlines.

All of those skills are needed now.

My hope for journalism is that someone is looking beyond the next few months with a good deal of imagination and no fear at all. My guess is that Malcolm MacLean would be right at home in digital journalism and looking well down the road, afraid of nothing.

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