Medill News Service: Deep Background

Although the students at the Medill News Service in Washington, D.C., spend their quarter producing stories, the program's evolution is an interesting story in itself. The service started in 1967 under the leadership of Neil McNeil, a journalism legend on Capitol Hill who had reported for the Scripps Howard newspapers for years.

"He was the classic curmudgeon, but nobody knew more about Congress and how to cover it than he did," says assistant professor Frank Starr, who was Washington bureau chief for the Baltimore Sun and the Chicago Tribune before coming to the news service. "In some ways, he was the perfect person to start this, although if you talk to alumni who were here under him, they may shudder. It was like Marine boot camp."

Charles Alexander joined the service in 1975 after leaving the Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, where he was editor and publisher. Alexander stayed with Medill until his retirement in 1994 and oversaw an immense expansion and evolution, which he attributes mostly to technological change. When Alexander became director, there was no broadcast component, and stories were reproduced on a ditto machine and mailed in to the newspapers. Reporters hardly even made phone calls but instead just rushed about from place to place.

"By the time I left, nothing went by mail — it was all electronic in production and transmitting," he says. "The complexion of the coverage changed to much more immediate coverage from what had been pony express."

Alexander started from scratch to bring television broadcasting into the program in the early '80s. Originally a print journalist, Alexander had to learn all about the new equipment before he could try to teach students how to use it.

"The new technology was very hard to learn, and there was very little help in those days," he says. "We would just punch buttons and see what happened, and then we'd have to call the stations and hope our pieces had gotten there."

Although it took time, the growth of the news service was a wonderful thing for Alexander to watch. As new technology was added, the service was able to add more news venues and more students as well.

"It was fascinating for all of us, as we incrementally took advantage of opportunities to expand and make our service more relevant to what was going on in contemporary journalism," he says. "All at once we became a hot media address."

Since Alexander's retirement the program has been under the direction of professor Ellen Shearer and associate professor Mary Coffman. Shearer, who is chief of the print side, worked for United Press International for years before coming to Medill, and Coffman, who heads broadcast, worked for the Post-Newsweek television bureau. Both have continued Alexander's tradition of evolving with the news media by working to incorporate Web news, computer-assisted reporting, live shots and new photo and editing technology into the newsroom.

Both say that directing the Medill News Service has allowed them to combine two things they love — journalism and teaching.

"It's cliché, but it's like having the best of the academic and real worlds of journalism," Shearer says. "I love staying involved in real news, and it keeps me on top of the industry. But at the same time, it's a real joy to work with these bright young people at the start of their careers."

Starr says that as a professor, the best thing about working with the students is being able to give something back to a valued profession. And the students' transformation is always a show worth watching.

"It amazes me every quarter, because these students come in — the proverbial deer in headlights — more than a little terrified," Starr says. "Three months later they're the coolest reporters you've ever seen, they have experience under their belts, and they're confident about what they're doing. Seeing that is very rewarding."

- E.R.