End and Means: Program Aims to Produce Strong Public Affairs Reporting

Jun 1, 2013

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
A few weeks ago, the University of Illinois Springfield celebrated its 42nd commencement, a joyous occasion for the more than 750 graduates who participated in the ceremony at Springfield’s downtown convention center.

The event was particularly auspicious for your author for a couple of related reasons: The commencement speaker was Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Best, the managing editor of the Seattle Times and a graduate of the UIS Public Affairs Reporting program, for which I serve as director. In addition, this year’s PAR grads are the 20th class I’ve been privileged to mentor since coming to the university in fall 1993, a memorable personal milestone.

In her remarks, Best urged the graduates to find and pursue their passion, wherever it might take them. What drew her to journalism, she said, was a love of storytelling, connecting the dots that no one sees, explaining complex subjects in terms that regular folks can understand. And, of course, “calling out the hypocrites. Exposing poseurs,” the critical watchdog role the media plays and every reporter’s personal ambition.

Seattle Times Managing Editor Kathleen Best
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Over the past two decades as director, I’ve worked with more than 350 aspiring journalists, helping them hone their news gathering and writing skills and trying to school them in the ways of the frequently bizarre world of Illinois government and politics. All came into the program sharing Best’s passion; in fact, that desire is one of the main qualities our admissions committee looks for in an applicant and an essential trait if they are to succeed as reporters. Nor is the learning confined to the classroom. A key feature of the program — indeed, what sets PAR apart from any other graduate journalism program of which I’m aware — is the opportunity afforded students to work as full-time reporters during a six-month internship with a Statehouse bureau under the guidance of a seasoned professional. As a result, students leave with a professional portfolio that is solid evidence of their journalistic talent to prospective employers. 

That real world experience has been a constant in the program since its inception more than 40 years ago, reflecting a happy union between veteran Statehouse reporters who saw the need for better training in government reporting for young journalists and a brand-new university willing to provide academic credit for experiential learning. Serving as catalyst and facilitator in bringing town-and-gown together was the late Paul Simon, who became the program’s first director. 

Looking back at my tenure at the university, journalism has seen dramatic changes, wrought mostly by technology. As a new professor at Sangamon State, as UIS was then known, I remember getting acclimated to a new communication tool called e-mail and wondering whether I could use it to keep in touch with students. A standard part of the PAR core curriculum my first few years was an orientation session for students introducing them to something called the World Wide Web, which held the promise of putting an incredible treasure trove of information at one’s fingertips. All amazing stuff for someone who wrote his first bylined story for the Joliet Herald News on a manual typewriter as a high school sophomore and who considered the library card catalog the be-all and end-all for finding information.

The same technological advances have led some to forecast the demise of traditional journalism, as old-school media, newspapers in particular, adapted slowly to the rapidly changing information environment and saw circulation and revenues erode as a result.

Yet I would submit that the data explosion actually enhances the need for people who are good at sifting the wheat from the chaff, connecting the dots and explaining complex issues in understandable terms, all skills common to journalists. How the fruits of their labors are delivered to other people continues to evolve, as newsprint and tape are increasingly supplanted by digital media, but the tools needed to produce the content remain the same.

As do the challenges. When I left the Chicago Sun-Times for the PAR program, I penned a farewell in this column reflecting on my 24 years as a state government reporter. Among my musings, I mentioned what I saw at the time as “worrisome trends” in journalism that I believed undermined its constitutional duty of providing the public what it needs to know to make well-informed policy choices.

The list included:

  • A preference for shorter, simpler, “sexier” stories, rather than in-depth treatment of complex subjects. As an example back then, I cited the blanket coverage of a possible Chicago casino and a dearth of stories about the hardships facing the poor ... now, well, some things seem to never change.
     
  • A tendency to report stories in terms of personalities, rather than the underlying issues. Twenty years ago, the Chicago media seemed more fixated on the personal relationship between Gov. Jim Edgar and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley than on the substantive policy differences between the two men. Now, the amateur shrinks are probing for deeper meaning in the rival pension proposals being championed by Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan than simply a basic philosophical difference of opinion between the two Chicago Democrats about how to reach a common goal.
     
  • An emphasis on how a story is packaged, rather than what information it conveys. Happy talk TV anchors and the McNews served up by USA Today and its imitators were the targets back then, but they’re looking more and more like in-depth reporting in today’s world of tweets and quick blog updates.

The trends reflect, perhaps even more so today than back in 1993, the ongoing tension between the goal of substantive reporting and the desire to provide an entertaining product for one’s customers, so as to earn the revenues that keep the enterprise running. Finding the right balance between what people need to know to be informed citizens and what they want to know to be humored is a daily balancing test for reporters and editors, but the balance is essential to a healthy society.

And the goal of the PAR program remains today what it was when I arrived: to help prepare future journalists to meet the intellectual and ethical challenges of our changing profession, in the mold of Kathy Best. 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, June 2013