NORMAN — The modern broadcast studio tucked into the north wing of Gaylord Hall was awash in professional storytellers Friday afternoon. Broken down to our basic role in society, journalists are storytellers, Nothing more. We gathered, prompted by grads Bart Conner and Linda Cavanaugh, to reminisce and reflect on our college years and beyond.
The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the first journalism courses taught at the University of Oklahoma. Since that fall day in 1913, more than 11,000 have graduated with degrees and gone on to careers in journalism and other fields.
But no matter our job paths, all had stories to tell. One woman told of finding the courage to challenge a tough professor who awarded her a grade lower than she thought she deserved. She’s summoned that courage often in the business world.
More than a few students talked of the joy in receiving professional praise from faculty members later in their careers. A general told of receiving letters and gifts from OU journalism classmates while on the battlefield in Viet Nam. Another grad shared the story of putting a controversial headline on a story and getting the dreaded call from President George L. Cross.
Some told of breaking a big story using the training they received on the student newspaper.
There comes a time in most careers when you can honestly tell yourself you have arrived in the profession. For a doctor, it may be healing someone who has long suffered. A lawyer might win a big case or help someone achieve their business goals. For a journalist, it’s often a big story that you break and follow to the end.
For me, as a young police reporter in Oklahoma City, it was a child’s kidnapping that kept me on the front page for a week. The little girl was snatched from her yard on the city’s southeast side on a Tuesday morning.
For four days and several editions per day, we updated that story with interviews with the police and the parents. On Friday, just before our afternoon paper’s deadline, the girl was found along a roadside near Stanley Draper Lake.
I sped to the scene, gathered the facts from an officer there, raced to the single pay phone at the lake’s ranger station, moments before a radio reporter got there. My city editor took my dictation with a lead I can still recite from memory, nearly 35 years later.
“An unemployed man scavenging for aluminum cans found the missing Oklahoma City girl under a carpet scrap on a rural road just before noon today. She was dirty, cold and hungry but very much alive.”
The 100th anniversary celebration’s theme was “Empowering Storytellers.” More than 200 graduates returned for the weekend’s celebration. The oldest was Ed Livermore Sr., 94, a longtime respected Oklahoma newspaperman who graduated from the school in 1940.
Delivery platforms have changed considerably since that first journalism class was offered through the English Department in September of 1913. Newspapers, magazines and books were the only mass distribution outlets in the early days. Then came radio, television, the Internet with its social media and beyond. With each changing delivery platform come ethical and technical challenges. Faculty members and grads raised many questions but few answers in an afternoon seminar.
Midway through its first century, OU journalism school offerings broadened to include related fields such as public relations, advertising, professional writing and electronic media.
Journalists today face an array of issues never contemplated or predicted when my courses were finished nearly 35 years ago. Our biggest challenge, however, is the same as it was in 1913: Engaging our readers and viewers with original content that informs and explains our community.