“FATHER OF JOURNALISM”
“His greatest contribution to journalism was the Journalist’s Creed. It changed journalism from a trade to a profession.”
—Bill Taft, Missouri Press Association historian
Little did anybody expect that a young man from Boonville (who never graduated from high school) would change the world of journalism, but that’s exactly how it happened. Walter Williams not only changed the code of ethics by which journalists do their jobs, but he also founded the world-famous school of journalism at the University of Missouri. The small-town Missouri boy made such an impact on society that he has often been called the “Father of Journalism Education.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Walter Williams was born to a large family in Boonville in 1864. His innocent days of childhood came to an end at the age of fourteen, when both of his parents died. This tragedy forced him to drop out of school and get a job to support his family. He found work at the local newspaper, the Boonville Topic, where he made seventy cents per week. It was a tough job for a young teenager, but it provided him with the opportunity to make a living and to learn a skill: writing.
RISE TO FAME
Since Williams was a good worker at the Topic, the publisher allowed him to write a few stories for the paper. He showed such an amazing amount of maturity and skill that when the company merged with the Boonville Advertiser a few years later, the twenty-year-old Williams was hired to be the editor. He continued to learn the trade and was able to become a part owner of the paper only two years after the merger. A short time later, he impressed his working peers to such an extent that he was named the president of the Missouri Press Association.
At the age of twenty-six, Williams was lured to Columbia to edit the Columbia Herald. He loved the city and became increasingly convinced that the University of Missouri should offer a program in journalism for aspiring reporters and editors. He felt that journalism would never reach a high set of standards if journalists weren’t trained properly. Still, he faced opposition from many Mizzou faculty members, because at the time, newspaper jobs were seen as vocations and not professions. The Board of Curators eventually relented in 1905 and established the program with Williams acting as the first dean of the College of Journalism.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
Interest in the new school was initially strong with students, as well as with practicing journalists across the country. The School of Journalism was finally established in 1908 with only three faculty members and ninety-seven students. One of Williams’ first tasks was to make the program as functional as possible by giving the students “real-life” experience. He established the University Missourian (now the Columbia Missourian) newspaper as a working lab for the students. It seems obvious today that a working newspaper on the campus was a great idea, but it was again met with opposition by people who thought a state-supported paper was unfair competition to the private sector.
Not long after the University of Missouri established the journalism program, numerous other schools across the country started similar programs. Williams, however, was concerned that these other institutions would not keep the same high professional standards that he did. So he decided to write a set of rules that would guide professional ethics. Williams penned the Journalist’s Creed in the early 1920s to put forth a high set of standards for the profession. The creed continues to be the backbone of professional ethics that journalists follow today.
During the Depression, the curators once again turned to Williams for help by naming him the president of University of Missouri. His high level of integrity and his vision for the university guided the school through a difficult time for everyone, especially colleges and universities. Cutbacks and school closures were common, but he argued for the continued support of the school. In fact, while requesting pay increases for faculty members, Williams cut his own salary. Due largely to his stellar reputation and commitment to higher education, he sustained the university in the face of certain peril.
He died in 1935 at the age of seventy-one in Columbia and was honored in papers across the globe as the man who changed journalism. Oddly enough, the man who was called the Father of Journalism Education never attended college.
*Williams spoke to leaders all over the world to promote journalism, including Adolf Hitler, long before the atrocities of World War II.
*Joseph Pulitzer helped Williams push for the School of Journalism.
*KOMU, a commercially affiliated TV station partially run by students, opened in 1953.