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MU's State Government Reporting Program

What follows is a personal account about the University of Missouri School of Journalism's State Government Reporting Program that I, Phill Brooks, founded and directed for more than four decades.

The program was the vision of a former dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, the late Roy Fisher, who was passionate about public policy journalism. That passion was demonstrated when he took over the school's Washington Reporting Program after he left as dean.

As a former editor-in-chief of the Chicago Daily News, Fisher fully understood the growing concerns about inadequate coverage of the country's statehouses.

At the time, many journalism observers concluded more successful public policy initiatives were arising in statehouses than from Congress. A leading journalism magazine article described statehouse journalism as the "stepchild of American journalism."

In 1973, Roy created the country's first higher education program located in a state Capital dedicated solely to statehouse journalism.

He made me was his agent to make it happen. I was an obvious choice.

When Roy recruited me, I was covering Congress for National Public Radio. I had worked my way through graduate school covering Missouri state government for Columbia's leading radio station. My graduate courses concentrated on government administration, public policy and political science.

With as many as three dozen reporters in some semesters, the program became one of the largest full-time statehouse news bureaus in the U.S. -- if not the largest.

Besides teaching students about statehouse journalism and demonstrating the school's commitment to statehouse coverage, Fisher also shared the belief of the school's founder Walter Williams (a longtime Missouri newspaper publisher) that the school should serve Missouri news outlets.

Initially, the State Government Reporting Program began with radio journalism students whose stories were distributed to Missouri's public radio stations and shortly later CBS-owned KMOX Radio in St. Louis.

In 1975, Roy expanded the program to provide statehouse coverage for Missouri newspapers in a partnership with the Missouri Press Association under Keith White, a newspaper journalism MA graduate of MU.

Despite Roy's vision for a converged newsroom, Keith and I initially ran independent newsrooms, although we remain close friends and regularly coordinatedd.

After Keith left to become the statehouse correspondent for the Springfield News Leader (now a senior editor at CQ Roll Call), I eventually accepted Roy's challenge to take on responsibility for both print and broadcast students.

As Roy kept telling me, content was more important than medium and besides knowing the subject matter, I knew print because I'd been a stringer for Missouri's two biggest newspapers while in graduate school.

Later, under Roy's insistence, I agreed to take on direct responsibility for assigning and supervising KOMU-TV coverage of the statehouse, creating the school's first fully converged newsroom that produced stories for print, radio and TV.

Integrating KOMU-TV into newsroom was easy. As a former TV journalist, I already had been working with the TV student reporters.

Besides, the news director of KOMU-TV at the time, Dick Nelson, was the son of William Nelson, the former director of an office that had been an invaluable to me -- Missouri's Legislative Research.

So, Dick shared with me the same passion of Roy Fisher about the importance of state government.

The school's statehouse program expanded to new media when it partnered with a non-profit organization I helped found, Missouri Digital News, one of the world's first all-news websites that distributed the program's stories and databases to a worldwide audience.

Subsequently, the program began assisting for several years production of "Jefferson City Journal," a weekly one-half-hour public affairs program on the legislature for all of Missouri's public TV stations.

Roy Fisher passed before the emergence of the program's internet and public TV partnership, but they reflected his vision of a fully converged newsroom where newspaper and broadcast students collaborated to produced stories regardless of their media concentrations.

After my retirement from the University of Missouri in 2016, Mark Horvit was appointed as the program's director.

Mark had been the executive director of the world's leading organization for investigative reporting, Investigative Reporters and Editors.

One of Mark's first accomplishments was to include coverage for all of Missouri's broadcast stations under a partnership with the Missouri Broadcasters Association. It was another expansion of Roy's vision about the program serving all of Missouri news outlets.

Logistics History

Before the web, radio stories were distributed to Missouri's public radio stations by phone through an automatic call-up system invented by KBIA's chief engineer, Roger Karwoski -- a device nicknamed the Karko Box.

When a station called in to the Karo Box, it automatically would begin playing over the phone an analog recording of the program's radio stories for the station to record off the phone.

Transmission of deadline newspaper stories in the early days of the State Government Reporting Program was just as primitive. There were no computers. Even FAX technology did not exist back then.

So stories had to be typed out on manual typewriters. Then to get them to Columbia, we used a device journalists called the Mojo Wire.

The term "mojo" came from Hunter Thompson who described how he used the Mojo Wire to file stories on the road for the Rolling Stone.

Supposedly, Thompson used the word "mojo" based on the African-American term to refer to a magical charm.

For those of us dependent on mojos, it wasn't very magical.

Instead, it was painfully slow taking more than six minutes to transmit a single page. And because the phone transmission produced pages so fuzzy, even more time had to be spent conferring on the phone with Columbia editors to verify the copy.

For stories produced for Missouri Press Association newspapers, the time delay was even worse.

The "mojo" text was copy edited at the Columbia Missourian, then again printed out in multiple copies eventually to be mailed to Missouri newspapers by snail mail.

It was an a time-consuming and expensive effort that could not meet the daily deadline needs of newspapers. As a result, we temporarily suspended service to MPA newspapers.

After I developed the school's first newsroom microcomputer network in the statehouse bureau, we were able to have a BBS (bulletin board phone system) that gave Missouri newspapers immediate phone-based modem dialup access to the digital copies of the stories written by statehouse Journalism Students.

Not too many years later with advent of the internet, we developed a system in partnership with Missouri Digital News to provide on-line access to digital versions of the stories.

A web-based portal allowed inclusion of links to legislative roll-call votes, journalistic written bill descriptions and lobbyist contacts.

It also provides a resource for a news organization to track a local legislator's activities including sponsored bills, votes and well as campaign contributions and lobbyists expenditures received.

Phill Brooks