It was a momentous day last Thursday on the campus of Morgan State University as the historically Black college formally opened its new School of Global Journalism and Communication. Under a brilliant blue sky on an exceptionally warm October day, the 9th undergraduate school on the Baltimore campus was officially opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony.
University president Dr. David Wilson was flanked by the chairman of the Morgan State University Board of Regents, alumnus and former congressman Kweisi Mfume, and the dean of the new J-school, USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham. Providing opening remarks was longtime journalist A’Lelia Bundles, who offered a historical perspective on the significance of the new school. The importance of the day was evident by the attendance of such notable journalists as New York Times columnist and Morgan alumnus Bill Rhoden and former New York Newsday journalist Les Payne.
A highlight of the festivities was the announcement by Dr. Wilson of a $250,000 grant to the journalism school from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish an Urban Digital Journalism program. The grant will be used principally to train undergraduate students covering news in the city of Baltimore and Frederick, Cambridge and Montgomery counties. The Knight grant is the third the school has received since its physical opening in July, having received a $10,000 grant from the Morris A. Mechanic Foundation and a $15,000 grant from the Gannett Foundation. The latter will be used to underwrite a four-day broadcast journalism symposium in spring 2014 that will be held with the assistance of professionals from Gannett’s broadcast division. Dean Wickham noted, “I think this is a pretty good start for our three-month-old school. I’m optimistic that our fundraising efforts will produce even better results in the coming year.”
Following the ceremonial ribbon cutting a reception was held in the lobby of the Communications building and an afternoon panel discussion in the Ruth Sheffey Lecture Hall featured legendary journalists who examined the role of the media in covering the March on Washington and the civil rights movement in 1963. Moderated by ABC News correspondent and anchor Byron Pitts, the panel featured Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch, former Baltimore Evening Sun editor Ray Jenkins, history making journalist Paul Delaney of the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Clarence Page, and Morgan alumna Helena Hicks, who was among the Morgan State students in 1955 who participated in the nation’s first student sit-in that desegregated Read’s Drug Store in downtown Baltimore. In the audience was veteran journalist and icon Simeon Booker, who was the first Black journalist in the newsroom of the Washington Post and former Washington editor for Jet magazine. A videotape segment featuring journalist Moses Newson was also a part of the program.
The panel offered a hands-on view of the momentous year 1963 and the events that changed the course of the nation. Taylor Branch, the author of a seminal three-part trilogy on the civil rights movement suggested that “the struggle for civil rights was involved in the birth of national television” as he reminded that in 1963 the existing networks only offered 15 minutes of news during the evening. Branch made note that the southern battle over civil rights prompted the broadcast television networks to shift their focus. He also reminded that the Black community was not fully aligned with the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the movement. Branch shared that some Black newspapers, like the Atlanta Daily World, opposed the civil disobedience of King and others. Helena Hicks recalled her youthful activism dating back to participating as a member of the legendary Lillie Mae Carroll’s youth group in Baltimore and how it inspired her activity at Morgan State. The university alumna also explained that the campus had a history of student activism, dating back to 1942 when then Morgan State College students picketed in front of Ford’s Theatre. Her advice to students who face adversity due to social conditions was pointed, “Don’t get angry, get active.”
Paul Delaney, a 1958 graduate in journalism from Ohio State University, shared his experiences as a reporter for the Atlanta Daily World and the Baltimore Afro-American. He recalled that the old guard in Atlanta’s Black community did not support the civil rights protests occurring in the city and made a pact with the city’s white power structure to quell demonstrations. Ray Jenkins spoke of the pressure exerted upon Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. He pointed out that King had been accused of failing to pay his income taxes, a charge that could have landed him in prison. Jenkins also discussed the landmark libel lawsuit The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that established a new standard, actual malice, which was the Court’s response to the attempt to silence news organizations reporting on the civil rights movement in the south. The case centered on a full-page advertisement that ran in The New York Times soliciting funds to defend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against a perjury charge. The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously for the newspaper.
The day’s events underscored the point that the opening of the School of Global Journalism and Communication comes at a time of significant change in the field of journalism. With the advent of the Internet and social media, electronic communication is rapidly advancing as the primary means of transmitting news and information rather than print on paper or television. It has also affected the news cycle as consumers now demand 24-hour access to news with the expectation that most news portals will be on-demand. As these changes in news consumption have taken hold traditional newspapers are fighting to survive or morphing into a media hybrid, part print and part online. The challenge for these traditional news media is finding a workable business model that can sustain operations, while accruing advertising revenue sufficient to cover costs and return a profit. As traditional print news outlets struggle to recalibrate their operations in the new digital domain, new online entrants are trying to carve a niche in an unsettled marketplace. The shakeout has been visible for the last several years, with papers with as large a circulations as the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer changing ownership. One paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, rid itself of its photography staff in a cost-cutting maneuver. Just as affected as the print press by the current transformation in journalism are the broadcast television and cable news networks that offer broad coverage of domestic and international news, and radio stations serving urban markets.
Students at the new journalism school will enter the field as it continues to undergo a transformation and will face vastly different opportunities and challenges in the new digital environment than past generations of young journalists. Though many students will look at opportunities with traditional news outlets, many will explore entrepreneurship and some will revisit independent Black media as the Black press, Internet and cable news outlets become an attractive option. The focus on global journalism at Morgan State will also expand the boundaries of possibilities for students as the news coverage now encompasses an international footprint and an immediacy that is made possible through technology. The school is poised to play a leadership role training the next generation of Black journalists.