Rolling over in Walter Williams' grave

I had dinner Friday night with Dean Mills and several other folks from the University of Missouri J-School. Not one word was said about the death of print, the crushing debt loads taken on by big publishing companies, or other depressing topics that tend to dominate journalism conversations (and blogs) these days.

It was an upbeat conversation about exciting possibilities, all hope and energy and yes, optimism. Mizzou has all sorts of fascinating projects in the works.

In the background, though, I was thinking about the  Columbia Missourian, for 99 years the keystone of the hands-on Missouri Method of teaching journalism.

The Missourian isn't a school newspaper -- it's a serious, professional, commercial daily newspaper that's operated as a teaching laboratory.

As the Number Two newspaper in a small town, it's having big financial difficulties. To be honest, hardly anybody on the "town" side of the "town vs. gown" divide reads it, and I don't think it's doing all that well on the "gown" side, either. You can't sell advertising in a paper that doesn't reach an audience that advertisers need.

Losses at the Missourian are running well over a million dollars a year, leading to talk of cutting the Missourian back from its daily publication cycle and focusing more on the Web.

Last year it spent $1.67 million on print-related expenses (composition, printing, mailroom, circulation) and only $93,722 on Web expenses, so it's not exactly been starving the past to feed the future. The daily paper reaches 7,400; a weekend free sheet reaches 43,000 homes, and the Web product claims 100,000 unique users. Think about that.

Maybe the Missourian becomes a Web-focused operation with a weekly print product, or more likely, an array of multiple targeted products. It already has a weekly free entertainment tab and a Hispanic-targeted product.

Or perhaps it might  buddy up with the competition: Hank Waters' Columbia Tribune, the "town" paper.

I've known for awhile that these ideas were simmering in Mizzou's pot. The path forward might seem pretty straightforward and obvious. But it's not simple, because of a risk of a potential backlash from donors.

Make no mistake about it: Higher education lives or dies on the largesse of donors, mostly alumni. The ones with the most to give tend to be older, which right now puts them on the opposite side of the digital revolution. Many fondly remember their college years on the staff of the Missourian, which until recently even operated its own presses.

These ideas about radically changing the Missourian are now in the open, and some people don't like it one bit. Dalton Wright, publisher of a small daily in Lebanon, Mo., and a member of the Missourian's board, already has been quoted: "I think Walter Williams would be turning over in his grave."

But I wonder how Williams really would react. What would make him roll over in his grave?

Walter Williams, for those who don't know the story, was the guy who founded both the Missouri School of Journalism and the Missourian, so you might think he'd have a sentimental attachment to the past.

But Williams was a change agent. He was a guy with a high school education who talked the Missouri General Assembly into creating the world's first journalism school at a time when reporters served trade apprenticeships rather than getting formal educations. Williams was a guy who never attended college, yet got himself appointed dean of that radical new school, then rose to become president of the University of Missouri.

It's easy when you walk through an ivy-covered campus, looking at statues and portraits of great men and women who were founders and builders and creators of empires, to drift into nostalgic fantasies about tradition and past glories. We all do it.

But those people in the portraits were pioneers, risk-takers, change agents. We don't honor their memory by clinging to what they built, but rather by understanding why they did what they did and finding new ways to apply those principles in modern contexts. Embracing the future requires learning from the past, but also letting go of it.

We need our universities to not merely churn out qualified job applicants. We need universities to take a constructive role in research, analysis, ideation and experimentation. We need help to figure out the new forms of journalism -- and the business models to support it -- that will serve society in the digital future. I hope potential donors will see and honor the needs of the future and not get stuck on preservation of the past.

At lunch Saturday, Gary Kebbel told me about a new Knight Foundation project:  a five-year, $24 million challenge grant program targeted at local information needs.

It's not handing money to projects to save newspapers. It's looking to persuade local community foundations to adopt the cause of "creative uses of media and technology to help keep communities informed and their citizens engaged."

It's open-ended and forward-looking, and likely to lead to some projects that many might not recognize as "journalism." But isn't keeping "communities informed and citizens engaged" what drew people like Walter Williams into newspapering in the first place?