A blog dedicated to news literacy seems like the right place to write about Joe Shoquist.
Joe died last month. He was 84 years old and had retired from two careers. First, he was a journalist and editor – managing editor of The Milwaukee Journal. He retired from that in 1986. Then he was dean of the school of journalism at the University of South Carolina. He retired from the university in 1991.
We didn't talk about news literacy in the years I worked for Joe in Milwaukee. The term had not been invented.
But everything he did led to the kind of journalism readers could trust.
Joe was involved in journalism ethics long before the modern ethics movement took shape with new codes and seminars. He wrote a code of ethics for the Journal and, more importantly, he enforced it. Reporters for other newspapers might accept free tickets, meals or gifts. Not those at Joe's paper. Others might be involved with causes or groups they covered. Not those at Joe's paper. Conflict of interest – real or apparent – was unacceptable. I know of one reporter who was fired for an ethical violation. There may have been others.
Joe turned that focus on ethics to journalism nationally, and led a committee that developed a code of ethics for the Associated Press Managing Editors association in 1974. Ethics remained a key focus when when Joe became president of APME in 1978.
Ethics are important in new literacy. Readers, listeners and viewers have a right to expect the men and women who bring them the news to be honorable.
But new literacy goes far beyond ethics. It requires an unwavering adherence to the facts. Verification, not assertion, is a hallmark.
We didn't use those terms, either, when I worked for Joe, but that's what he demanded from his reporters.
That requirement was not just theory nor was it a top-down order from an isolated, ivory tower editor.
I was an investigative reporter for The Journal in the 1970s. That meant my stories often accused someone of wrongdoing.
Joe made it clear that accuracy, fairness and balance were starting points for that kind of reporting and he showed that he meant it by personally editing many of my stories – a task not usually performed by the managing editor of a metropolitan newspaper.
Preparing to have Joe edit a story or a series of articles took work. I knew he would want sources, specifics and details to support every sentence. He also reviewed my notes. If I cited a document, he wanted to see a copy. If I said something happened on a Monday, he looked at a calendar to make sure I had the day was right.
Sloppy reporting was simply unacceptable.
So was casual use of unnamed sources. Joe didn't like them very much because, he said, readers didn't trust them. More than once insisted that I work harder to get information on the record. He was right; a bit more effort from me found other sources or persuaded off-the-record sources to allow their names to be used.
In later years, Reid MacCluggage, another outstanding editor, called this process of reviewing stories "skeptical editing." I've heard others call it "prosecuting a story." Whatever name, it demands commitment to the highest standards of journalism.
Joe taught me how to be an editor, how to set standards, how to lead an ethical newsroom, how to look at our responsibility to readers.
That was the base for Joe's journalism, and became the base for mine.
David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, two daily newspapers in central Maine. He is spending this year as the C.W. Snedden chair of journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He taught news literacy at Colby College in 2008 and will do so again next January.