Bill Woo & You: “Letters to the Editor: Lessons on Journalism & Life”

Will bloggers form a professional association? This was one of the intriguing ideas set forth at the James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture hosted by William F. Woo’s wife Martha Shirk, a charming lady with girl-next-door good looks, and led by the editor of “Letters to the Editor: Lessons on Journalism and Life,” Phillip Meyer, whom, I admit I fell in love with over the course of the evening. Mr. Meyer is Knight Chair and Professor of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of a number of books.

Panelists included Pamela Maples, managing editor of the Post-Dispatch and William H. Freivogel, director of the Southern Illinois University School of Journalism and was moderated by Carolyn Kingcade, lecturer, School of Journalism, Southern Illinois University. Roger Goldman gave the welcome. Jon Sawyer, Director Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (, moved us with remembrances of both Bill Woo and James Millstone (all the more amazing when we later learned he’d composed these in 10 minutes time) and Margaret Freivogel, Editor, St. Louis Platform.

The late Bill Woo (1936-2006) was the first person outside the Pulitzer family to edit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the first Asian American to edit a major American newspaper. After 40 years in the newsroon, Woo embarked on a second career in 1996 teaching journalism at Stanford University as the Lorry I. Lokey Professor of Journalism. This volume “Letters from the Editor” collects some of the best informal weekly essays he wrote to his students on their craft’s high purpose and journalism and society in delicate balance. (Drawn from Left Bank Books and University of Missouri Press sources)

“Letters from William Woo: Are traditional values relevant in today’s chaotic newscape?” was the topic for the Fall 2007 James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture co-sponsored by the St. Louis Platform and held at the St. Louis University School of Law. Here were some items from the evening that jumped out at me.

Margaret Freivogel said “Bill Woo set a standard and trusted you to do the soul searching yourself.”

Phillip Meyer said that circulation per household for newspapers peaked in 1922, but consolidation allowed continued profits on 20-40 per cent, quite a high profit margin for mass-produced multiples. Studies found that adults maintain the same reading habits they had at 18, so the feeling that the younger generation would read more as they aged to match the reading habits of their parents did not happen. In the future new institutions will have to be invented to carry on the ideals of journalism.

Professionalism was characterized by 1)Moral standards; 2) Technical competency; 3) Subject matter competency and 4) Public service. I liked these categories because I felt they were easily transferrable to many other fields.

Here’s an important distinction to consider: “Commercial influence is for sale, but societal influence is not.”

The reporter is devolving into a hunter-gathering occupation which only makes sense when information is scarce. Nature likes self-organization. What’s in the future? Will there be a professional association of bloggers? I’d join if there were one.

Afterwards there was a beautfully arranged reception at the Queen’s Daughters Hall. I felt as if Harry Potter might walk out from the ornately carved and arched doorway in the closet under the stairway. I sat in a chair to look up at the high ceiling so I could marvel at the wedgewood ceiling.

I met a young man working in the public defenders office dealing with death row cases. I recommended watching early morning Saturday cartoons to help balance his mental diet…definitely, we agreed, never-never-never any of the Law and Order franchise programs.


Note: American religious and charitable society, organized to supplement the work done by the members of the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. Queen’s Daughters is a religious and charitable society founded at St. Louis, Missouri, December 5, 1889, by Miss Mary Hoxsey.

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