Feature Story: Evolution and Revolution
BU journalism and advertising celebrate a century of staying ahead of the game.
By Jessica Ullian
Above, from left to right: a TV production class at the School of Public Relations and Communications (now COM), Feb. 13, 1963 (photo by BU Photography); the 2009 Redstone Film Festival at the Tsai Performance Center (photo by Kalman Zabarsky)
If today’s College of Communication students visited Boston University’s journalism department circa 1916, they’d be shocked. Not by the coursework or extracurriculars—those early students were diligently studying and practicing the fundamentals of news reporting and writing. But the faculty would give them the surprise of their lives: 12 men and 1 woman, representing an unimaginable 8 different Boston news organizations. Yes, eight: the Post, Transcript, Globe, American, Monitor, Journal, Record and Associated Press.
At the time, those 13 journalists represented the industry’s plans to transform the profession into a specialized field. Nearly a century later, COM faculty from all fields have the challenging task of maintaining their specializations in a changing new media landscape. The first communication courses at the University, which included advertising as well as news reporting and writing, have expanded to hundreds of offerings in public relations, advertising, film and television, radio and journalism in all its forms. Today’s graduates have launched careers their academic ancestors never could have imagined, such as founder of a college-sports television network (Brian Bedol ’80) and a leading app developer (Tom Hartle ’90). What might be in store for the Class of 2117? COM’s got it covered.
Help Wanted: “Greatest Editors” Only
Advertising and journalism started at BU in 1913–1914, with courses at the new College of Business Administration (CBA). To help prepare students for careers, these classes included visits from professionals, who, in the words of Dean Everett W. Lord (CAS 1900, GRS 1906, Hon.’60), gave students “the advantage of their practical experience.” While advertising would rapidly expand at BU in the 1970s, journalism got an early start—thanks in part to an exciting development in the outside world.
The emerging idea that journalism was a trade that could be taught had a powerful champion in Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World. Writing in the North American Review in 1904, Pulitzer enthusiastically advocated for the founding of a journalism school, outlining in detail proposed areas of study and calling on “the greatest editors” to give their time to this radical experiment just as “the masters of the New York Bar give lectures in the law schools.”
A decade later, Pulitzer’s vision sparked a boom in journalism education programs across the country, says Christopher Daly, a COM associate professor of journalism and the author of Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (read a Q&A with Daly about his book). Most journalism faculty, Daly notes, “were editors who came straight from the nation’s newsrooms, and for a long time, they were almost all white men.” At BU, the 1915 “Bulletin” listed Gertrude Stevenson of the Journal among the faculty, and in 1921—its first official year as the University paper of record—the Boston University News boasted Annie McWeeney (CAS’21, SED’47) as College of Liberal Arts editor.
From the beginning, BU’s journalism students were given a real-world education. Many served as correspondents for city publications and worked under the supervision of Boston Post editor Harry B. Center (CAS 1900), BU’s first assistant professor of journalism, to produce the BU News. By 1922, six years after the publication’s founding, the editors claimed a circulation of 5,000, “perhaps the largest of any college newspaper in the East,” they wrote in the University yearbook. By the mid-twenties, journalism was a major at CBA, and the courses had expanded to include journalism history, magazine writing and editorial writing.
War and Growth
Over the next three decades the department flourished, and the other communication divisions grew along with new technology. Radio courses came to CBA in the ’30s, and the study of film—then viewed as a classroom aid, not entertainment—had been under way at the School of Education since the late 1920s.
World War II, however, changed everything at BU and beyond. The conflict transformed the American public’s interactions with the media; Daly writes that the US armed forces accredited more than 1,600 war correspondents from wire services, radio networks, daily newspapers and weekly newsmagazines, and that radio was in more than 80 percent of American households. President Franklin Roosevelt had established the Office of War Information and hired Hollywood directors to make propaganda films.
The end of the war brought an influx of young veterans to college, and three new schools opened at BU by the end of the decade: the School of Nursing, the General College and the School of Public Relations (SPR). Conceptualized by University President Daniel Marsh (STH 1908, Hon.’53) and Dean of the Graduate School Howard LeSourd, the host of a popular religious radio program, SPR opened its doors in September 1947.
Public relations was a controversial idea from the start. As Marsh wrote in his 1948 Founders’ Day speech, “Public Relations: A New Profession,” the term was often thought of as “glad-handed cajolery” or “a euphemism for fund-raising activities.” In fact, he asserted, public relations was critical to the economic functioning of the nation, smoothing out any misunderstandings between corporations and the public. “The phrase public relations,” he wrote, “must henceforth have new denotations and connotations; for the establishment by Boston University of this School—the first school of its kind in the world—transforms what has heretofore been a nondescript ‘job’ into a profession.”
In the decades to come, SPR would keep pace with the rapidly changing media landscape. In 1951, television classes began. By the end of that decade, students were producing their own made-for-TV dramas, and the Communication Research Center had been developed to examine the impact of the popular medium.
The School moved to its new home on Commonwealth Avenue in 1957, taking over an old auto showroom and transforming it with state-of-the-art classrooms beneath WBUR’s towering antenna. The School’s name evolved, too, becoming the School of Public Relations and Communications in 1952 and the School of Public Communication in 1964. At the same time, the School’s alums were starting to shape the communication industry. Carol Hills (’49), who earned the nation’s first master’s degree in public relations, joined the BU faculty the year after her graduation. Gordon Manning (’41) was named the head of CBS’s news division in 1964. Ida Lewis (DGE’54, COM’56) was named editor of Essence magazine in the early ’70s.
The 1970s brought student achievement into focus, as undergraduates seized opportunities to get real-world experience. Charles Radin (’71) founded the student newspaper the Daily Free Press on May 5, 1970, the day the campus was shut down by Vietnam War protestors. A notable turning point in advertising at the School occurred in 1974 when, spurred by student interest in more advertising classes, Professor Walter Lubars created AdLab, a class-cum-ad agency (see sidebar). A domino effect ensued. At the time, says Lubars, many colleges’ advertising classes—including BU’s—were housed in the journalism department. To make room for growth, Lubars got permission to move his class into mass communication, then set about recruiting help and creating more classes. Staples of today’s program, such as Creating Video Campaigns and Portfolio Development for Advertising, got their start during these years. Continuing the mission to offer students practical experience, in 1978 SPC launched PRLab, the nation’s oldest student-run public relations agency.
In the following decades, student achievement continued to be a hallmark of the School. The Redstone Film Festival debuted in 1980 and became an event that launched the careers of filmmakers such as Academy Award-nominated producer Richard Gladstein (CGS’81, COM’83) (Pulp Fiction) and producer-director Gary Fleder (’85) (the CW’s Beauty and the Beast). In the 1990s, the newly renamed College of Communication welcomed the digital revolution by opening its first multimedia labs, where students learned HTML and began producing online work.
In the communication field, however, that’s become ancient history, which is why the College has established two new degree programs focused on the future. The Graduate Program in Media Ventures centers on entrepreneurship; the Division of Emerging Media Studies will explore how new technologies are developed, how they’re used and how that use shapes future innovation. The concepts and questions of the new programs might be foreign to those students of a century ago, but the location would be familiar: Media Ventures has an MBA option in partnership with the School of Management, the descendant of the College that first brought journalism and advertising to BU.
Additional reporting by Julie Rattey. Former Boston University Lecturer Andrea Volpe contributed research to this article.