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Thursday, Dec. 30, 2004 08:31 am

He stood for the best in journalism

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My first memory of Bob Reid is the poverty series. In the early 1970s, Reid was managing editor at the Southern Illinoisan newspaper in Carbondale, and I was a staff reporter. The publisher had apparently asked for something special so that they could sell extra ads, and Bob had said, "I'll give you something special." He mobilized the entire newsroom to report on local poverty from every angle thinkable. We each were assigned two or three poverty articles, in addition to our regular beats. We whined about the extra work and complained that it was too much about a subject no one cared about. To make matters worse, Bob made us talk not just to experts but also to actual poor people. He pushed and pulled, gave us pep talks, and cleared everything with the publisher, who made space in the paper to run thousands of words about poverty with no extra ads. When the project was done, we were proud and felt that the sheer force of the journalism we had mounted against poverty should wipe it off the face of southern Illinois.

I'm sure some reforms came of it. But the lasting change may have come in the souls of the young staffers who, under Bob Reid's tyranny, experienced the invigoration of hot journalistic pursuit of social justice. Bob spent his career invigorating young journalists, first as a newspaperman and then for 24 years as a journalism professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. When he died of a heart attack Dec. 15 at age 64, he left a big hole in journalism.

After Bob was promoted to editor in the Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers home office in Decatur, he brought me onto his staff as an editorial writer and statehouse reporter. From Decatur we tried to stop the Vietnam War together, gave Dan Walker fits, and became the conscience of Illinois. Bob demanded hard work and a lot of copy, and he kept on making us talk to real people. He kept us going by means of frequent beer sessions, which always got around to being about how important our work is to public policy and people's lives. When the business office wanted to do a reader survey, with an eye to making editorial improvements to boost circulation and ad sales, Bob did his best to confound the effort. It wasn't just that our job was to give readers what they needed rather than just what they wanted. It was also that, although surveys usually conclude that readers want more fluff and entertainment, what they really want is good writing and strong journalism. We didn't need a survey to tell us that.

When I left his staff in 1977 to run my own weekly newspaper in Springfield, I used as explanation the famous line from A.J. Liebling: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Bob knew better. You have freedom of the press already, he told me. The reporter is the one with freedom of the press. Publishers rarely stand in the way of a writer's enterprise and pluck. Reporter is the top job at a newspaper, he argued; everybody else works in service to the writers. He proved right, and I've spent a career trying to get my reporter title back.

In 1979, Reid left newspapering to teach journalism at the University of Illinois, where he worked until retiring last year. One of his students in the 1980s was Gayle Worland, a former Illinois Times staff writer who now reports for the Chicago Tribune. Gayle writes: "I've worked in a lot of different newsrooms, and every single time I meet a new colleague who turns out to be a U. of I. alum, the dialogue goes like this: 'You went to University of Illinois? Did you have Bob Reid?'

"It's always in the same breath -- Bob Reid's name is synonymous with our journalism experience at the U. of I. His wear-it-on-your-sleeve morality, his commitment to high ethical standards in journalism, and his unabashed joy in turning kids on to the spirit of muckraking made a profound impression on all of us. Inevitably, the Bob Reid connection turns into war stories about how the guy made us sweat and groan and work incredibly hard in his classes. And we wanted to work hard for Professor Reid because, for us, he stood for the best in journalism."

For 10 years, 1979-88, Bob wrote a weekly column, "Essays," for Illinois Times. He wrote mostly about Illinois politics, but from time to time he would give Jim Thompson, Adlai Stevenson, and Paul Simon a break to worry about the Cubs, or to share his winter reading list, or to complain that the Illini were taking over the university. He was undeterred by critics who claimed he hadn't had a new idea since the 1960s, and Bob thought "liberal" was a good thing. Here are some lines from a 1981 piece: "Democrats and others who used to call themselves liberal are not only in disarray these days, but also in hiding. The media have, for the most part, stopped telling us about those victimized by the policies of the politically powerful. Such reporting upsets the sensitivities of upscale audiences."

Bob was always so intense; I wondered whether he ever mellowed any or found peace in his too-brief retirement. On the day I learned of his death, I received in the mail a Christmas card from him, with a warm note to me. At the end it said, "Keep engaging every day," which I took as his final message to me, a last prod to stay active in this serious business of making the world a better place. When I told others who knew him what Bob had written, they said it sounded just like him. Then I went back and read his last words to me again. I had misread his handwriting. The note really says, "Keep enjoying every day." That takes the pressure off. But we who had the privilege of "having" Bob Reid will likely keep engaging, too.

A public memorial service for Bob Reid is planned for Feb. 5 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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