Jon Hughes: the Man, the Myth, the Legend

Next Wednesday, Jon Hughes steps aside as the central figure in four decades of journalism education at the University of Cincinnati. “Am I going to be able to let go? Watch!” And he laughed at the thought of being “an era.”

Aug 8, 2012 at 9:18 am

Next Wednesday, Jon Hughes steps aside as the central figure in four decades of journalism education at the University of Cincinnati.

“Am I going to be able to let go?


And he laughed at the thought of being “an era.” 

Hughes, 67, remains through December to ease the transition from quarters to semesters and leadership turnover to Jeffrey L. Blevins. Hughes plans to take 2013 for a sabbatical and return to teaching in 2014.

Hughes worked for small Michigan dailies when UC hired him as an assistant professor of English in 1972. Few journalism courses existed in the English Department then. He taught and advised the student newspaper, The News Record

Hughes said it was “really crucial” to his decision to come to Cincinnati that UC planned to start Clifton Magazine, a student forum for long-format reporting.

Hughes said he was the first “writer” to win a tenure-track position in the Department of English & Comparative Literature.  

Some traditionalist faculty were displeased. “I knew what they were thinking. Fuck ’em.” 

His office door sign said, “Hack in Residence.” That sign wasn’t bluster. He since has written articles and books, worked as a reporter, editor and photojournalist, written radio and screen plays, and helped create two alternative weeklies.  
“I never thought of myself as an academic,” he said in a recent interview. “I still think of myself as a journalist who teaches.”

Ron Liebau, among the first student editors to work with Hughes, went on to WKRC-TV, the Post and Enquirer. Looking back, Liebau said, “His bigger achievement, of course, was making room for journalism in an English Department very skeptical the craft was worthy of inclusion among Shakespeare and Chaucer. Jon proved to be a master politician over the course of nearly 40 years. Those he never convinced, he outlasted.” 

As poets, novelists and other writers joined the English faculty, they created UC’s “writing certificate” program. One concentration was journalism. “This may be the most significant thing I’ve ever done,” Hughes says. It prepared students professionally — especially older adults — without requiring them to pursue a degree.

Coincidentally, Hughes was building the journalism faculty and curriculum into a four-year major, and this year the independent Journalism Department in the College of Arts & Sciences was established. 

“I am comfortably satisfied,” Hughes said. At other times, he’s joked that he “outlived” critics and opponents. Now, new leadership is needed to “take the department to another level. That’s the way things happen.”

He won a full professorship in 1986 without a Ph.D. His journalism master’s from Ball State followed Hughes’ realization that in the late 1960s, he could get out of the Army early to go to graduate school. That degree was vital when UC asked, “documents, please.”

Like successor Blevins, Hughes said experience demonstrates that he’s not training students for unemployment. In addition to state-of-the-art technical skills, UC’s journalism degree still is a “good liberal arts education.”

Hughes helped start and run two 1970s alternative weeklies to give students a place to develop their skills. It was a big deal later when The Enquirer hired its first UC intern. 

“My biggest problem was getting students to leave Cincinnati.” Among those who stayed were Liebau, Cliff Radel at the Enquirer, Lew Moores at the Post, Enquirer and Sunday Challenger and Peggy Kreimer at the Cincinnati and Kentucky Post.

Bob Behlen, another News Record editor advised by Hughes, stayed and became an assistant U.S. attorney. “He was a terrific adviser for us,” Behlen said. “He was young enough. He had plenty of energy. He had experience as a reporter and he was able to give us advice.” And Hughes — writer, editor and adviser — taught by example, Behlen added. 

Moores was the first Clifton Magazine editor: 1972-73. “My last year at UC (was) Jon’s first year,” Moores said. “When Jon came aboard at UC, he was just five years older than me. One of the reasons, I think, we became close friends …  we both were passionate about journalism as a career.”

Liebau recalled how Hughes “had been a real grownup reporter … He was only a little older than most of us, talked like we did, smoked a pipe and had a beard. Cool guy. He quickly became the guy you went to with questions trying to manage a student newspaper. We needed a lot of help. Jon was a steadying, positive influence. He advised, never directed. He saved us from endless embarrassment.”


• A wet daily paper is near-useless. By the time the Enquirer and New York Times dry, my day is underway. I might get back to them after supper. However, we have a new delivery person who, unlike the woman she replaced, understands that double-bagging only helps if the bag openings are alternated and neither opening exposes the highly absorbent newsprint to rain or snow.

• Poynter Online reports the growing number of news media hoping to profit from the Times-Picayune’s retreat from daily journalism in New Orleans. The Baton Rouge Advocate plans to produce a New Orleans edition in October, when the T-P plans to cut printed editions to three days a week. 

Coincidentally, Poytner reported, four online news organizations in New Orleans said they’re forming an online news collective called the New Orleans Digital News Alliance. The four are The Lens, My Spilt Milk, NOLA Defender and Uptown Messenger. (All but the Lens are for-profit sites.) “The members will begin promoting each other’s work immediately through social media and other avenues, and closer cooperation is being developed,” their press release says. My Spilt Milk honcho Alex Rawls says in a post, “Our collective goal is to provide sustainable, up-to-the-minute, hyperlocal online journalism serving the New Orleans community.”

That’s not the only online newsroom planting a flag in New Orleans local coverage, Poynter continued. Gambit Weekly Editor Kevin Allman says NOLA Beat, “a nonprofit startup planned in the mold of ProPublica or the Texas Tribune,” is planned to start up before the end of the year. Gambit is a New Orleans paper. 

• Trust must exist between news media and audiences and journalists and their editors. No medium is immune. NPR recently had to retract a story after being alerted to a reporter’s plagiarism. Here’s the NPR editor’s note from July 9: “

Earlier today, we published and distributed a story by Ahmad Shafi recounting his experience witnessing a public execution in Kabul in 1998. Since the story was published, it has come to our attention that portions of the piece were copied from a story by Jason Burke, published by the London Review of Books in March 2001. We have removed Shafi's story from our website.”

Journatic, a commercial attempt to provide hyper-local news to major newspapers is in trouble because of journalistic fraud, fabrication and plagiarism. The agent of its distress was a former Journatic employee who explained how low-paid writers in Asia provided the local U.S. stories under phony bylines to unsuspecting American dailies. The revelation came on public radio’s This American Life in early July. 

Journatic seemed perfect in an era of corporate cost-saving at any cost, readers’ trust be damned. Cheap outsourced labor allowed Americans to be fired. Poynter Online said the Chicago Tribune, which invested in Journatic, laid off about 20 American journalists and reassigned another dozen who’d worked on Trib suburban papers and websites. Journatic stories made that possible. 

Other papers that substituted Journatic stories for those that could have been done by local journalists included the Chicago Sun-Times, Houston and San Francisco Chronicles

The Enquirer still struggles to provide the kind of hyperlocal or local-local news — “Local Youth Wins Trumpet Contest” — that executives believe readers want. It tried in print and online. It never found the right formula and gutting its reporting staff left it without people do it all.  

Gannett helped by buying most of the Tristate weeklies. While not hyperlocal — you can’t cover two or more neighborhoods and be hyperlocal — this was a good idea. There is nothing second rate about community weekly journalism; it has some different news values and high credibility among readers and advertisers. Some of my former students have created productive jobs and careers on community weeklies.

• eports a fascinating poll result:  YouTube has become a major way to get news. Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said YouTube poses “a signficant opportunity and also a challenge” for mainstream news media. Romenesko included these findings: 

The most popular news videos tended to depict natural disasters or political upheaval-usually featuring intense visuals.
News events are inherently more ephemeral than other kinds of information, but at any given moment news can outpace even the biggest entertainment videos.
Citizens play a substantial role in supplying and producing footage.
Citizens are also responsible for posting a good deal of the videos originally produced by news outlets.
The most popular news videos are a mix of edited and raw footage.

Pew added, “The report points out that viewership for TV news still easily outpaces those consuming news on YouTube — 22 million people on average still watch the evening news — but fast-growing YouTube is now the third most visited destination online, behind only Google and Facebook.”

• Former Enquirer reporter Cam McWhirter and Wall Street Journal colleague Keach Hagey scooped NPR about NPR’s investment in a nonprofit startup in New Orleans called . It’s the latest effort to complement the diminished New Orleans Times-Picayune, which is cutting back from daily to print editions three days a week. NPR’s partner will be University of New Orleans. Poynter Online says NPR could be chipping in an initial $250,000. NPR followed with its announcement, NPR issued a press release after the story, saying the new site will follow a ”public radio funding model” and will be open source, like ProPublica and The Texas Observer. will be based in WWNO’s newsroom, and its general manager Paul Maassen will run both organizations. NPR, the release says, is “providing consultation to WWNO around technology infrastructure and online revenue generation as well as training to support the rapid deployment of a multimedia newsroom.” It also says NolaVie and The Lens are “content partners.”

The Lens recently announced (above)

it would also be part of an online news collective called the New Orleans Digital News Alliance.