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Wells Memorial Key Centennial Celebration


That was the message from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss, a Madison native who was the keynote speaker at the Wells Memorial Key Centennial Celebration on May 31-June 1.

The event commemorated the 100th anniversary of the election of UW-Madison graduate Wells as the Sigma Delta Chi national president and the creation of the Wells Memorial Key, the Society of Professional Journalists’ highest honor for service to the Society. Wells died in office shortly after his election, and SDX members created the Wells Key in his memory. SDX later became SPJ.

View more Wells Memorial Key Centennial Celebration coverage:

  1. Audio and video from speakers and panels

  2. Photos

  3. Journalism education and the rise of infomatics

  4. Clicks and hits: pursuing a proper online journalism strategy

Organized by the Madison pro chapter of SPJ, the event also celebrated the careers of the more than 30 living Wells Key winners. A dozen of them traveled to Madison from across the country to participate in the celebration. Madison-area journalists, UW-Madison students and young journalists from the Simpson Street Free Press in Madison also attended.

For photos of the event, go here. For full audio of the event, go here. Sponsorship was provided by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Wisconsin Historical Society and UW-Madison’s Union South.

In addition to Maraniss’ talk, the event featured original research by Madison SPJ past president Gordon Govier about Wells’ life, a discussion about the future of journalism, a keynote lunch address by UW-Madison professor James Baughman and a showing of the film “Deadline USA.”

Maraniss described his three-legged reporting tool: Visiting the place. Getting the documents. Conducting the interviews. That’s followed by thinking: “trying to figure out what you’re trying to say and have it make sense and satisfy our sense for story.” (Listen to Maraniss’ talk here.)

Govier unveiled his in-depth research about Wells in which he found that Wells was a natural leader who served successively as managing editor of the Daily Cardinal, editor of the Badger Yearbook, and editor of Wisconsin magazine (a literary journal) while a University of Wisconsin student. When he died, he was within days of leaving his home in Freeport, Ill., to travel to the University of Oklahoma, where he was to become the founding director of the new journalism program. He was troubled by a throat problem which he feared would limit his lecturing ability and returned to Madison seeking a surgical solution. He did not survive the operation. (Listen to Govier’s talk or watch a video of the presentation here.)

At the panel discussion, Steve Geimann, a Bloomberg News editor, Gordon “Mac” McKerrel, a journalism professor at Western Kentucky University, Amanda Theisen, producer at KSTP in St. Paul, and Lauren Fuhrmann, public engagement director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, discussed the future of journalism. Geimann and McKerral are former SPJ national presidents who have won Wells Keys. Theisen is the Region 6 director, while Fuhrmann is the Madison pro chapter vice president. Former president and Wells Key winner Robert Leger moderated.

The group discussed changes to the business, the role of social media, the future of journalism schools and the emerging emphasis on ‘infomatics,’ and the changing expectations for young journalists. (Listen to the panel here. Read two guest blog posts from celebration attendee Amelia Rufer, a recent UW-Madison graduate, here and here.)

Baughman described the journalism world of Chester Wells as one with emerging professional standards and ethics. It was around that time that journalism started to be accepted as a key player in American democracy, he said. But the relationship between journalists and their audience is changing, he said. “For many Americans there is no longer trust in the messenger. That’s what worries me,” Baughman concluded. (Listen to Baughman’s talk here.)

Maraniss emphasized journalism’s ability to tell the stories that help make sense of our lives. Baughman called for the restoration of trust between journalists and audiences. We launch the next 100 years of the Wells Memorial Key with those lessons.

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