Cole Campbell, dean of the Donald W. Reynolds Schools of Journalism at the University of Nevada, research associate for the Kettering Foundation, and friend died last Friday when his car flipped on an icy road.
The world not only lost a champion for public journalism. We lost a great man and a dear friend.
I can’t top the tribute published in the NY Times where notable journalists and writers honored Cole, but I can say a hearty “amen” to those who described Cole as “an unwavering proponent of civic journalism that could help people exercise their civic duties”, a “towering intellectual among newspaper editors, astonishingly well read and curious about all ideas…[who] never met an innovative idea that he didn’t want to try out,” and “a very deep philosophical thinker, but also a man who was extremely interested in whether the community he newspapered in was a successful, vigorous polity.”
I first knew about Cole and his work in public journalism in the mid-90’s when he was the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and he hired a mutual friend to launch an online version of the newspaper that would include – gasp – an opportunity for people to add comments and exchange ideas online. It was less than ten years ago, but in the world of technology, it was several generations ago. There wasn’t a roadmap for online public engagement. There was no YouTube or MySpace. But I’d like to think that (like Cole) I “never met an idea that I didn’t want to try out” so I was thrilled when the Post-Dispatch hired me to develop a discussion guide on literacy. I never worked directly with Cole on that project, but I knew that he was on to something important and exciting, and it was an honor to be part of the experiment. I was deeply disappointed when – as the NY Times delicately noted – Cole encountered resistance to his ideas and left the Post-Dispatch in 2000, exactly the time that I decided to become an independent consultant.
Fortunately, our affiliation with the Kettering Foundation would provide us many opportunities to meet and work together over the next six years. During that time, Cole worked at the Poynter Institute then became the journalism dean at the University of Nevada. Along the way he married Catherine and they had a son, Clarke. The last time I saw Cole was in October when he served as the moderator for a panel discussion on Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role at the National Archives and Records Administration in D.C. Cole had just lost his father, but he was there filling the role professionally and with great humor starting the session acknowledging his respect for ritual as as the son of an Episcopalian minister. He then ceremoniously led us in the “turn off your cell phone” ritual.
The Kettering Foundation videotaped the Democracy’s Challenge Roundtable and I hope they find something special to do with it. How appropriate that the topic Cole moderated was the public’s role in Democracy. It was Cole’s passion and he believed that media had the power and the responsibility to help people fulfill their role as citizens. For the last two years he’s shared his ideas with the next generation of journalists. I hope that they took good notes and did their homework. We would do well with a generation of journalists with Cole’s integrity, innovation, humor, intelligence, sense of irony, and unwavering commitment to our civic life.
God bless you, our dear friend. We’ll miss ya!
Cole Campbell and Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, LBJ Library Director
at the National Archives and Records Administration
for the Democracy’s Roundtable: Reclaiming the Public’s Role Roundtable.