Earl L. Conn · 1997
Sixteen years ago, when the home computer was still becoming a household item, when USA TODAY was still an infant, when the web was something a spider wove rather than a way of communicating worldwide, Earl Conn was already looking toward the new century and what it would mean for information, the foodstuff of journalism.
By the turn of the century, he wrote in 1982, “almost certainly we will have a United States where the new power _ Information _ can be obtained through interactive (two-way) cable systems and/or individual home reception of signals directly from communication satellites….The pluses and minuses of this Age of Information will be a mixed bag: there will be immense advantages and there will be very significant problems.”
In March of 1996, just a few months before he was to initiate Ball State University’s new College of Communication, Information and Media as its founding dean, Conn returned to that topic, as he had many times in the intervening years.
“The world is moving into an extraordinary time when communication processes and media will tie together more than six billion people into instantaneous communication,” he wrote in Ball State’s alumni magazine. “The news of each and every day makes clear that much of the world’s resources, commerce, focus, personnel, research and future will be connected with this now-dawning age…..
“This new college [at Ball State], by placing an institutional focus and a public identity to our programs, will provide for our students an education that will prepare them for the 21st century. We can do no less.”
Through the combination of four former academic departments: journalism, telecommunications, speech communication, and information and communication sciences. Ball State’s new college would have about 1,600 majors, Conn wrote. “It immediately will become one of the largest such colleges in the nation and a major player in American education.”
Conn became dean of Ball State’s new college last July after 12 years as chairperson of Ball State’s journalism department and 20 earlier years as a journalism professor at Ball State. When he joined the faculty in 1958, it was actually the third time he had come to Ball State. First, he attended Ball State as an undergraduate in 1947 and 1948, working as feature editor on the Ball State Daily News, the campus paper he would serve as faculty adviser.
Next, he returned to Ball State in the mid-1950s to earn his master’s degree, taken in social science education. He earned his doctorate in 1970 from Indiana University with majors in mass communications and higher education.
Conn’s journalism career began as a high schooler in his hometown of Marion, Ind., working as a sportswriter on the Chronicle. After graduation, he went into the Navy for a year, where continued his reporting.
Next, Conn went to the University of Kentucky, where he finished his bachelor’s degree (major in journalism; minors in English and history) in 1950. While at UK, he wrote sports for the Kentucky Kernel.
After college, he worked for United Press in Louisville for a year, then went into the Air Force, where he wrote for the Savannah Airman.
Back in civilian life, Conn’s next stop was as wire editor at the Leader-Tribune in Marion, then to Richmond where he taught high school journalism and English and worked part-time at the Palladium-Item.
From Richmond, Conn came to Ball State, where he began in 1958 as journalism professor and faculty adviser to the Orient, Ball State’s yearbook. He served as editor of Quaker Life magazine from 1960-64 (leaving Ball State for a couple of those years) and advised the Daily News from 1967-72.
Conn is a long-time social and political activist. He counts his coverage for Quaker Life of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington as a career highlight and has written about that day’s impact _ on him and on the nation _ several times since. “Today, 25 years later,” he wrote in The Muncie Star in 1988, “it is as if I still stand in that mass of humanity. I hear King’s words. I feel myself enveloped by those decent and kind 250,000 people, and we are all changed by his words and by that day.”
In 1968, Conn was the Democrats’ 10th District coordinator for Sen. George McGovern’s campaign. Conn moved his support to McGovern after his chosen candidate, Sen. Robert Kennedy, was assassinated.
Conn also has long been a member of peace groups campaigning against the threat of worldwide nuclear war.
And then there is Conn the travel writer and profiler of celebrities. His most recent subject : Julie Andrews as the cover story in last June’s Saturday Evening Post.
In nearly 40 years as an academician, Conn has been prolific in chairing or coordinating seminars, roundtables and conferences on matters relating to journalism, communication, history and education.
Conn also has presented dozens of programs at gatherings of journalism educators and has contributed to textbooks and academic journals. One of his most recent writings is a book chapter titled “Mass Communication Education: Confronting Changes, Issues, and the Future.”
His academic and advising work earned him Ball State’s Outstanding Administrative Service Award for 1993-94.
Among Conn’s memberships are the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, College Media Advisers, Kappa Tau Alpha academic honorary (and its former national president) and the Society of Professional Journalists. Conn is quite familiar to the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, having served as its president from 1978-82 and again from 1983-89.
He has written widely about journalism issues _ frequently in such publications as Editor & Publisher, The Indiana Publisher, College Media Review and in several of Indiana’s newspapers _ mixing advocacy for press freedom with observations about how the media need to adjust to new eras.
Twenty-four years ago this month, he penned these words for The Indiana Publisher, words that have quite a contemporary ring.
“[Robust debate on public issues] has been the single, great principle of a free people served by a free press; though that press may be in error; though scandalous charges and counter-charges may be made; though evil and sinister men may use the press for their own ends; though the press may be guilty of gross stupidity; still, in the end, given the freedom to read everything written by everyone, the people will find the truth. Any effort to alter the equation, to call for some controls, to propose certain limits, to impose minimum restrictions must, of necessity, deny this marketplace of ideas its necessary full expression.
“… The press itself contributes to the problem, of course. Certainly, some of it is guilty of excess; certainly, some traffic in smut and trash; certainly, some are mightily concerned about making a fast buck; certainly, some are guilty of terrible oversimplification, parochialism and downright dumbness.”
He and many others found certain excess in media coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, story without end. In 1995, he sought to explain to readers of a half-dozen Indiana newspapers why the media were so interested in the trial.
“The O.J. Simpson story had it all,” he wrote. “Celebrities, sex, violence, race, emotions, drama. Whether we like it or not, most of us are drawn to these stories. Reporters might try to change what interests people about less compelling stories, say the war in Bosnia. But strong human interest pieces will continue to grab us.”
And then he turned to how to train today’s student journalists, tomorrow’s reporters and editors.
“Tomorrow’s journalists need to understand [that] a few future events will capture our collective attention. Perhaps this trial shouldn’t; perhaps it received far too much attention. Nevertheless, the fact is that as a nation we went through this trial together.
“The task of the reporter is to recognize community when it develops. So much separates us today that the reporter could play a major part in helping understand what they jointly experience. A sense of community seems more needed every day. The media could make a difference.”
There he goes again – looking into the future.