Home > Uncategorized > Who Can Say His Favorite Class Was Economics?

Who Can Say His Favorite Class Was Economics?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on June 2, 2009

Actually, I can.  I was a sophomore in college when I took Econ 51 with Walter Johnson (no, not the hall of fame pitcher).  Johnson was already known as one of Mizzou’s best professors when I sat down in his class.  But that’s not why I took the course.  I took it because I had to.  My school made me take it.  The idea was to be sure, as budding journalists, that we had a broad education in a lot of different areas we might cover.  So we took history, science, a foreign language, economics, and more.  In fact, we couldn’t even have a minor back then—no more than two course in any one subject allowed.

So, as I sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair with 400 other pre-journalism, business, and econ students, I was ready to hate the class.  What could this old man leaning over me from the stage, glasses perched at the end of his nose, tell me that would interest me?  Well, you can see where this is going.  With every lecture, Johnson pulled me into the world of economics and began to make the world make sense in the place where I lived.  The thought of spending a semester on this topic gave me chills in August, but by the time the class ended in December, I had warmed to my favorite non-journalism topic in college.

Thirty years have passed and so has Walter Johnson.  But the impact he had on me and thousands of other journalists remains.  And what better time to test what I know about the economic world than now.  Journalists at every level, from small local station to major financial network, have had to work on stories relating to money, finance, labor, credit and much more.  And every time I look over a script involving the mortgage crisis or some new unemployment numbers, I go back to a lecture I had in Middlebush Hall that taught me something about the topic.

But younger journalists may not have had the benefit of a good economics education.  Sure, most journalism and communication schools have some requirement in that subject area.  But in many cases students can take either micro or macro economics—but don’t have to take both.  That leaves them with a gap in knowledge connecting what we all do as individual engines of economics and how those engines combine to drive the overall national economy.

Now, being RTNDA Chairman does not give me the right to dictate how you run your newsroom.  But if every news director in America gave me that power for a day, I would make sure every reporter and producer knew the basics of how our economy works.  Can your journalists answer econmics questions off the tops of their heads?  Try this alphabet soup approach:

-What is amortization?
-What does it really mean when a company goes into bankruptcy?
-What are capital gains?
-What’s the difference between the deficit and the national debt?
-What are economies of scale?

You can come up with a common economic term for every letter of the alphabet (though I have to admit that “X” and “Z” may be a bit of a challenge). Make a game of it and spread them out over a month or more.  Pit the reporters’ aggregate score against the producers’.  With the right approach, you’ll have your team studying up for the next question—and won’t that get you where you ultimately want to be?

If you need some help trying to sort through just what’s important, RTNDA has a great partner to help.  The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) makes a mission out of teaching consumers, educators, and yes, journalists more about how our economy works.  The group has teamed up with RTNDA to produce sessions for our Las Vegas conventions. Its web site (nefe.org) is not only a great place to get economic information for journalists, but is also a source of story ideas you can localize.

I’m not sure how Walter Johnson would feel about this week’s news that General Motors is filing for bankruptcy protection.  I suspect, has I raised the question back in 1978, he would have been able to foresee a day when something that once seemed unthinkable could actually happen.   I’m wishing now I had asked him about what it might someday take to fix an ailing local television economy.

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  1. Lisa Hammer
    September 22, 2016 at 4:56 am

    good god I just googled walter econ 51 university of missouri and actually FOUND your article with his last name!! I just sent this sentence to the illinois governor and wondered what the professor’s last name was: You never took economics–you display no understanding of the unique nature of farming.

  2. Michael
    April 19, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    One of my favorite classes too, though I was an economics major and had Walter Johnson for more than just Econ 51. I went back and visited him just a couple years before he passed. I was not one of his best or brightest students, nor was I a memorable one for any other reason, but Walter Johnson remembered me and was even able to recall one of my Econ 329 final test answers. I was a polysci student when I took his Econ 51 and it was because of Walter Johnson and that class that I changed my major. Fond memories. And I never knew JSchool students were required to do that. I hope they still are. What great training.

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