Brian McGrory said his “native habitat is a newsroom.” And in his new role as the chair of the journalism department at Boston University, he’s hoping to make BU more like home.
McGrory took the post earlier this year after serving as editor of The Boston Globe for over a decade.
“I’m used to measuring my productivity in minutes online and days in the daily paper, and suddenly in academia, it’s a little bit longer term,” he said. “And you get to step back and you get to think more about what you’re doing and take a more holistic look at things.”
This look includes a fresh vision for journalistic education — namely, that journalism programs can meet the demand left by a failing system. McGrory didn’t mince words when talking about the challenges journalism faces today.
“Journalism is under threat because the business model was profoundly disrupted. And disrupted is really a polite word for, it was just completely annihilated,” he said.
He pointed to the loss of local papers as a key area where BU’s student newsrooms can fill the void.
“I think [the program is] working really well already,” McGrory said. “But I think we can actually take it up a notch, and do it at a time when I’m hearing left and right from people who are running news organizations that are trying to fill news deserts that have cropped up because of the disruption to the industry.”
BU currently has two student-run news publications: The Daily Free Press and the BU News Service. Though this idea is in its infancy, McGrory sees the potential for student newsrooms to report on a professional scale.
“In my perfect world, we would actually build a newsroom right here in this building, and it would be professionally staffed with editors who would work with faculty and students,” McGrory said.
It’s a vision informed by his own experience at The Globe, and it’s clear McGrory has a passion for the newsroom itself. He dreams of one day teaching a class in which students invent their own news organization from the ground up by brainstorming new approaches to the industry.
McGrory knows better than anyone that these dreams will take time to flesh out. In the meantime, he’s excited to be teaching an introductory course on news writing at BU in the fall. He also remains an opinion columnist at The Globe, something he said is important to him.
“I wasn’t ready to leave the business,” McGrory said. “And, bluntly, I probably wasn’t ready to leave The Globe. So, the idea of keeping my hand in it, I think, is really important to me. I also think it’s important to BU and the students in the program to have somebody in the role I’m in, still having a hand in the actual production of journalism.”
McGrory joined BU after 34 years at The Globe and over 10 years as its editor, a period which spanned career-defining moments such as Donald Trump’s presidency and the global pandemic. One of the most personally profound for him was The Globe’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, four months into his role as editor. Globe reporters earned a Pulitzer for their coverage, but as McGrory recalls, the celebration was bittersweet.
“When we won the Pulitzer for that, we didn’t erupt in cheers or anything like that. What we did was take a moment, a long moment of silence, to remember the people who died and the many, many people who were injured over the course of that week,” he said.
McGrory said the importance of their coverage to the community was more meaningful than the Pulitzer itself.
“We knew all these news organizations were going to be there,” he said. “We also knew they were going to leave, and that the Boston Globe was there to represent the victims for as long as it took. And we needed to do that with empathy and with humanity. And I think that’s what separated us from everybody else in this story.”
While McGrory’s new position now focuses on the smaller student community of BU, he believes student journalists can impact the community at large, not unlike those reporters at The Globe. At the end of the day, McGrory hopes his experience and vision will bring greater prestige and productivity to BU’s journalism program.
“What I want to do is tell a lot of stories through students. And quite literally, I want students to tell great stories in news organizations all over the place and learn the craft that way,” McGrory said. “I want the story of BU’s journalism program to be the story that it is the best in America.”