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Steve Missey '88: Guide and Guardian to Student Journalists

By Sam Fentress '15

The Prep News is in something like its third or fourth epoch, depending on how you measure it. For years after its inaugural issue in 1938, St. Louis U. High’s student newspaper ran every other week. There were iterations in decades before it: the Ludovican, Megaphone, Dauphinette. The University Prep News, as it was first called, was born as the school was pulling itself out of the paucities of the Great Depression; student publication budgets had been slashed for years.

The look of the Prep News remained relatively static until the early 1970s, when the publication shifted dramatically from newsprint broadsheets to a 3-column typewritten format on letter paper. 1973, in particular, marked a new era: the Prep News under the leadership of the English department’s Jim Raterman, who shepherded the paper into a standardized weekly production (following the direction of his predecessor, Fr. David Wayne, SJ).

By the mid-1980s, staffers were entering articles into a word processor on a primitive computing system; that setup collapsed near the end of spring 1988, after which the staff began to map out the Prep News on Aldus Pagemaker (now Adobe InDesign) using a gleaming batch of Macintosh computers. No more resizing each article on a copier or piecing together layouts with scissors and tape. That had been the standard of labor during the tenure of one young reporter, Steve Missey ’88, who during his junior spring semester cut his teeth on the varsity baseball beat (home-field advantage—he was himself a BaseBill) and became
a regular byline in the weekly’s pages therewith.

The Prep News found its first non-clerical moderator in Raterman years before the school appointed a lay principal (Paul Owens, in 1983) or president (David Laughlin, in 2005). After Raterman departed the paper in 1996, leadership shuffled. When the dust settled in the new century—the current Prep News epoch—the moderator left was Missey, who had been hired as an English teacher full-time in the 1994-95 school year, following service in the Alum Service Corps and as PN advisor under Raterman (he also left for two years in the mid-1990s to get a master’s degree). The immensity of Raterman’s influence marked his exit as the
de facto end of an era: who could replace him? Similarly, for the reporters, editors, photographers and artists who have poured themselves into the newspaper during the past two decades, the Prep News without Missey is unimaginable.

The weekly time commitment of the moderating job, which requires overseeing the production late into Thursday nights, is formidable for a full-time teacher with a family. But Missey sets the precedent of non-complaint, even when layout’s finishing touches spill into tender hours. He makes a point, instead, of the generosity of Julie, his wife; the time he gives to the Prep News is made possible by her sacrifice.

While Raterman saw the paper through the birth of personal computing, Missey has steered
the enterprise into the digital age. Those who have followed the trajectory of the paper speak admiringly of Missey’s unflagging dedication. No one is a more coherent and essential apologist of the Prep News,
the basic role of which is to report and reflect on—with rigor, fairness and open-mindedness—the
life of the school. In moments when that role has demanded clarification or defense (to outside skeptics or the paper’s own members), Missey has set a standard for passionate and eloquent articulation.

On the other hand, former editors told me, Missey’s greatest strength as a moderator may be his contention that the organization remain wholly student-run. The editorial vision of each volume of the Prep News reflects that of its editors, and student labor is the condition for its existence. The pace of weekly production demands that a moderator make constant calls about where to be hands-on, and hands-off—and be comfortable with relinquishing certain strata of decision-making to student editors.

Missey, fortunately, is acutely sensitive to each staffer’s strengths. He is an expert at long-term guidance, the process by which students begin to trust, over time, their instincts around how close a story is to being ready for print, or how the paper should cover a particular topic. Missey is patient, kind, encouraging and firm. The overarching ethic, which I heard over and over speaking with former Prep Newsians:

“Steve is willing to treat you like an adult, in the sense that he wants you to recognize that your opinions matter,” Jim Santel '08, editor-in-chief of Volume 72, told me. (During my own time working on the Prep News, I also recall feeling, on occasion, delightfully slow—though never a function of even faint condescension on Missey’s part. As a moderator, he tends to think three, four, five steps ahead; he is possessed of a critical agility that journalism often requires and from which the Prep News benefits greatly.)

The editorial standard Missey sets, drawn from the paper’s past leaders and an ambitious, cosmopolitan idea of what a high school weekly can do, proves infectious to those who devote their extra hours to the newspaper. “It’s really the little things—the attention to detail,” said Marty Johnson, ’15, who went on from his Prep News editorship to study journalism at Northwestern and work as a reporter in Washington, D.C. “That was something that he instilled, something that is extremely important as a writer.”

What kinds of detail? The placement of commas, the spacing between columns, the repetition of a word. Missey also teaches story structure and reporting. In our conversation, Santel shared a classic Missey phrase that will be familiar to any Prep News reporter who once labored on a piece for weeks only to find they’d overlooked a prime source: “This is really good, but the perspective that’s missing is this...” Missey prevents the paper from making grave errors, but not always slighter ones—part of the staff’s learning process, much of which is collaborative.

Under Missey’s watch, the Prep News has been a site of experimentation. In 2009, he supported the switch back to a broadsheet format, after four decades of letter-size editions. He has helped students fashion hundreds of commentaries, reflections and editorials over the years. This kind of writing entails adopting an alternate set of rhetorical positions and prose styles than is typical for news articles, and the flexibility that comes from this practice can be invaluable. Conor Gearin, a writer and the news editor of Prep News Volume 75, turned out a quietly illuminating column, “Notebook,” a chronicle of life at SLUH, built often out of observations of the mundane.

“[Missey] had an excellent eye for when I was getting in my own way or taking an intellectual shortcut in a draft,” said Gearin, emphasizing also the extent to which the Prep News moderator let him run free.

“He really helped guide my writing to a level I couldn’t have reached otherwise, while still letting me have my own voice and learn from my own mistakes.”

The significant load of labor which goes into making the Prep News is made much lighter by the accompanying camaraderie among its staff: the free periods spent chattering and tinkering, the half-day afternoons meeting and strategizing, the Thursday evenings building that week’s edition from the ground up. Missey keeps the right distance to allow fellowship to flourish apart from him, but surely it is also his stalwartness, his journalistic joie de vivre, that keeps the engine humming. “Let’s make a paper!” he declares after each week’s meal, or at least did in my time.

(Each Prep Newsian inevitably associates certain words with Missey for life—some universal, others particular. The one I return to is “triage,” a word I learned from him; Marty Johnson told me his is “non-negotiable.”)

Those who know Missey know he is always thinking about how he can do better with the Prep News; his reverence for its past is never a hindrance to conceiving its future. Jack Kiehl ’15 reminded me that at the end of each year, Missey encourages editors to take home a volume of the Prep News archive to dig around. Light summer reading—he is, after all, an English teacher.

“Whether or not this was his intention,” Kiehl said, “I was struck by the weight of being part of an institution that’s been there for 80-something years. I think [Missey] recognizes that—that he’s a moderator in a line of moderators who have been responsible for fostering the student journalists who are telling the story of SLUH.”

Sam Fentress '15, who served as Prep News Editor-in-Chief during his senior year at SLUH, is an assistant editor at The Atlantic.

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