Aaron Swartz, Eugene Patterson and the Legacy of Ralph McGill

Beleaguered on so many fronts, the industry still shows evidence of an enduring public service mission and an apprentice tradition that lighted the way for editors like [Eugene] Patterson and those who followed. In Atlanta, Ralph McGill, a legendary anti-segregationist editor, tutored a young Patterson, sharpening his focus, prose and resolve. That man in turn grew up to teach and inspire future generations of editors, me included, even as the stories evolved from segregation to death penalty law, gender inequality, immigration and more.

[Aaron] Swartz was not a journalist, but a programmer turned crusader whose work raises large and complex questions about who owns knowledge. And his ideals could be in conflict with the news industry’s business views on copyright and content control. But they are rooted in a historic journalistic debate that Patterson would have recognized, one made ever more urgent by the digital possibilities: Who controls access to information? When to publish and when not? What are the costs — financial, moral and personal?

— Ann Marie Lipinski, Nieman Foundation curator, drawing a connection between the editor Eugene Patterson and hacker (in the best sense of the word) and activist Aaron Swartz, who died a day apart. You can — and should — read Ann Marie’s entire piece here.

I was thinking of Ralph McGill, a personal hero of mine, as I read Ann Marie’s thoughts, in part, because it is reflexive to think of him whenever I think of Gene Patterson or certain other graduates of the McGill school. Then I ran into his name in the section quoted above and was reminded of how far his legacy has spread, how many people still believe that journalism can and must be used to challenge the worst in our world, to change the status quo. Even those who don’t recognize the name (my mother would call that a shonda) have learned from those who do like Ann Marie.

Add to that another reminder: in today’s world, the power of one-to-many no longer belongs only to the media or the government. That doesn’t change the responsibilities of journalists; it spreads the responsibility of change.

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