Portions of this article appeared in [b]a June 17 SPJ Works blog post.
Richard Roth delivered his hometown morning newspaper, the Evansville Courier, every day when he was in sixth grade. When he got home, his father would already be awake.
“My father would be sitting at the table, reading the newspaper and drinking his coffee,” Roth said. “It was a way to travel around the world, by reading the newspaper.”
And that’s when Roth realized he wanted to become a traveling journalist. Nowadays, Roth is the senior associate dean for journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar. He has traveled around the globe, from Norway to Australia, seeing the places he dreamed about in his youth.
He participates in Northwestern faculty meetings held in Evanston, Ill., from his Qatar office and has served as associate dean for the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism since 1998. He was part of the original panel that discussed a potential campus in Qatar.
“It’s a big adventure and a big opportunity to really have some impact on the media, especially in part of the world where free speech and free press are often repressed,” Roth said.
The Qatar campus is now two years old. In another two years, the first group of journalism students will graduate. Ten years from now, they hope the Qatari media landscape will change partly due to Northwestern journalism alumni.
SPJ has now become a part of that mission. Though there are seven hours separating SPJ headquarters in Indianapolis and Qatar, Roth and his students hope to start up the first international student chapter. They are one of the fastest-growing student chapters already, with 55 four-year members and counting.
“Going from zero to 55, you can’t do that in a Maserati,” Roth joked.
He also will serve as the Qatar chapter adviser and hopes that their first meeting will be in October when school is in full-swing. His goal is to have a past SPJ president or president-elect Hagit Limor attend their first meeting. The university even hopes to send some students to the 2011 SPJ Convention in New Orleans.
Roth said the core of U.S. journalism is the same as Qatar’s journalism, but professors in Qatar have to teach students different strategies to gather information. For example, there’s no Freedom of Information Act, no press conferences, he said.
“Doing journalism here is a hard thing to do,” Roth said. “There’s no history here of free speech. When they go out, people don’t talk to them.”
His students are interested in learning about western journalism and staying connected to it, he said. To get students revved up about starting a chapter, he visited journalism classes and spoke about SPJ, saying that the organization began with students 100 years ago and that if NU Qatar students were interested, they should continue on with the tradition.
Roth has been a member of SPJ since 1968, and he joined as a student when it was still primarily called Sigma Delta Chi. He has served as national Education Committee chairman, as Region 5 director and as a chapter adviser to the DePauw University chapter, where SPJ was founded in 1909.
He started his journalism education at Indiana University, where he had every intention of becoming a journalist. He went to work a week after graduation at the Buffalo Courier-Express in New York. As a cub reporter, one of his first assignments was to cover Attica Prison. He visited the facility a handful of times and got to know prisoners, who were some of the worst criminals in the state. He was present when hostages and inmates were killed in what was known as the bloodiest prison riot in American history. He was 22 years old, and his coverage of the riot boosted him from “cub reporter” status. His work earned him a 1972 Pulitzer Prize nomination.
After covering city government at the Buffalo paper, he moved on to Terre Haute, Ind., to become editor-in-chief of the city’s newspaper. Six years in Indiana went by and a friend sent him a Washington Post advertisement for an associate professor position at DePauw University.
“It was accidental, and it turns out I had a bit of a knack for it – for teaching,” Roth said. “I love spreading the word about journalism.”