NU Declassified: Joseph Medill, Chicago’s first influencer

Northwestern boasts the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, but do you know the story behind its namesake? Joseph Medill was a publisher of the Chicago Tribune, mayor of Chicago, and staunch abolitionist. Press play to hear more about who Medill was and the legacy he left behind.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: So, who do you think Joseph Medill was? 

GUESSER 1: Medill, like the school at Northwestern? 

GUESSER 2: A really rich guy that donated a lot of money. 

GUESSER 3: Literally no idea, was he the first big publisher or something? 

GUESSER 4: A donor to the Medill program?

GUESSER 5: I think Joseph Medill was probably the founder of Medill?

GUESSER 6: I have no idea.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Audrey Hettleman.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: And I’m Samantha Anderer. This is NU Declassified: Names You Need to Know, where we get the deets on names you’ve seen around campus, but probably haven’t thought about.  

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: For our first episode, we’re learning: who was Joseph Medill? For a look into Medill’s life, we talked with Medill Professor Roger Boye.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Joseph Medill had ties to the journalism industry, but that’s not all he was known for. 

ROGER BOYE: He was an editor, publisher, he was a partial owner of the Chicago Tribune and he first became involved with the newspaper in the mid-1850s. By the time he died in 1899, he owned virtually all of the stock in the Tribune. His other claims to fame: He was the first mayor of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, he was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln, he was an abolitionist. 

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Calling Medill a strong supporter of the Lincoln administration would be an understatement. As Medill Professor Alan Cubbage put it, Medill was a diehard Republican, and held a lot of power in Chicago’s political circles. 

ALAN CUBBAGE: It could be argued that Joseph Medill was the man who brought about the Civil War. Medill was incredibly influential, in first promoting Lincoln’s candidacy, and second, getting him nominated in 1860 at the Republican convention.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: The pivotal role Medill played in Lincoln’s election is demonstrated in correspondence between the two men in the late 1850s. In their letters, Medill encouraged Lincoln to continue climbing the ranks in the Republican party. 

ALAN CUBBAGE: It’s an exchange of letters between Lincoln and Joseph Medill, and Lincoln says, ‘Boy maybe we’re pushing too hard, maybe we should just try for the vice presidency instead of the presidency.’ And Medill fires back this letter saying, ‘We’re not interested in going for second best! We’re going for the presidency!’

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Some people actually credit Joseph Medill in part for getting Lincoln the Republican nomination for President in 1860. Here’s Professor Boye explaining more about that.

ROGER BOYE: The convention that year was in Chicago, and some people say he actually arranged the delegates at the convention in such a way that he put the Lincoln delegates, the people supporting Lincoln, down front, so that when he cheered it seemed like the whole Wigwam — that was the name of the auditorium — was erupting for Lincoln.

ALAN CUBBAGE: Medill set the tone that stayed with the Tribune. In the presidential election of 1876, the Tribune for the first time in its history didn’t endorse the Republican candidates and Medill came back and fired everybody on the editorial board.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: After that, they didn’t endorse another non-Republican until Barack Obama in 2008. After this Democratic endorsement, thousands of readers unsubscribed.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Medill’s grandson, Robert McCormick — yes, McCormick as in the School of Engineering — carried on his grandfather’s legacy as publisher and co-editor-in-chief in 1914. After his own career at the Chicago Tribune, he was actually the one who helped create Northwestern’s journalism school. 

ALAN CUBBAGE: In the early 1920s, there was a reporter at the Trib who pushed for the start of a journalism school for Tribune reporters. McCormick said, ‘Well that’s not enough, we need to really have something more strong, more than that.’ And so the journalism program was started at Northwestern.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Today, Medill’s legacy lives on through the success of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, established as the Joseph Medill School of Journalism in 1921 within the School of Commerce.

ALAN CUBBAGE: I think Medill would undoubtedly be very proud of what the school has become. I think Medill’s legacy is people like you: students, graduates.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: The success of Medill’s graduates is reflected in the work of its alumni, which include 40 Pulitzer Prize laureates. 

ALAN CUBBAGE: It’s just remarkable how good Northwestern students — Medill students — go on and have great careers. 

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Medill’s legacy also extends to programs affiliated with the school, such as the Medill Cherubs program for high school journalists, which Boye directs. 

ROGER BOYE: Person after person, when they apply they say, ‘I want to go to the very best school of journalism in the world.’ Time and time again, the idea that Medill is a high quality, highly respected program is reinforced, and part of that reason is the work that our alumni do. They are leaders in their profession in so many different areas.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: In order to understand what Medill stood for, you only need to hear one of his most famous speeches.

ROGER BOYE: ‘Preserve your independence, write boldly and tell the truth fearlessly, criticize whatever is wrong, and denounce whatever is rotten in the administration of your local and state affairs no matter how much it may offend the guilty.’ ‘Preserve your independence,’ that’s kind of a hallmark of Joseph Medill.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Samantha Anderer. 

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: And I’m Audrey Hettleman. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me, Audrey Hettleman and Samantha Anderer. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey. 

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]

Twitter: @SammyAnderer and @AudreyHettleman

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