COLUMBIA — Sometimes, it takes a journalist to know a journalist.
Megan McKinney, a Columbia native and former magazine journalist, knows this well.
Her first book, "The Magnificent Medills: America's Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor," chronicles the generations of journalism genius that made up the Medill family, Chicago's famous newspaper dynasty.
Although she now lives in Chicago, McKinney has strong ties in Columbia. Born at Boone Hospital Center, she was raised in Columbia, attended MU's University Laboratory High School and graduated from MU in 1956 with a bachelor's degree in English.
Like the Medills in Chicago, the McKinney family has left a legacy in Columbia and at MU.
From 1931 to 1978, her father, Fred McKinney, was a psychology professor at MU. The Fred McKinney Psychology Lectureship, named in his honor, now helps bring psychology professors from all over the country to give lectures at MU.
Megan McKinney's mother, Margery McKinney, enrolled at MU at age 46, which meant she was occasionally in classes with her daughter. Years later, Margery McKinney earned a master's degree in English and became senior editor of the University of Missouri Press.
The Margery McKinney Short Fiction Award, with a $750 prize for two writers of short fiction pieces, was established by family and friends after her death.
Megan McKinney answered questions about her first book and her frequent visits to her hometown.
Q: What gave you the idea to write The Magnificent Medills?
A: It combined two interests that I had. One is newspapers — from the days I was reading the Missourian — always through my life I have loved newspapers. When I came out here (to Chicago), I found myself sitting at dinner parties and at meetings with people whose great-grandparents had founded the city.
When Chicago Magazine did a story in 2005, I did most of the pieces and most of the families. That's when I decided, and told my agent, I think there is a book here. She agreed. We could not sell a book — New York editors were not interested in a group of Chicago families. So she said, "Why don't you do one dynasty?" I thought, "Wow, I'm going to do the great newspaper dynasty." That's the long way of saying it combined two interests of mine, newspapers and Chicago families.
Q: Can you describe what kind of innovations the Medill dynasty brought to journalism?
A: People ask me, "What do you think about the characteristics they share?" I think innovation. They had a gift for it. Joseph Medill Patterson really was an innovator. He really was the father of the modern comic strip.
When Harold Lincoln Gray came to him and said, "I have an idea for a comic strip about a little boy, and I'm going to call him Little Orphan Otter." Joe Patterson took one look and the picture and he said, "No, let's put a red dress on him and call it Little Orphan Annie." Little Orphan Annie was a phenomenon. When Sandy, her dog, was lost, Henry Ford sent a telegram from Detroit ... and he said, "Please find Sandy for us. We are all concerned."
Joseph Patterson also pretty much invented the Sunday newspaper, and that is the flagship for any paper now. It drives the circulation for the rest of the week, and it leads the paper and is the showcase of the paper.
My favorite chapter in the book is the development of the New York Daily News. It was very slow at the beginning; people didn't understand this new form of newspaper. When it took off, it really took off, and it's the most successful paper, ever, in America.
Col. (Robert R.) McCormick was the first newspaper tycoon to recognize the electronic media as a companion for print journalism rather than its competitor. He formed WGN radio, which is a superstation still. They now have a television superstation. Then he established the Mutual Broadcasting System, which was more than 100 independent radio stations around the country. Just a lot things like that. He was an amazing guy, Col. McCormick.
Q: What kinds of things do you like to do when you're back in Columbia?
A: My sister, Doyne McKenzie, is wonderful about driving me around. To drive around the area is so beautiful; it is so lovely. We go out and drive the country roads in all directions. I like to see friends. I love Columbia. My sister lives in the house on Thilly Avenue that I grew up in. So, it's wonderful to be able to go back and sleep in the room that was my room from the age of 2. Thilly Avenue is a wonderful neighborhood. It has changed very little.
Q: Is there a date in mind for when you would like to have your next book out?
A: I'd like to have it out in 2014. It takes three years. It will be about another Chicago family or possibly another Chicago person. I have a pretty good idea, but I'm not exactly certain what it will be.