Back Story WITH Frances McDavid

McDavid working at the Daily Herald in Columbia, Tennessee, in 1976.

Forty-two years after joining The Reflector staff as a student, I still help produce the twice-weekly newspaper. Now as adviser, I work with students as they tell Mississippi State’s story.

As a senior communication/journalism major in 1975, I wrote for a rare summer edition before serving as state editor until my December graduation. That work set the foundation for my 10-year career as a working journalist followed by 29 years teaching journalism at my alma mater. It also set the course for my family life.

After attaining an MSU graduate degree between two journalism jobs, I became a temporary journalism instructor in 1988. That job stretched beyond temporary.

At the beginning of my teaching career, I was appointed to the Student Publications Committee that loosely oversees the newspaper’s operation. In 1998, I became co-adviser for a year with my mentor, journalism teacher and friend, Henry F. Meyer, who worked with the newspaper staff across four decades. After he retired the following year, I became half-time adviser, half-time journalism instructor.

Much has changed in the industry over my years with The Reflector, but the fundamentals of collecting and writing information mostly remain unchanged. Up until the late 1990s, editors pasted up newspaper pages using long strips of text coated in hot wax. Today, editors use software to create page designs. Rather than waiting for twice-weekly paper distribution, students post stories and photos regularly on and break news over social media. The Reflector’s audience swells far beyond campus.

University officials have respected students’ First Amendment rights since a 1976 federal court decision recognized that The Reflector’s editors make all content-related decisions. Occasionally administrators discuss concerns with me or with the editors, but none have undermined the students’ control.

I don’t see finished work until after publication unless editors ask for specific insight. Then, or when I am aware of concerns, the staff and I discuss how professional journalists work and make decisions, the pros and cons of the choices they face, and potential legal and ethical ramifications. With guidance, young minds develop mature thought, and the staff typically makes excellent decisions.

Today’s Reflector confronts a decline in advertising revenue mirroring the financial crisis crippling newspapers across the country. The newspaper largely must support itself, so this results in smaller editions.

With continuing dedication to excellence, staff members regularly win regional and state awards. Regardless of their study areas, I develop a bond with students while we work and travel to conferences together. This keeps me optimistic about the future of journalism and our country.

My most rewarding relationships as student and teacher have come through The Reflector. Those days as a student journalist shaped me professionally and personally. During production of that long-ago summer edition, I met fellow staff member Sammy McDavid, the friend who became my husband. We married five years later, and our daughter, Mary Beth, completed our family four years after that.

Indeed, working on The Reflector staff as a student was time well spent.

A Starkville native, Frances McDavid is in her 30th year as an instructor in Mississippi State’s Department of Communication and her 20th as adviser to The Reflector. She earned a bachelor’s in communication, with an emphasis in journalism, and a master’s in public policy and administration from the university in 1975 and 1982, respectively. Throughout her career, she has received numerous honors. Most recently she earned Mississippi State’s highest award for student advising, as well as regional and national honors from the National Academic Advising Association.