Professor Joe Starita to retire after 21 years

Monday, April 26, 2021 - 5:30pm

Journalism professor Joe Starita will retire June 30, 2021, after 21 years at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. During his time in the college, Starita led the college’s award-winning depth reporting program, taught journalism ethics to hundreds of students and authored three award-winning non-fiction books that enhanced our understanding of Native American history.

The College of Journalism and Mass Communications’ depth reporting program focuses on producing professional-quality depth reports on topics of social importance. Students reporting for projects led by Starita have covered topics ranging from migrant workers to ethanol and worked in locations as close as Nebraska and as far as Sri Lanka. Many students credit Starita's tutelage in the depth reporting program for launching their careers in journalism.

Most recently, a group of students from across the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus examined the impacts of Climate Change on Nebraska and potential solutions to the current crisis. The project and Starita’s leadership had a profound impact on the students involved.

“Joe has made me a better writer, a better reporter and a better person,” said Aila Ganic, a junior political science major. “My experience with Climate Change Nebraska has been one of the most significant I have had, and Joe is a major reason for that. I will always take the power of in-depth reporting with me throughout my career.” 

Starita also led the 2017 depth reporting project “Wounds of Whiteclay,” which examined the devastating effects of beer sales in the small town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation located in South Dakota. The project won the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards Grand Prize, the first collegiate project to ever do so.

Many of Starita’s students have gone on to lead impressive careers in journalism. Erin Schulte Collier participated in Starita’s depth report that examined the resurgence of bison on the Great Plains. Schulte Collier credits Starita with giving her the confidence to be competitive as a reporter. 

 “Joe asked me to write the feature story for the magazine, which was something I had little confidence I could do,” Schulte Collier said. “The story later won the national Hearst Journalism Award for in-depth reporting, which helped give me confidence that I could produce complex work and be competitive as a reporter and writer. 

Schulte Collier later went on to work as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and as a senior editor at Hearst and Fast Company. 

Paige Cornwell participated in the Native Daughters: Oklahoma depth reporting project.

“Joe taught his students that getting a scoop or a deep exclusive is important, but just as important is the humanity of a story,” Cornwell said. “I am living my dream because of Joe Starita.”

Cornwell is now a reporter at The Seattle Times and was part of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning team for her coverage of a deadly landslide in Oso, Washington.

Other former Starita students fill the desks of such prestigious journalism organizations as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Dallas Morning News.

Starita not only taught students the craft of journalism, but he also ensured they understood the importance of journalism ethics and how to examine issues and make decisions throughout their careers that would protect the integrity of their work and the journalism profession. 

Nearly every semester, Starita could be found in front of 120 senior journalism and mass communications students in the college’s required course, Media, Ethics and Society.

Starita was a tough instructor ensuring that every student who passed through his class graduated as an ethical and responsible journalist and communicator. But Starita also knew how to have fun in the classroom. At the end of each semester, he would reward the students for their hard work by hosting a karaoke dance party during the last class.

Outside the classroom, Starita’s research has enriched the public’s knowledge and awareness of the important roles Native Americans have played in our country’s history. Interested in American Indian history and culture since his youth, Starita has published three works on Native American history. His first book "The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge - A Lakota Odyssey'' was published in 1995 by G.P. Putnam and Sons (New York), has been translated into six languages and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book traces the history of six generations of a Lakota-Northern Cheyenne family.

In 2009, St. Martin's Press published "I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice” about the life and death of Standing Bear, the Ponca chief who, in 1879, unwittingly ended up in the crosshairs of a landmark legal case. The book has since been scripted for a biopic movie set to be filmed in Nebraska. 

His most recent work, “A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor,” is the story of an Indian woman who became the first Native American doctor and effectively became the chief of an entrenched patriarchal tribe. The book was published in 2016.

Through countless talks, book signings and public appearances through the United States, Starita has educated the public about these important Native American people. 

“Many people see Joe in action as an expert scholar, journalist, author, or professor, and he is all of those things. But what I appreciate about him the most is that he takes all of those roles he plays and turns around and shares his experiences, his talents, and his passions with regular people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to access those things,” said Chris Sommerich, executive director of Humanities Nebraska. “It is a rare gift he has, and even rarer that he is willing to devote so much of his time to telling the stories that should be told.”

Starita’s interest in the Native American community extends far beyond their history; he is committed to supporting their future as well.  In 2012, Starita established the Chief Standing Bear Journey for Justice Scholarship, which is funded through book royalties and donations.

“Joe has worked selflessly to help Native students attain scholarships to achieve their dreams of higher education,” said Molly O’Holleran, commissioner with the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education. “He inspires us to open doorways for young Native Americans through these educational opportunities.” 

Since its establishment, the scholarship has supported 27 Native students' pursuit of a college education. The endowed fund will continue to provide scholarships in the years to come.

Beverly Deep Keever, a pioneering Vietnam War correspondent and friend of Starita, commended him for his commitment to the Native American community. 

“I commend Joe for his overflowing heart, and his vision,” Keever said. “His book and this fund speak to the power of significant journalism--and journalism that unearths what might be called the lost history of America. And of Nebraska too.”

Throughout his career, Starita has won many awards for his work including the 2019 Sower Award from Humanities Nebraska, the 2017 Chief Standing Bear Humanitarian Award from the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, the Leo Reano Memorial Award from the National Education Association and the History Award Medal from the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. He is also a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

Before joining the journalism faculty in 2000, Starita spent 13 years at the Miami Herald and served as the paper's New York bureau chief from 1983-1987. He also spent four years on the Herald's Investigations Team, where he specialized in stories exposing unethical doctors and lawyers. 

For the past 21 years, Starita has brought his energy, passion and relentless pursuit of excellence to the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. His legacy will live on through the work of his students and those who have had the chance to learn from Starita.

Colleague and friend professor Rick Alloway summed up the journalism education legacy Starita leaves behind.

 “Joe, you have influenced decades of writers,” Alloway said. “If the adage is accurate about the ripples emanating from a pebble tossed into a body of water, in your case the ripples would extend beyond the horizon.”