By Morgan Politzer
Carl Sessions Stepp began his journalism career in 1963 after his freshman year of high school, covering high school sports for his hometown newspaper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, according to his faculty profile on the Philip Merrill College of Journalism website.
“I had a byline in every issue of American Journalism Review for 25 years,” he said. “That’s what I think I’m proudest of.”
He went on to study journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he was an editor for The Gamecock, the university’s independent student newspaper.
“It was just so much fun,” he said. “I never stopped.”
After graduating, Stepp worked as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, now known as The Tampa Bay Times, covering the police beat and writing general assignment stories.
“I had a beat half [the] time, so I got to learn a little something about covering a beat, but then the rest of the time, every story was different,” he said. “And that was good experience, too – learning to do different things.”
After leaving the St. Petersburg Times, Stepp began to work as a legislative reporter and Washington correspondent, covering national news and the federal government for the South Carolina bureau of The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. He also held a series of editor positions, including city editor, where he oversaw the coverage of local news.
“My first or second day on the job as the capital correspondent in South Carolina, I entered a call that said the police chief of a little town nearby had been threatened with death — somebody wanted to kill him,” he recalled. “And [I was asked to] go spend a day with him and write about what it was like. That was very early in my career and it was pretty weird.”
By 1982, Stepp was the first national editor of USA Today. While he helped shape the paper into what it is today, he originally only applied there because he had to.
“My wife Laura and I were both editors down in Charlotte, and she was offered a job here at the Washington Post, so we decided to move up here,” he said. “I just interviewed around and that was the job that I got.”
At the time, USA Today was a new publication created as an attempt to become the first national newspaper covering general interest stories from around the country. As the national editor, Stepp was responsible for creating a vision of what national news coverage looked like. He assigned beats to reporters and determined how the stories would be covered. Stepp also served as cover story editor, editing the newspaper’s longer, more in-depth pieces.
But by 1983, Stepp was offered the opportunity to try something new. He began his teaching career at the University of Maryland after receiving a call asking if he was interested in taking a position as a professor in the journalism school.
“I always thought it would be fun to try teaching,” he said. “I was not unhappy with my newspaper job at all, but I thought it would be fun to try, so I did. I said if it d[idn’t] work out, I would just come back to the newsroom.’”
Stepp began working at the university full time in 1983, and contributed to the college-owned magazine, American Journalism Review, as a writer and editor. The magazine was given to the University of Maryland Foundation in the late 1980s, under the condition that producing it would not cost the university any money, according to an article on Poynter’s website.
In 2011, the ownership of the magazine was transferred to the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, and depended entirely on advertising and philanthropy while it was a printed publication. By 2013, the magazine was entirely online before publication ceased completely in 2015, according to a statement from Philip Merrill College of Journalism Dean Lucy Dalglish.
As a professor, Stepp has been able to work with students from across the country so they can succeed in becoming journalists.
“He was always so kind and just a genuine human being,” senior broadcast journalism major Megan Smedley said. “This year, I won an award for the Povich Center and Carl was also being honored. Despite not having me as a student for three years, Carl went out of his way to come introduce himself to my parents and say how proud he was to have me as a student. That’s how kind of a man he is.”
It is not unusual for faculty members to come to Stepp for help and advice as well.
“He’s just very thoughtful,” Philip Merrill College of Journalism Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Rafael Lorente said. “He’s one of my favorite people to go to and say, ‘Okay, I have this problem.’ I would often walk into his office…and he’d let me sort of think out loud.”
After 35 years of teaching, Stepp is preparing for retirement at the end of the semester.
“Everybody’s sad,” Lorente said. “On Facebook, there were alums who went berserk. For those of us in the faculty or the administration, he represents a combination of institutional memory, and that’s really a valuable thing to have, but he also represents this sort of thoughtfulness and wisdom. Journalism went through this change, and he was there, sort of chronicling it.”
As of now, Stepp has no plans after he retires.
“My plan is to sleep in, have a cup of coffee, do what I want to the first morning, and go from there,” he said. “My favorite part of [teaching] is being in the class for students, and I will definitely miss that.”