Missouri j-school commencement speech

Written by Adrian Holovaty on May 15, 2006

I had the honor of giving the commencement speech at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism (my alma mater) graduation ceremony on Friday. I tried to focus on helpful, realistic advice rather than the standard "This is the first day of the rest of your life" sort of thing. For anybody interested, here’s my written version of the speech, which I more-or-less stuck to, with a few deviations.

Thanks very much for the nice introduction, and thanks for having me. I’m deeply honored to be here with you today.

Well, 2006 grads, this is it. Congratulations. You’ve got the foundation.

You’ve got several years of hard-core journalism training. You’ve learned ethics. Reporting. Important legal issues. Hustle. Persistence. The importance of accuracy and fairness. All the journalism fundamentals. All the important stuff every journalist should never forget.

It’s really important to have that foundation. And, I’ve gotta say, you couldn’t have gotten the foundation from a better place. Since I graduated in December 2001, I’ve encountered several Missouri graduates in the industry and have consistently been impressed with their experience, integrity and dedication to quality journalism. You, and I, are in distinguished company.

The foundation that you got here is important because it will guide you for the rest of your journalism career. It’s important because, no matter what you do in this industry, it all comes back to that foundation. No matter how the industry changes, no matter how your jobs may change, it all comes back to the core journalism values you’ve learned here at Missouri.

But, most of all, the foundation is important because you need to understand the rules before you can break them. And now, more than ever, this industry needs to break some rules.

I’m not going to lie to you. This industry has seen better days. Newspaper circulation has been going down for decades. People’s trust in media is in the pits. The government is using an entire cable TV network for political gain. In a lot of ways, the media are failing.

Then there’s this whole Internet thing — which is clearly evil. Some guy in San Francisco runs a Web site, Craigslist, that lets anybody post a classified ad for free — completely bypassing the newspaper classifieds and, therefore, chipping away at one of newspapers’ most important sources of revenue. Why would I post a classified ad in a newspaper, which charges me money for a tiny ad in which I’m forced to use funky abbreviations just to fit within the word limit, when I can post a free ad to Craigslist, with no space limitation and the ability to post photos, maps and links? Google lets anybody place an ad on search results. Why would I, the consumer, place an ad on TV, radio or in a newspaper, if I can do the same on Google for less money and arguably more reach?

And, of course, the Internet affects those of us on the content side, too. There’s this blogging thing. According to the most recent State of the Blogosphere report from Technorati (an organization that tracks these sorts of things), 75,000 new weblogs are created every day, and 1.2 million blog entries are posted every day. Granted, a lot of those are drivel — "Today, I ate a ham sandwich" — but enough of them are substantial enough to have some editors worried there won’t be a *need* for journalism in a couple of years.

Now, I bring all of this up not to rain on the parade of graduation, but to offer the plain truth as a friendly kick in the pants as you walk out the door.

Graduates, the fire should be burning under each and every one of you. You should be yearning — aching — to bring this industry into a new age. Your generation — our generation — is going to be the one to do it.

You’re going to be the people breaking the rules. You’re going to be the people inventing new ones. You’ll be the person who says, "Hey, let’s try this new way of getting our journalism out to the public." You’ll be the PR person who says, "Let’s try this new way of public relations that takes advantage of the Internet." You’ll be the photographer who says, "Wow, quite a few amateur photographers are posting their photos online. Let’s try to incorporate that into our journalism somehow."

You’ll be the person who asks, "Why are we doing things the way they are?", and when the top editor says, "Because that’s the way they’ve always been done," you’ll openly question that. "Because we’ve always done it that way" doesn’t cut it. "Because we’ve always done it that way" is blatantly unacceptable, blatantly lazy, and you need to call that out.

The pressure’s on. :)

So think about how exciting that is. Rarely is an entire industry in a position such that it needs to completely reinvent itself.

That’s what keeps me going, personally: The challenge of coming up with the best ways of presenting news and information in this new world where the products the industry has been producing for the past several decades are no longer in as much demand. The challenge of writing the rules, coming up with best practices. That challenge is monumental — but, man, it’s fun.

For instance, just about a year ago I launched a side project, chicagocrime.org. It’s a Web site that lets you explore every crime reported in the city of Chicago — almost a thousand per day. The site’s updated every day, and you can explore neighborhoods, you can see crime maps, you can get notified whenever a crime is reported on your city block. It’s a reinvention of the classic newspaper police blotter.

Then, late last year, I helped put together a project at the Washington Post called the U.S. Congress votes database. It lets anyone, anywhere, browse every vote in the U.S. House and Senate, going back to 1991, and it’s updated every day. You can see the full voting record for any senator or representative, and you can get notified whenever your representatives vote.

These projects were very exciting to build, because nothing like that had ever been done in the journalism world. It’s not the same old city-council newspaper story, whose format really hasn’t changed over the past, oh, 50 years. And I’m not trying to bash city-council stories... OK, maybe I am. They’re boring. But they’re part of that foundation I was talking about. Start thinking about what’s good about the foundation and what’s bad about the foundation. Start experimenting. Start reinventing.

So you might be thinking, "Hey, I’m fresh out of college, only 21 or 22 years old, how am I going to have any sort of influence?" "Who’s going to listen to me," right?

Here’s the fun little secret. Editors are keenly interested in what young people have to say. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited to meetings in which it was blatantly obvious the only reason I was there was to provide the token young-person opinion.

Just the other day this sort of thing happened with a coworker of mine at post.com. This guy I work with is around 22 years old, and one day he happened to mention to his immediate coworkers that he has a Facebook account. Immediately the coworkers, who were in their 30s and 40s, were saying, "You have a Facebook account? You have a Facebook account?! We’ve heard so much about that. Lemme see, lemme see!" So he showed them, not thinking it was a big deal. But those older coworkers, not having been in college the past couple of years, were fascinated.

(Actually, Facebook was a bit before my time, too, so if anybody here has an account and is willing to show me, please come see me after the ceremony.)

You have a distinct perspective, so people are going to be interested in what you have to say. Take that opportunity and exploit it.

I encourage all of you to be opinionated — not in your news coverage, but within the companies you work for. If something doesn’t make sense to you, speak up. If people are doing things strangely or inefficiently due to decades of doing the same thing, call them on it. If you have an idea that you know in your heart is fantastic, make it known, and make it happen.

It might be hard at first, but, hey, eventually things change. You need to push for that change. You need to innovate.

And if you get frustrated at work, do projects in your spare time. Start your own thing. The Chicago crime site I told you about was just a side project for me; I did it because it was exciting to do something that hadn’t been done before. I know of two journalists in Chicago who both quit their jobs in professional media and have started doing independent journalism on the Web. And I know of more than a dozen journalists who keep blogs in which they write about the industry — what were good ideas, what were bad ideas, what the industry needs to do next.

The industry presses on. And you are the generation who will press it.

I extend my deepest congratulations to all of you and look forward to seeing what you come up with. Thanks again for having me, and congratulations.

Comments

Posted by paul conley on May 15, 2006, at 10:55 a.m.:

Adrian,

I'm an old Mizzou man myself.

So I'm thrilled to see that my alma mater had the wisdom to invite you to speak.

Paul

Posted by Ji Village News on May 15, 2006, at 11:17 a.m.:

Now I know you are a journalism major. I always thought you must have majored in IT in university.

Great job Adrian.

Posted by Mark Friesen on May 15, 2006, at 2:17 p.m.:

Excellent. I hope they got the fever.

We had some network guy I never saw on TV again. Can't remember a thing he said. (Although the champagne bottle we were passing around may have had something to do with that.)

And Paul, stop with the "old" stuff! I'm right behind you!

Mark

BJ '87

Posted by David Ryan on May 15, 2006, at 4:47 p.m.:

Congrats, Adrian, on being asked to give the commencement. Very well done. Love the smiley emoticon within the text :)

Posted by Jeff Croft on May 15, 2006, at 4:48 p.m.:

Great work, Adrian. All very well said. Must be an honor to get asked to do that. I also was going to note the emoticon. That made me laugh. An emoticon in a speech? Was that a note to yourself to smile at that point? :)

Posted by Wilson Miner on May 15, 2006, at 4:52 p.m.:

Well done! I wish my commencement speech had been so direct and relevant.

Jeff, these aren't actually notes for a speech. They're natural-language programming instructions for the AdrianBot.

Posted by James Wheare on May 16, 2006, at 12:06 a.m.:

Inspiring speech Adrian, thank you. I'm currently looking into switching to publishing and journalism as an alternative route onto the web and reading this was a powerful boost. These words resonate far louder than the rhetoric my architecture tutors have been spouting.

Between Wilson, Jeff and yourself, you World Online alumni have produced some of the most encouraging writing I've read in weeks. Thank you all.

Posted by Mizzou parent on May 16, 2006, at 12:02 p.m.:

I heard the speech at Mizzou. One comment that struck me as absurd was the contention that "the government is using an entire cable TV network for political gain". Is it simply beyond your comprehension that thinking adults in journalism might have legitimate opinions which differ from yours?

Posted by anonymous on May 16, 2006, at 9:53 p.m.:

First, great job Adrian. The speech was solid and pretty inspiring. You set the bar pretty high I have to keep reminding myself that it's ok if I haven't created my own web framework yet. :)

To the parent, journalism should be more about informing people of facts instead of opinions. It makes me think of this cliche: everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Posted by Mindy McAdams on May 22, 2006, at 9:21 p.m.:

That's a marvelous speech, Adrian. I hope they were all listening!

Posted by anonymous on May 24, 2006, at 1:47 p.m.:

I stopped reading after "The government is using an entire cable TV network for political gain." What are your sources for that off-the-cuff statement?

Posted by Adrian on May 25, 2006, at 12:32 p.m.:

anonymous: Ah, sorry to hear you stopped reading that high up. If I may say so, you missed out on some good stuff!

Posted by Dave Zeeck on May 30, 2006, at 9:18 p.m.:

Thanks, Adrian, for an interesting speech. It's been true in every generation. It's important to get in and fight for better journalism, to improve the craft and make it more relevant -- all while we hold fast to the standards we were taught at Mizzou.

Thanks for carrying the banner.

Dave Zeeck, BJ '73

Posted by Dan Richardson BJ '04 on June 5, 2006, at 12:35 p.m.:

As a fellow Mizzou (and NNHS) alumni, I have nothing but jealousy for the level of success you've reached. Congrats and well said.

Posted by John Henningham on June 17, 2006, at 9:26 a.m.:

It's good to see such a passionate affirmation of the role and purpose of journalism, together with the need for recruits to journalism to be aware of how important they are in the newsroom and that they can make a difference. Here in Australia I've also found that editors are keenly interested in the perspectives of young people -- not least for their take on how (or whether) their generation can become newspaper readers. The important point is that our new generation of journalists should maintain the core values of journalism while looking for new ways to apply them.

Good luck!

John Henningham

Director, Jschool: Journalism Education & Training

http://www.jschool.com.au

john@jschool.com.au

Posted by Sharon on June 22, 2006, at 9:16 p.m.:

Interesting speech, thanks for sharing. I've got just the teeniest of nits about your generational angle, and how THIS generation is going to be the generation that breaks all the rules and finally drags journalism into the 21st century Internet era. With all due respect, some of us have been fighting those battles for two decades now, starting with BBS and CompuServe experiments in the 1980s, going through endless arguments with editors about the importance of online in the '90s and dealing with "print vs. online" culture clash issues for 10+ years now. You don't have to be "digital native" to get it. If J-school grads enter the workforce with the idea that they're the only ones who understand how the Internet can best serve the broad consumer public at large (as opposed to their peers), they may end up with a case of age-related snobbery and disrespect for what their more experienced peers may have to offer - yes, even online as well as in print.

Posted by nigelduara on August 21, 2006, at 9:10 a.m.:

Saw this speech live, very cool to witness.

About the generational thing, I can say that evil empire I work for (it rhymes with Clarett) is in dire need of compu-savvy people. Posting web updates, making things look good online, these are things that seem to befuddle and confuse anyone in this particular newsroom over the age of 30.

Great speech, good points.

Nigel Duara, BJ '05

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