Spring is upon us and with it comes commencement season at universities across the country (Harvard's 358th commencement is this Thursday, FYI). This is a tough time for graduates in almost every discipline, but especially so for journalism grads. At least that is the conventional wisdom.
Which is why it is so refreshing to see a shift in perspective occurring (perhaps even, gasp, a paradigm shift?) at two of this country's preeminent journalism schools: the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. In commencement speeches last month, Nicholas Lemann and Barbara Ehrenreich both exhorted the graduates to view these difficult times as an opportunity to reinvent journalism.
From Nicholas Lemann's speech at Columbia (posted by Clay Shirky because Columbia didn't see fit to post it!? - I guess that answers my question about a paradigm shift):
It's amazing to think about how many new journalistic forms have been developed over these last few years, because of the Internet: blogs, wikis, interactive graphics, animations, audio slide shows, and so on. If you keep constant our basic mission of gathering, assessing, and presenting information, the specific ways in which we do this are changing more rapidly than at any time I can remember. And we don't get to decide on our own how they change-that depends on what the technology permits us to do, what provides an economic basis for our work, and what our audiences respond to. This is not a time for journalists to say, "We have decided that the traditional news story is the best basic form of news delivery, so we're doggedly sticking with it." This is, instead, and more interestingly, a time for experimentation, which also means it's a time for listening.
Second, and more broadly, we have been in the habit of assuming that whatever appears in a newspaper or a magazine or on a broadcast or a news organization's Web site is available there uniquely, and represents a distinctive and irreplaceable contribution to public life. I spent a lot of my time these days talking to non-journalists about journalism, and I can tell you that we all have to learn to make a more sophisticated argument for ourselves.
So this is your charge. You will not only have to reinvent journalism, you will also have to reinvent the conversation about journalism, making it less internal to the profession, and more interactive with the rest of society. That's an enormous job; I wonder whether any generation of journalists has had a more momentous mission than yours. But, to me, and I hope to you too, it sounds like fun.
Barbara Ehrenriech echoed similar thoughts in her speech to the graduates at UC Berkeley (available on the school's website), noting that they will be trying to "carve out a career . . . within what appears to be a dying industry" but in the end, "we will not be stopped."
We are not part of an elite, akin to movie stars, anchorpersons and hedge fund managers. We are part of the working class - which is exactly how journalists have seen themselves through most of American history- as working stiffs. We can be underpaid, we can be jerked around, we can be laid-off arbitrarily - just like any autoworker or mechanic or hotel housekeeper or flight attendant.
But there IS this difference: A laid-off autoworker doesn't go into his or her garage and assemble cars by hand. But WE - journalists - we can't stop doing what we do!
As long as there is a story to be told, an injustice to be exposed, a mystery to be solved, WE WILL FIND A WAY TO DO IT. And what is so special about YOU, compared to a grizzled old veteran like me, is that you possess a multitude of new skills so that you can invent and CREATE NEW WAYS TO DO IT.
A recession won't stop us. A dying industry won't stop us. Even POVERTY won't stop us because we are ALL on a mission here. That's the meaning of your Berkeley degree. Do not consider it a certificate promising some sort of entitlement. Consider it a LICENSE TO FIGHT.
And consider this day to be your induction into a kind of knighthood-or samurai brotherhood and sisterhood. You are not civilians any more. You are journalists, which means you are part of a worldwide, centuries-long fight for truth and justice.
In the 70s, it was gonzo journalism. For us right now, it's GUERILLA journalism, and we will not be stopped.
To these inspiring speeches I'd add the following additional points: Most of you will not be working for "traditional" journalism organizations. Many of you will be freelancers using tools such as blogs, wikis, and micro-messaging (ala Twitter). Some of you will start or join online-only ventures. These "facts" should be viewed as presenting opportunities, not limitations. And lastly, the Citizen Media Law Project is here to help you with the legal issues you'll likely face as you reinvent journalism.
It's time to get to work.