I was thrilled today to be able to deliver a bit of good news to 65 graduates of the University of Colorado’s school of journalism and mass communication. Basically, I told them I think they’re entering the golden age of journalism. Here’s the text of the commencement speech I delivered:
Congratulations to you, class of 2010. I want you to know that I feel a special camaraderie with you – for several reasons. I graduated with a degree in communications 20 years ago this year. Like you, I entered the real world at a time of recession – and a bit of uncertainty. Perhaps some of you have felt uncertainty about your chosen field during the past couple years?
I had that feeling 20 years ago. And I’ve had that feeling more recently, too.
I used to be an investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. Two years ago this month, I walked into our newsroom to find the CEO of our corporate owner announcing the nearly 150-year-old newspaper (a newspaper older than the state itself) was being put up for sale – and if it didn’t sell in a month, it would be closed. You know, it didn’t take an ounce of any investigative reporter instincts to surmise that the paper might not sell – in a month, over the holidays, at a time when some people thought the country might be on the brink of the next great depression.
Some of you who are graduating today were in a class I was teaching that semester. I can remember a very frank discussion I had with the class that week. It went something like this: If you don’t have a fire in the belly to devote yourself to this field, you might want to quickly change your course of study, because as of this week, you’re competing for a job with me – and hundreds of other veteran journalists.
There were some shocked faces around the table that day. And, truth be told, one of them was my own.
So I am especially pleased to see some of those same faces here today – pursuing their dreams, embarking on what is sure to be an adventure.
And I am even more pleased to tell you that I now recognize you actually are embarking on this adventure at one of the most exciting times – perhaps the most exciting time – in the history of journalism and mass communication.
Why do I say that? Here’s my evidence:
Never have we had the ability to both gather information as quickly, precisely and reliably – or disseminate it as rapidly or widely – as we do today. Some of you – perhaps especially some of you parents – might be saying: Well yes, Laura, but the business models for journalism and advertising are collapsing. True. But at the same time, they are rebuilding. Many different models are evolving. We are witnessing creative destruction and we are witnessing the re-structuring, too.
These past few weeks have proven that to me.
When the Rocky Mountain News closed, I started something called I-News: The Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network. It’s a brand new kind of news operation, designed to fill the gap in in-depth news coverage. I-News is a nonprofit news service that focuses on in-depth stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told – either because producing them takes special technical skills or because these stories take more time or people than most newsrooms have to devote. We distribute these stories to places where people already look for their news: Their newspapers, TVs, radios and mobile devices. And through training, we help build the strength of those newsrooms, too.
Through I-News, we can actually get more in-depth, investigative reporting to more citizens.
Several students graduating today were among the first interns for I-News. Let me tell you what they did. The journalism they helped produce told citizens across the state that:
• Medical marijuana laws actually create a surplus of the drug that is feeding the black market here and in neighboring states.
• Universities across the state aren’t revealing all they know about sexual assaults against students, and that may be leaving other students at risk.
• Thousands of Coloradans with disabilities could live independently – and less expensively – if tax dollars were spent on home care instead of nursing homes. But the state lacks the infrastructure to make that happen.
These are stories that are important for us as a society to know. These are the kinds of things that citizens in a democracy need to understand and make decisions about.
In the old days – last year – these young journalists might have written one of these stories for a local newspaper. But today – in just the past few months – the stories these budding journalists helped produce were not only published locally in the Boulder Daily Camera, but also appeared in the Denver Post, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Greeley Tribune and Colorado Springs Gazette. They aired on Colorado Public Radio and Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations across the state. And the were broadcast statewide on Rocky Mountain PBS.
That’s not even counting the lives these stories took on in the social media realm – the power of which I believe we are just beginning to see. One story hit the Top 5 nationally on Digg, for example. It and the others produced thousands of blog posts, Facebook comments and Tweets.
More people had access to these stories now – in the midst of the crisis we’re experiencing in this field – than they ever would have had in the “good old days.”
This is the era of journalism and communication that you are entering today. It is very powerful and very exciting. Yes, it’s also very volatile. And at times it will feel very uncertain.
But if you’ve done your job here, then you are beginning to learn the skill of critical thinking. This, by the way, turns out to be a lifelong pursuit. And if the university has done its job, you will be able to combine this skill with the knowledge and understanding you gained over the past few years to be able to take advantage of each opportunity that presents itself as your life unfolds after today.
The field you have chosen is a noble one. I promise you: It will be worth the struggles you will face in the coming years to have the honor of participating in it. You will help reshape what this field becomes.
Very few generations get that kind of opportunity. I hope you seize it.