I’m giving the commencement speech today for the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. I graduated from the J School back in 1978 and I was stunned when the dean asked me to be the commencement speaker for the December graduating class.
I thought I’d share the speech here. It’s going to be most relevant for students who are contemplating becoming a journalist…
How many of you have ever been so scared that your knees buckled?
It happened to me once in the Missourian newsroom. I was a junior and I was frustrated because I didn’t have a beat. I was assigned to a team that was supposed to produce stories for the newspaper, but we hadn’t generated a single byline.
I decided that the only way to land a beat was to talk to George Kennedy, the Missourian editor, who scared the hell out of me.
Before spring break, I decided to make my case to Kennedy and it was when I was approaching his desk in the middle of the newsroom that me kneed started to give out. Kennedy listened to my pitch, but he didn’t promise anything. When I returned from spring break and looked at the beat assignment, Kenney had assigned me to cover city hall. I was thrilled.
The Most Popular College Major
By far, the biggest percentage of college students today — 21% — are graduating with business degrees. These graduates want to make money and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’d suggest, however, that the key to succeeding financially and professionally in journalism, business or any other career is to choose something that you are good at and passionate about.
Unfortunately, I don’t think passion is given enough attention when students and parents talk about possible college majors and future career plans. I write a college blog for CBS MoneyWatch and the two most popular posts that I’ve written in 2010 focused on the 20 best-paying college degrees and the 20 worst-paying college degrees. Since August when I wrote those posts, they’ve had close to half million hits. And this is no fluke. The most popular post that I wrote in 2009 was also on the same subject.
If you read my blog posts, you’d discover that journalism isn’t on the list of the best-paying or worst-paying degrees. Most of you probably assume that business has got to be near the top of the most lucrative degrees, but it isn’t. It’s 60th on the list. What’s more, the salary that the typical business major makes in mid-career is about what the typical journalist earns.
Research has shown that it’s not the specific college major that matters once you’re in the workforce, but rather the passion and talent you possess for what you end up doing.
It’s so much easier today for young journalists to pursue their passions than when I was in journalism school. And yet if you listen to my peers — journalists who are old enough to be your parents – you won’t hear that story. Many of these journalists are depressed right now because the media worlds they knew are crumbling.
Journalism certainly is different. I was a young reporter at the Los Angeles Time during a period when journalists there routinely referred to the newspaper as a velvet coffin because it was such a cushy place to work. When reporters at the LA Times, for example, had to fly more than 500 miles, we were booked in first class. Imagine that. No one would ever call newspaper jobs cushy today.
Despite the gloom, I think this is a grand time to be getting started in journalism because the Internet has made the field far more egalitarian today. You can become an expert on anything. You can share your opinions and what you know across the globe thanks to blogs, YouTube, Facebook and a ton of other platforms.
Young journalists also don’t have to deal with the ridiculously small number of gatekeepers that the profession used to have. When I was a newspaper reporter eager to break into better markets, there were typically just two newspapers in every major town. Of course, now there are less. If the editor reviewing resumes wasn’t interested, you were out of luck. As a newspaper reporter, I lived in Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles and I can tell you that I never would have chosen to live in any of those cities, but as a newspaper reporter I felt compelled to follow the opportunities.
Thanks to the Internet, the number of professional connections you can make are limitless and so are the opportunities. Here are just three of my favorite examples:
Joshua Fisher, a Dodger fan and law student at the University of Minnesota, has always been intrigued by the financial side of baseball. When the couple which owns the Los Angeles Dodgers became embattled in a nasty divorce fight, the student began covering the trial. Fisher created a blog called DodgerDivorce.com that went viral and he has become a go-to-expert on the topic. ESPN has interviewed him and he’s a frequent guest of LA sports talk radio. He has baseball executives following his commentaries.
As Fisher noted in a New York Times article, “Employers like people with a story and I have a better story now than I did a year ago and I see the difference.”
Here’s another example: Lauren Luke was a British taxi dispatcher when she decided to sell makeup on eBay. The young woman was passionate about makeup and she videotaped her beauty tips at her computer. Unlike all the graduates sitting here in Jesse Hall, she didn’t know how to edit her videos so she uploaded them to YouTube, mistakes and all.
Lauren became a monster hit on YouTube, which led to a consulting job with a major British cosmetic firm, a beauty columnist gig at the highly respected Guardian newspaper, a book contract and her own makeup line.
Here’s one more example: Zac Bissonnette, who I happen to know, is an art history major at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He writes a financial blog for AOL, he’s a contributor to the Daily Beast and he’s a best-selling author. The name of his Amazon bestseller is Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents.
How did he manage to do all this? Zac is a talented and passionate young man and a wonderful writer. And he’s also savvy. He decided that it would be easier to succeed if he had mentors. He set about cultivating powerful people in the financial journalism world with a simple tool – email. He started emailing some industry leaders with the hopes of networking. That’s how he ended up knowing Andrew Tobias, a bestselling financial writer, Susie Orman and others. Zac’s electronic networking has paid off and he isn’t even out of college yet.
What I’m trying to illustrate in sharing these examples of young people making their mark is this: Journalism is alive and kicking, it just looks different. Please don’t let all the Debbie Downers who are whining about the state of journalism today get you depressed. This is a fabulous time for twentysomethings to be in this profession.