Journalism needs you: A speech to college journalists

When I was invited to deliver a keynote during the National College Journalism Convention in Los Angeles Feb. 28, I wanted most of all to encourage young people not to listen to dumb arguments against choosing journalism. We need good people in journalism. And while it’s not an easy business, there are jobs. In fact, it’s hard to fill some jobs in my newsroom and I hear the same from other news leaders. Instead of telling young people not to go into journalism, we should be telling them how to excel. Here’s the text of the speech.

Hello and thanks for inviting me to speak. I’m delighted to be here with people who’ll be running the news business in the years ahead. I’ll say I knew you when.

I’m not doing a slide presentation – just talking. But if you’re inclined I’d love for you to tweet responses or reactions to anything I say – I’m @melaniesill.

Like many of you I found my first formative newsroom experience in college. Mine was at The Daily Tar Heel in North Carolina, where I did reporting and editing and even got assigned to cover the 1980 presidential election in Washington.

I went up there with a colleague and we divvied up the election night celebrations. I got Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, who was an independent candidate. He got Jimmy Carter, who was the incumbent.

Reagan won, of course. I had a fantastic time shuttling between the two celebrations and got back at 2:30 am to my friend’s grandmother’s apartment. I shared a cab with a famous reporter from the Washington Post, and felt very big-time.

I was elated. But my colleague had left me a note about how sad he was that Carter had lost. I knew then I was bound to be a journalist and not a political partisan.

So yes, I’ve been at this work awhile. You’re just getting going. Yet we’re on the same quest.

We think journalism matters — and we’re seeking the path forward.

The fact that you’re here tells me that you’re optimists. You have to be, to tolerate all the people telling you to get out of the business before you’ve even gotten into it.

I can’t give you the magic vision for how this is going to work out financially.

But I want to seize this moment to cheer for your careers in journalism.

You’ll have other options, and good ones. These days, all kinds of people are looking for smart, hardworking people who know how to tell stories. Product companies. Health insurers. The government. Political campaigns. Public relations. Marketing.

So yes, your skills do transfer. You’re smart enough to go to law school or technology or politics and probably into many other fields as well.

But back to my message: Don’t do any of that, at least not right away. First, if you love it, choose journalism.

Journalism is a thing. It’s a thing worth doing. It’s a service that’s needed in our society and in our democracy.

 

For awhile a lot of people seemed to want to declare journalism irrelevant or even dead. I think this was because they confused journalism with newspapers or other traditional media that have had to downsize so drastically. Let’s be clear – what collapsed wasn’t the value of journalism. It was the advertising business, especially for print media.

That certainly crushed the financial support for a lot of journalism. It cut the supply. But it never affected the demand – the need – for the service that good journalism can provide.

Journalism exists because people fundamentally want to know what is true — what’s really going on. We may be awash in information these days but many of us hunger for help in knowing what’s true and what news means.

I think good journalism remains valuable for those reasons. And here are my arguments for why you should do it.

First, we can do journalism today better than it’s ever been done before. That’s because we have new tools and opportunities – thanks to technology and also because this revolution has created whole new ways of communicating.

We’re limited only by our imaginations in how we tap into the new social order – how we talk to people as we report and how go beyond simply pushing out stories. How we witness and find witnesses – how we do original reporting – how we check facts, answer questions and tell amazing stories. We have social platforms for quick connection and interaction and lots of choices on how to connect.

For instance, at my radio station we’ve been reporting on voter apathy around the LA city elections coming up Tuesday. But instead of just getting sound from people who lament low turnout, reporter Meghan McCarty has been on a campaign called #MakeAlCare. Yes that’s a hashtag – check it out now. She identified a restaurant owner named Al who exemplifies the kind of person who used to vote and doesn’t anymore – and she’s trying to get him to care enough to vote on Tuesday.

People in the community are tweeting to Al on why he should vote. Candidates are campaigning to him personally. A political scientist came to his restaurant to show him the issues that affect him personally – and that are in play in the election.

For every Al there are thousands of others in his district who might not vote. He is a character who takes people into an important story. And he’s fun.

This is a small example. But the great thing about journalism disrupted is that it can be journalism reinvented. Start with what we’re trying to do for people, then figure out how to do it. We can know a lot more about the audience that is coming to us – we can get feedback of all kinds – we can ask for input before we report – we can connect our reporting to other good resources.

At KPCC, we do journalism on the air, on the web and through social media and in person. We have live events of all kinds – deep discussions about issues like immigration, fun gatherings for trivia night, live tapings of radio programs. People respond with incredible enthusiasm. Journalism can bring people together to look for insight in times that often seem really fragmented.

Have you listened to Serial? How about a new NPR podcast called Invisibilia? In the past year, more and more people are thinking about audio again as a way to tell stories for all of us folks walking around wearing earbuds. We’ll also soon be streaming audio in our cars.

So creatively, this is indeed a golden age for journalism.

Second, there’s a lot that needs covering. Think about all the change around us. Big capital-I issues like poverty, climate change and war. Hackers who can get into nuclear power systems or financial systems or movie studio email almost at will. Ebola in Africa and measles in California.

Think about your parents’ generation – maybe half of them have saved enough for retirement? There are lots of public pension systems in trouble. So will we have a lot more poor people as the Baby Boomers retire? What does that mean for young people trying to get ahead?

I could spend all afternoon listing issues that need more coverage. What is really missing is independent reporting – and reporting that doesn’t just do one story today and a different story tomorrow, but reporting that sticks with issues and helps people really understand them. Reporting that is truly ACCURATE – as in, the facts are right and so is the framing.

Consider the town of Bell in Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize a few years back for exposing corruption on a massive scale in this small community – the police chief and mayor and council members making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and paying themselves bonuses and much more. Thank goodness the Times picked up on talk about this situation and exposed it. But that said, it went on for years – and I suspect there is much more of this kind of abuse all over the country on a smaller scale – with no one watching or reporting.

We need more reporting with depth, especially in our towns and cities and at the state level. Across the country, for instance, governors and legislatures are thinking about cutting or eliminating social programs that have existed for decades. Good idea or bad? This needs reporting.

We need a much more diverse corps of journalists to cover these times than we’ve had in the past. We need people who understand the world in different ways, through different ethnic backgrounds and value sets. We need people who are expert in science, who can code, who speak multiple languages fluently. We need people who can explain well.

We need you.

Because without this kind of independent reporting, most consumers are simply getting the information that various special interests care to share. It’s the age of spin. Millions of press releases and announcements pour out each day through email and the web and an alarming number of them seem to turn into quote-unquote news stories – as do press conferences and product releases. Often it’s not clear at all who stands behind such information or whose interest is being promoted.

The FCC put out a huge report about four years ago – it was the size of a book – that raised alarm about the big loss of jobs in state and local journalism. As the report noted – when there’s not a good supply of independent reporting, power shifts away from citizens and toward government and powerful institutions. It’s a recipe for corruption and for breaches of the public trust.

Consider this scenario: There are two groups of people with an interest in some issue or dispute. One knows what’s happening and how things work. The other does not. Which group has the power?

So journalism in a sense is a mechanism for transferring power to people who are in the dark. We find things out. We tell people. By developing knowledge, they can access power – they can choose to act in their own interests.

Let me share a story that will always live with me. It’s the story of a young mother named Lorraine Hinton, who lay down for a nap with her 19-month-old son one day in their public housing apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina. They never woke up. I was an assistant metro editor at a newspaper called The News & Observer, and I worked with our police reporter on investigating the story. Turns out the boiler in their building was faulty and had leaked the carbon monoxide that killed them.

We asked for inspection records and the housing authority turned them over, surprisingly quickly. I’ll never forget the reporter coming back with big cardboard boxes full of records that we started going through. In them we found inspection reports warning of dire consequences if the boilers weren’t given more attention – even warning that people might die. We broke that story. It couldn’t bring Lorraine Hinton back, but it caused a public outcry, a special investigation, the departures of several people and the overhaul of the housing authority.

That kind of story should never be routine but it also can’t be taken for granted. It takes a certain mindset and commitment to asking questions and looking out for the interests of people who can’t always get information on their own.

Journalism’s role has shifted in the Internet age. We aren’t the gatekeepers any more or the only people generating news and information.

But we are just as essential as ever – and perhaps more so, given how hard it is to tell good information from bad. We provide a valuable role in organizing, assessing, verifying, following up, amplifying and so forth. And there are still vast areas where we can provide valuable original reporting. Because we’re the people whose JOB it is to make sure people get reliable, independent information. That’s our purpose.

And that’s what really sets us apart. Journalism is a thing. It’s skilled work. It’s specialized. It’s often done badly, and it’s far from perfect. But it is an essential ingredient in our democracy, one that has been badly undervalued lately.

Look, I’m not naïve. Good journalism is labor-intensive and expensive compared to other kinds of information. There is not yet any kind of proven financial model that can sustain the kind of journalism I’m endorsing today.

But I think that as the scarcity increases, a market can be found for the kind of independent reporting that people have always valued. Look at all the new entities and ways people are doing journalism. It’s exciting.

And here’s the money shot – There are jobs, not enough of them, but there are jobs for people who excel at finding things out and telling stories.

In my newsroom, it’s always hard to hire good editors, news producers, reporters who can tell compelling stories and explain complex issues. It’s hard across journalism to find skilled business reporters and investigators.

If you can put two and two together – see the forest for the trees – that’s an asset. In the age of personal brands, really being good at something – understanding a topic – helps you stand out.

It’s important to understand how people live and how they get information. It is indeed important to understand audiences – who needs what you’re reporting? How can you connect with them?

You also should understand how the organization that employs you makes its money. Whether you’re part of that or not, it is your business.

Yet it’s also important to just do great journalism. Get to the primary source, the scene. Answer the hard questions. Bring news alive. Be great.

Be good at finding things out – reporting and research. It’s surprising how many people who want to be reporters don’t nail this. Learn how to use documents and records. Learn how to use spreadsheets. Most of all, learn how to develop sources – find the people who know and who can help you learn and understand.

Tell stories that matter – and tell them well, whether that’s in a data visualization or a tweet or 20-minute audio story. Make people care.

Which gets to my last argument for choosing journalism: It’s fun.

You work with smart people on things that matter. You are challenged creatively and practically. Out in the field, it takes ingenuity to know how to get the information, reach the people, provide the eyewitness account and more.

Journalists have license to ask questions and talk to all kinds of people. You are in school every day, and there’s always more to learn.

As hard as it’s been at times in my career, I’ve found meaning and satisfaction in every day I’ve worked in journalism. I don’t think it’s more noble than other work. Yet it is a job with meaning.

It’s dumb for people to say don’t go into journalism because you won’t make a lot of money. This is important work. It’s a profession – just like teaching, or firefighting or social work or academic research.

There are plenty of journalists who’ve made good money. There are plenty who’ve given it their all and have been pushed out because the business changed. It’s a profession – with winners and losers, heroes and failures.

I know that things are worse now for breaking in. There aren’t as many internships or entry level reporting jobs. There aren’t copy desks on newspapers and so forth. Yet there are a lot of jobs that never existed before – new digital news organizations and traditional ones with big digital arms.

You might not succeed. You might labor in obscurity. Or you might become the next Ezra Klein, who helped make Wonkbook a thing at the Washington Post and now helps run Vox.

So go ahead and try – choose journalism. Please do. The world needs journalism. And journalism needs you.

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