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.

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Journalism art and craft, Pulitzer edition

Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) has been talking today with a few folks on Twitter about community needs and journalism, drawing me and others in. It got me thinking about that ongoing question of what defines successful journalism — quality — in 2012.

For too many journalists, still, quality is defined by peer recognition. This is the season of journalism prizes, of course, and it  bursts into full bloom on Monday with the Pulitzer Prize announcements, previewed here by Roy Harris Jr. for Poynter. The winners of these contests, especially the investigative efforts, always inspire me and remind me of the transient but glorious experience of being recognized, as my former newspaper The News & Observer of Raleigh was  in 1996 with the gold medal for public service. The Pulitzers shifted to online entries only this year and are gradually adapting to digital shift.

During my 11 months working outside a newsroom I puzzled a lot over how we define journalistic quality and impact today.  I’ve judged plenty of journalism contests, and in every case heard plenty of grumbling from other jurors about the length and format of entries. My own family reminds me regularly that they appreciate journalism but wish we’d all get to the point a little quicker and more succinctly. And almost no one outside journalism pays much attention to our contests — this is peer recognition, important, gratifying and inspiring but perhaps not definitive. (Pop quiz: How many of last year’s Pulitzer winners can you name? Bonus: How many non-journalism winners?)

I welcomed an antidote to insular thinking the other day at a gathering called TechRaking 2012, organized by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Google and held Thursday at the Googleplex in Mountain View. Brian Boyer, news applications editor at the Chicago Tribune, gave a short talk on art versus craft in journalism. Boyer works with clay and used an analogy of making coffee mugs with handles that were lovely but functionally deficient versus making cups that you could hold and drink from easily. Art is about beauty; craft, Boyer noted, produces utility. As a pottery lover and journalist, I loved this comparison. Journalism should be useful. I’m thinking about this as I dig into my new role as executive editor at Southern California Public Radio.

Colleague P. Kim Bui, social media and community for SCPR, tweeted on Boyer’s talk this way.

And Lauren Rabaino blogged Boyer’s presentation for 10,000 Words, focusing on Boyer’s three questions to ask and answer before building a news app: Who are your users, what are their needs and what can you do for them?

That seems as close to gospel as anything. Boyer added that journalists need to “fight your urges” — to make elaborate timelines and maps, for instance, when a simple address-based lookup might serve users better.

This isn’t to knock contest winners. Work that serves the public well often is recognized by journalism prizes. If we begin with Boyer’s starting points, journalists and our communities can come out winners.