Katharine Weymouth Speaks at Medill Convocation
Katharine Weymouth's Remarks to Graduates
Medill School of Journalism Commencement
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Dean Lavine, Roxana Saberi, distinguished faculty, parents, and students. Good afternoon and congratulations to the Class of 2009.
I’d like to start with a few words for all the parents this afternoon. First of all, as that great American statesman, Yogi Berra, once said, “Thank you all for making this day necessary.”
I’m sure your friends are asking how this day even came to be possible. That is, how could you allow your son or daughter go into journalism right now? By any measure, the news business is in great turmoil right now.
But the need for great journalism is stronger than ever. And the new tools available make it an incredibly exciting time to be a journalist.
I stand before you today as the head of a good old-fashioned newspaper. I believe firmly that great journalism – the need for good old-fashioned beat and enterprise reporting -- has never been more important. Certainly no one would argue that there isn’t enough news to report anymore. Nor do I believe that people’s interest or engagement in the news has changed. What has changed is the number of voices out there, the role that media plays in our lives and the business model that has supported journalism.
This is a time of great transformation -- but it’s also a time of great anticipation and creativity.
People have tried to paint the shift that technology has brought about as a fight between new and old media. That is the exact wrong way to look at it. I would posit that there is no old and new media. There is good journalism and new tools that are bringing that journalism alive in ways that it has never been before. Good journalism that is enhanced by having readers and users who can participate in the conversation and push it farther. It is no longer just a one-way conversation. It is no longer journalists just telling people what has happened and how to interpret it. It is now a conversation – and often a conversation on multiple platforms with multiple players.
Look at what is happening now in Iran. People are using Twitter and Facebook not only to report on what is going on, but also to network and keep the story alive. People are using these new vehicles to organize demonstrations as well as to upload videos of the demonstrations. Iran has been so threatened by what the technology allows that they have shut access to Twitter down. But that has not stopped people from using it and from using it effectively to keep the story going and make sure that the world knows about it.
But using new tools do not mean doing away with the profession of reporting – of cultivating sources and spending days and weeks and sometimes years developing a story and digging to the bottom. Of parsing sides in order to get at the underlying truths. Ariana Huffington refers often to the new era in media as that of the “linked economy.” She is right to a degree. But like a chain, a linked economy is only as good as its weakest link -- meaning it’s only as good as the quality of the content to which you are linking. Without serious sources of news, both our economy and our society would suffer.
What format that content comes in is a separate question. If and when newspapers go away as a format, there will surely be old people like me who will miss them. But, as long as they can still get quality journalism somewhere, they will learn to adapt to the format it is delivered in or on -- whether that is on a laptop, a Kindle, a cell phone or an iphone.
What has changed is that the barriers to publication are gone. You used to have to own a printing press. Today, you don’t even have to own a laptop – you can go to Kinko’s and rent theirs to publish your blog. Some of it is well-researched writing based on knowledge and experience. And sometimes, as Russell Crowe said in the film “State of Play,” it’s just another person “upchucking on her blog.”
I am in this job at the helm of a major metropolitan newspaper company because I firmly believe in the value of the journalism that our reporters put forth every day. I also firmly believe that we will be able to stabilize the business model that supports the news-gathering. It will not be easy. But we will do it.
But enough lecturing. This is your day – your day to celebrate your accomplishments and to look forward to testing new skills and adding to the conversation. And I want to let you get on with it. But before I let you go, I wanted to leave you with a few tenets that I live my life by and that I hope will help you in yours.
First of all, do something you love and, ideally, something you believe in.
Malcolm Forbes once said, “You have to do what you enjoy. Anything else is a waste of time.”
My grandmother was Katharine Graham, Publisher of The Washington Post for almost two decades. She brought the Post through the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, and then won a Pulitzer Prize for her memoirs. She once said: “To do what you love and feel that it matters -- how could anything be more fun?”
Anyone in journalism today is, by definition, doing something they love. So as Medill graduates, Malcolm Forbes would tell you not to waste your time doing anything else. I have yet to meet a journalist who was in it for the money. We are motivated by the dream of breaking a story that might change peoples lives for the better ... or expose corruption ... one that might just tell a beautiful story ... or even just entertain. All of the new technology and evolving reader habits do not change that one bit. Great stories – in any medium – stand out. And you can tell those stories in words, in pictures, and in videos, and deliver them to readers all over the world in an instant. If you touch a cord, you will know it immediately. “How could anything be more fun?”
Second, challenge popular wisdom.
It seems today that pundits and bloggers out there are trying to best each other in predicting the day that the last newspaper will be thrown on the last doorstep -- in fact, predicting the death of the so-called “old media” has become a parlor game of one-upsmanship among former reporters and media critics.
In 1999, Andy Grove of Intel boldly predicted to a group of newspaper editors that newspapers would be dead in three years. When 2002 came and went, he conceded that he might have been wrong.
Here is how Michael Kinsley put it – a former newspaper reporter, news junkie and founding Editor of Slate – the first online-only news magazine: He wrote, in 2006: “The trouble even an established customer will take to obtain a newspaper continues to shrink ... Once, I would drive across town if necessary. Today, I open the front door and if the paper isn’t within about ten feet, I retreat to my computer and read it online. Only six months ago, that figure was twenty feet. Extrapolating, they will have to bring it to me in bed by the end of this year and read it to me out loud by the second quarter of 2007.”
Since that was two years ago, I guess he’s still waiting in bed.
Ken Auletta of the New Yorker says that there is something “almost prehistoric” about using expensive newsprint and elaborate delivery systems, to homes and newstands, in the age of the Internet.
Mr. Auletta is right – it is totally anachronistic – particularly in an era when people can read the same content online or on their mobile phones or even on their Kindle -- and get it for free, no less. And you can do it without having to rub ink off your fingers or feel guilty about that stack of papers you haven’t read that’s piling up in the kitchen.
In his 2006 book, “The Vanishing Newspaper,” Philip Meyer predicted that the last exhausted reader would toss aside the last crumpled edition of the newspaper “in the first quarter of 2043.”
In 2008, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer predicted that all print journalism would be dead within the decade. “There will be no media consumption left in ten years that is not delivered over an I.P. network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form.”
Well, I’ve got news for everyone. We’re not dead yet.
Take The Washington Post.
Seventy-five percent of all the men, women and children in the Washington metro area read the Washington Post. That’s over a million people for our daily edition, and nearly two million people read the Sunday Washington Post each week -- that’s more people than watched any Redskins game this year, or, for that matter, the Super Bowl. Nationally, more people read a print newspaper every day than watch the late local news on TV.
There is also a lot of hype about how young people don’t read newspapers anymore. In fact, more Washingtonians ages 18-34 read The Washington Post printed newspaper than watch "American Idol." Nationally, 65 percent of those young people either read a newspaper or visited a newspaper website in the last week.
And while readership is still strong in print, with our online site at washingtonpost.com, we have a larger audience than ever. People who were never able to buy a print edition of The Washington Post can and do read our content online every day. In the month of May alone, we had 9 million unique visitors to washingtonpost.com and over 230 million page views. And ninety percent of our traffic is from outside of the local market.
People come to us from all over the world because we are a trusted source for news and information focused on Washington – which matters both to the local community and to the world.
The popular wisdom is that traditional journalism is dead. The popular wisdom is wrong. Traditional journalism – in the sense of good, beat and enterprise reporting is more alive than ever. What has changed is the tools that we use to tell our stories.
Third, whatever you do, and wherever you end up, keep your sense of humor.
It will win you friends and get you through tough times. On April 1, 2009, The Guardian, the British newspaper, announced in a front page article, and I quote:
“Consolidating its position at the cutting edge of new media technology, the Guardian today announces that it will become the first newspaper in the world to be published exclusively via Twitter, the sensationally popular social networking service that has transformed online communication.
“A mammoth project is also under way to rewrite the whole of the newspaper's archive, stretching back to 1821, in the form of tweets. Major stories already completed include:
"1832 Reform Act gives voting rights to one in five adult males -- yay!!!";
"OMG Hitler invades Poland, allies declare war"; and
"JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll W.T.F.?"
Now, of course, it being April 1, they were joking. The good news is that, despite all the depressing news out there every day about the demise of newspapers around the country, I knew it was a joke.
But, like any good joke, it was funny because it touched on a variation of reality. We are, suddenly, in world where people are actually reducing their lives to text messages of a maximum of 140 characters. Which brings me to my next piece of advice ...
Fourth, be in the world – don’t just watch it go by.
When I graduated from college, email did not exist, the internet was a communications network for the military, and no one had cell phones. I know – can you imagine living like that? We went to the college library and had to use a physical card system to look up books. We had what we called a “facebook” – but it was a printed book with pictures of all our classmates and a brief bio. We could not use it to communicate or to poke our friends or post photos of drunken friends at parties. We used it for the simple act of checking out our classmates for dating material. For those of us interested in reading the news, we read news on printed pages.
People today are IMing and flickering and tweeting instead of calling. We seem to be developing a universal case of ADD. People jump from site to site. They text at stoplights and walk down the street blackberrying. People get news on the radio, through text alerts, on the internet and on Facebook. It the rare few who are willing to commit to a New Yorker length article or a several page enterprise story.
You can easily spend a day where you do not take a moment to think or stop. You email your friends, you are on Facebook, you twitter and blackberry. And you text on your cell phone while you drive and as you walk down the street. You don’t call your friends because why would you if you can text instead? You don’t call someone to ask for a date because it is so much safer to email or text.
Stop. Think. Breathe. Call. And try talking face to face. The next time you are waiting for a friend who is late or went to the bathroom, try just sitting there. Look around you. Don’t pull out your cell phone to kill time. The next time you want to ask someone out, call him or her. The next time you want to ask a colleague at work a question, try walking over and asking it rather than emailing. And read something you might not have known you were interested in.
Next: be the best, make no small plans, and act boldly.
People in the so-called traditional media industry are prone these days to bemoan the changes we are witnessing. Some in our industry seem to think that we have a God-given right to exist – and that someone just needs to support us so that we can stop worrying about where the money is coming from and do the great journalism that we do. People talk about a non-profit model or a government subsidy. I mean hey - everyone else is getting one.
It is true that we are one of the few industries written into the Constitution. It was the First Amendment – not the Third or the Tenth -- that guaranteed the right to a free press. But some take that too literally. The Constitution did not guarantee the right of a news organization to lose money and continue to exist because it is sacred. The Constitution merely guaranteed the right of its citizens to speak freely – to write on almost any subject and to express opinions without fear of governmental redress. The internet has made that more possible than ever. At the same time, it has undermined the business model that has supported the traditional media model for so many years. We can bemoan that or we can go along with it and adapt.
We at The Washington Post are adapting. We are embracing the new media and taking advantage of them to tell stories in new ways. Just a few weeks ago you may recall that there was a gunman at the Holocaust museum. We were the first to be out with a text alert to our readers. We followed with a package of video, audio, photo galleries, graphics and a live blog fed by a dozen reporters. The next day, in the newspaper, we had fuller stories detailing what we knew about the shooter and what had led to this tragic incident. That is a great example of journalism today. And it enables our readers to experience the news with a richness and depth we were never able to deliver before.
Newspapers are a funny business – part business and part mission. And often, the two are in conflict. Our mission is to bring to the public news and information about the world around you. Our job is, as former Executive Editor Len Downie has said, to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.
At the same time, as my grandmother once is reported to have said – in order to do good, you must also do well. By that, presumably, she meant that in order to support the ability to gather the news and report it, you must have the means to do so. Ours is an independent newspaper – independent from the Government and from any one commercial interest. If we are going to preserve that, we in the so-called traditional media must adapt and must adapt quickly.
The business model that has supported us for so long is facing unprecedented challenges. The crisis of the so-called traditional media organizations is very real. In the past couple of years, we have seen many major metropolitan newspapers undergo radical changes. Some have stopped printing a daily paper and gone online. Some have declared bankruptcy or changed ownership. Almost all have dramatically cut resources. In the coming few years, we will undoubtedly see many more esteemed newspapers and news organizations shutter their shops or change ownership. I don’t have any magic bullet or I would have used it.
We got fat and happy in a model that Warren Buffett has famously alluded to as a toll booth over a bridge – such a good business that any advertiser wanting to reach consumers had to advertise in a newspaper. We grew our newsrooms and invested in our talent and expanded our offerings because we could.
Today the tollbooth over the one bridge is gone. It’s been replaced by an Easypass over multiple bridges and tunnels. Advertisers and consumers have a multitude of options and we must fight for them. And, we must listen to our customers – our readers and users. I think the greatest mistake we made in our fat years was to get away from our customers. We forgot that, at the end of the day, we are only as good as the people who read us and we must put together packages of news and information that they are interested in.
The point is – we must act to save the journalism that we all care about. We must try new things and allow ourselves to make mistakes as we learn. We must have the courage of our convictions and have faith in our readers and our reporting.
Medill teaches young journalists all about courage. That’s why we’re so proud of Roxana Saberi. Roxana, welcome home and congratulations on your well deserved Medal for Courage in Journalism.
And finally, be distinctive and be yourself.
The Pulitzer Prize winning writer Anna Quindlen once said, “Nothing important ... or meaningful ... or beautiful ... or interesting ... or great ... ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”
As great as they are, we don’t need you to be Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein or Anna Quindlen. The news industry needs you to be ... you. We need your voice, your hard work, your integrity, your commitment to accuracy. We need your time, your energy, and your ideas. And we need them now.
What Medill has given each of you is a skill that is crucial to the future of journalism. That skill is the ability to tell an important story in any medium. Paid classified advertising may be in trouble, but excellence in journalism is not. And good storytelling is not.
The need for fast, accurate news and insightful opinion is greater than ever. Now it’s time for us to cross the bridge that Warren Buffett referred to and see what’s on the other side.
Now is the time for us to be the best, to make no small plans, and to act boldly -- together.
That’s why it’s a great time to be in journalism. Congratulations and thank you.