What not to say in a commencement speech

I’m no expert on commencement speeches. Not only have I never been invited to give one, I’ve never even heard one. (After both undergraduate and graduate schools, I skipped the ceremony to start working, instead.) But I know enough about motivating students to realize that what Rick Reilly told the graduates at the University of Colorado this month is the wrong message for professional journalists.

Reilly, an ESPN commentator and former Sports Illustrated columnist, gave the speech for his alma mater, the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Like many sports columnists, Reilly’s a bit of a comedian, and he loaded his CU speech with his usual schtick, including jokes about favorite targets such as Tiger Woods. But commencement speeches are supposed to provide a moment of inspiration and motivation to new graduates, as well. Instead, Reilly gave the graduates advice on what they shouldn’t do.

“When you get out there, all I ask is that you don’t write for free,” Reilly said. “Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride!”

Sure, he’s trying to be funny, but effective humor contains elements of truth. Unfortunately, writers don’t form very effective cartels. The threat of withholding your words from the rest of the world won’t convince anyone to start writing checks. All that will accomplish is to silence your voice.

But that would mean one less voice for Reilly to compete with, of course.

Want better advice? Write to create value in the world, instead.

Write for yourself, to build your own publishing business. You won’t get paid up front, but you’ll create an opportunity to earn far more money in the long run than you ever could chasing a weekly paycheck.

Write to build an audience and earn credibility. If given a choice between an applicant with an established audience and one without, a smart publisher will select the writer with an audience, every time.

Write to ask questions, and start conversations. Reporting flows from engagement, and if you always demand payment first, you’re limiting your opportunities to engage.

Write in a journal. No one masters a skill without practice. Even the best professional writers ought to practice with private notes on a regular basis.

Write to and for your family and your friends. Don’t be a jerk. Share your skills and talents with those closest to you. Do pro bono work – Volunteer to edit the church newsletter. Help your child’s elementary school teacher start a class newspaper. (And, yes, even doctors have been known to treat family and sometimes close friends for free.)

I’m hardly the only one ripping Reilly for his dumb advice. But there’s another point I’d like to make, not just to new journalism graduates, but to everyone who writes.

Don’t make fun of people who earn less money than you do.

I’m serious. Allow me to propose this as journalism law. Reserve your scorn for the powerful, the wealthy and, especially, those among them who are unjustly influential. (“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”) Don’t demean yourself by belittling those who have less power and money than you. Distinguish yourself by offering them knowledge, wisdom and encouragement instead.

Telling unestablished journalists never to write without payment because you’re worried that they’re undercutting last generation’s rates is not encouragement. Perpetuating the demeaning bloggers-in-their-mothers’-basements stereotype, as Reilly did in his speech, doesn’t demonstrate any wisdom. You want to mock Tiger Woods? Go ahead. You want to mock a store clerk who makes orders of magnitude less money than you for making a friendly, but thoughtless, comment? Show some class and hold your tongue, instead. Journalists with an audience are blessed with the power of influence. Let’s use it to inform and inspire, not to bully those with less than we have.

I’ve never met Rick Reilly, and can’t make an informed judgment about his character. But from reading multiple accounts and excerpts from his address, in this speech he came across as an insecure, selfish bully. And that’s not fair. If that’s not the person he is, Reilly was unfair to himself by settling for cheap shots and bad advice instead of helpful inspiration. If this is a fair representation of Reilly, however, then it’s unfair to the graduates of CU that they had to listen to someone like that.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Sorry, you’re wrong. Once you’ve given away your talent, it’s hard to start charging for it. Where do you draw the line? Today I’m free, tomorrow I’m not. I understand about building a portfolio, but that’s what internships are for. Some are paid, some aren’t, but all of them give you experience. Once you’re out in the real world, with real bills and real obligations, portfolios don’t mean much. Yes, some small business owners don’t take a salary, or just a small one. But they are charging for whatever service they provide. New plumbers don’t plumb for free, just to build up a clientele. Writers shouldn’t write for free just to build a name. Sorry.

  2. says:

    I think a lot of business start for free to create business soul and demand. Once people see value they and the demand increases then they become willing to pay. Remember market force: Demand and supply. I do not think anyone wants to pay for things they can get for free.

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