Overholser to grads: The journalism you’re helping reinvent is just coming into its own

Photo Courtesy of Geneva Overholser

Photo Courtesy of Geneva Overholser

Ed. Note: As the academic year comes to a close, the job market will be flooded with new graduates. Many of those leaving J-school may feel trepidation over the heavy downsizing that has afflicted nearly every major media outlet in the country in recent years. But there are reasons to be encouraged. Last Friday, Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at USC Annenberg and a veteran journalist herself, shared many of those reasons with the graduating class in her commencement speech. The core of her message was optimistic: Journalism is an industry that is being reinvented for the better, and today’s graduates are going to help shape it. Overholser herself will be retiring as director of the school, but she offered much hope — and a few bits of wisdom — for one more batch of bright-eyed students ready to become professionals. Following is the complete transcript of her speech, as prepared for delivery.

Hello, fellow graduates of USC Annenberg!  It is my great honor to address you on this remarkable day.

Let me begin by saying how VERY PROUD of you we are — all of us gathered here. So proud of you!  Depending on the degree that we will soon be conferring upon you, you have spent four long years, or two long years, or one long year here at Annenberg, toiling away, attending classes, doing your assignments, working in labs, reading, writing, reporting, preparing campaigns, doing your internships, taking your exams.

What all of this amounts to is that you have been preparing yourselves for a lifetime of productive work.  One –- just one –- piece of evidence of how brilliant you are is that you have chosen this School as the place where you did this preparation.   I absolutely believe that USC Annenberg is the most innovative, most forward-looking journalism and public relations program in the country.  In no small part, that is because we are in the most future-oriented, richly diverse CITY in the country.

So you now have all the tools you need, all the academic grounding, all the theory and practice, to go into your respective fields at this moment of enormous change -– this moment of enormous potential.  You are fully equipped to use that preparation to shape these fields –- journalism and public relations – for the better. And I expect you to do just that.

You are going out into a complex job market, it’s true.  The economy is making a recovery, but we can all wish it were more robust.  But hear this:  There has never been a more interesting time to enter these fields than at this moment. You get to reinvent them.  You get to write new rules, shape new economic underpinnings, and create new connections with the people formerly known as the audience. You get to find new ways to enrich the civic conversation, help people live fuller lives, and create a stronger citizenry.

Also — do not let ANYone tell you that there aren’t great jobs out there.  It’s completely untrue.  The litany of jobs held by our recent grads would knock your socks off.  Here is a mere smattering: we have journalism grads working as Sacramento Bureau Chief for Reuters, investigative reporter at KRQE-TV in Albuquerque, multimedia writer for the Seattle Times, production assistant for ESPN. Our grads have gone everywhere from Wired to the Texas Tribune, Talking Points Memo, the LA Times, the Washington Post, ABCNEWS.com, the Huffington Post, People Magazine, the Reader’s Digest, wehoville.com, public radio and public television. They staff television newsrooms from San Francisco to Spokane, from New Orleans to Duluth. Our recent PR grads are managers of community affairs, directors of media and communications, risk analysts, publicity coordinators, senior account executives.  They are at Weber Shandwick and Ogilvy, Porter Novelli and Burson-Marsteller, at MLB.com and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the California Endowment, Disneyland, General Motors, City of Hope and Turner Broadcasting World Wrestling Entertainment.  We have a publicist for Kobe Bryant, and a manager of Public Information for the Tournament of Roses.

So much for “you’ll never get a good job these days,” graduates. And, by the way, there is a whole lot of Trojan Family help behind that wonderful list of jobs, and a whole lot of Trojan Family help in front of each of you. Do NOT despair!

And another thing, while I’m on my soapbox:  Lest anyone tell any of you that “journalism is over” — let me tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. The journalism that you are helping reinvent is just coming into its own.   More people want to be part of it than ever. And the potential for a better, fairer, more inclusive form of information in the public interest is boundless.  What was a top-down, too often arrogant craft, one that left lots of people out, is now a wide-open experiment in progress.  Journalism today is more inclusive in every way, news judgment has opened wide, transparency is blossoming and there is far greater potential for self-correction.

And the fact that the old, rigid system –- in which you had to work your way up over a period of decades -– has collapsed, means that you fresh graduates can go directly into jobs you could never have dreamed of entering before –- and this applies to journalism and PR grads equally.  You can hit the ground running, putting to work your open minds and your digital skills, your understanding of social media and your excitement about the future.

The truth is, we are still at the beginning of this revolution.  This world is yours to shape.  Oh, people pronounce about it all the time.  They say our best days are behind us (baloney!). They’ll tell you definitively what is the Next Big Thing (personally I’d say bet on big data).  They’ll proclaim with great certainty what is the Next Platform to Watch (I’d go with mobile).  And they’ll tell you precisely what is going to work or fail in terms of new economic models. (The only thing I’d say about that is, you should be sure you are in the debate.  We ALL need to care about how information in the public interest is going to be supported.) And, oh yes, don’t be hesitant about being (and vigorously maintaining) your own brand.

But for all these pronouncements, nobody really knows how it’s all going to turn out.  That, my friends, is up to you.

So. Everything seems up for grabs.  It’s pretty much the Wild West right now. But here’s what HASN’T changed: The need for integrity and good judgment. For both journalism and public relations, those qualities remain absolutely critical.

When Arthur Sulzberger, longtime CEO of the New York Times, died last year, obituaries reminded us of something he often said (something I heard him say myself): “You’re not buying news when you buy the New York Times.  You’re buying judgment.”

And that’s what you should be offering. Along with your smarts and your skills, you must be sure to bring integrity, to bring good judgment, to your work. Now, when things are changing, these two (along with courage) are needed more than ever.  Your skills, however dazzling, cannot compare in importance to your moral leadership.

Now for two final thoughts I hope you’ll keep in your heart.  I’m not big on this phrase “having it all,” though I surely do understand the importance of the ongoing debate.  To me, it’s really more about whether you can “be” it all.  And I believe you can.  You can be a loving son or daughter, and a loving wife or husband, a loving father or mother –- and also be a hard-working, productive, passionately engaged journalist or public relations practitioner.  But don’t think that it all has to happen at once, with equal intensity throughout the years.  Every life has its seasons.  At times in my life, I have been much more intensely a mother, even though I was always a journalist.  At other times, I have been so caught up with being a newspaper editor that my kids had to spend way more time fending for themselves.  Life is full of twists and turns, and you won’t always be in charge of them.  What you’ll be in charge of is how you respond to them.  Keep love in your heart, and hold fast to your passion for good work, and you’ll be fine.

Also, please reflect throughout your life on the fact that everyone else is not exactly like you.  And this is a wonderful thing. You are not some sort of “standard-issue person,” the “norm” against whom all others are rightfully compared.  Others will not share your tastes, require the same medical care, make the same lifestyle  choices, hold the same views.  When you find yourself thinking, “How in the world can that person THINK that?” take the question seriously. How can they, in fact? Maybe because they grew up poor, and you didn’t?  Maybe because you’re experiencing a moment of great joy, and they’re in pain? Maybe because they’re young and you’re old?  This is one big feast of humanity we comprise here in America, becoming an ever richer feast by the day, and we can all delight in that –- as long as we don’t make the mistake of thinking we have some kind of license on normalcy. Nobody holds that license.

Okay. The sermon’s over.

Now, my fellow graduates, let us go forth.  Let us take our skills and our passion and — together — invent the next chapter.  It will be better than the last one. I can feel it.

And let us never forget the special hours, the days and months and years that we have spent together here in this beautiful, beautiful place. I hope to see you here, again, one day.

Thank you.

About Geneva Overholser

Geneva Overholser is director of the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg.