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ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Dec. 21, 2012
Thank you Dean Callahan, distinguished members of the faculty, family members, friends and most importantly, graduates of the fall class of 2012.
I’m so honored to be addressing this graduating class. A short 21 years ago, I sat in this same auditorium for my Cronkite convocation. It was May 10, 1991, 4:30 p.m.
I was excited, a little nervous and looking forward to a drink when it was over.
So I can relate to what you may be feeling right now.
When I was in graduate school, I had the great honor of attending a poetry reading by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney.
His work was so authentic, so real. So after the reading, I asked him how his ideas, how his writing, came to him. He said something along the lines of this…
“Life fills you up with education and experience, and at some point you’re able to open the tap and let it flow.”
I was thinking about the education and experience you need to be a successful journalist today, and all this school, this faculty, has done to fill you up.
I’m sure you know this, but you’ve just received an extraordinary education. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Truly the best in the nation. So how has this team, this institution, filled you up?
Let’s start with the basics:
You need to practice your craft: You’ve had so many opportunities at Cronkite. At ASU, I worked as a reporter and editor at the State Press and the yearbook. Like you, I had several internships.
My big moment as an intern for the Phoenix Gazette came when the military was deciding which Air Force bases to close. I had done in-depth reporting on Williams Air Force Base, which is now Williams Gateway Airport. So when the hearing came up, they asked me if I could go. Absolutely, I said.
Great the editor said, the hearing is in Denver. Just buy your plane ticket and we’ll reimburse you.
It was last minute. The plane fare was something ridiculous like $700. This editor clearly had forgotten what college was like. I had maybe $20 in my checking account and nowhere near that much credit on a card.
But I wanted to be professional, so I said what any ambitious intern would say, “No problem. I’ll be there.” I immediately hung up and started calling friends, and we cobbled together the plane fare.
They didn’t eat for a week, but I got the story.
I know you’ve tackled equally ambitious assignments. It would take hours to go through all of your awards and honors. But as any good reporter would do, I’ve researched some of your accomplishments at Cronkite:
At the State Press, I know Will Boor has been a standout football writer. Preston Melbourne Weaver gave the news organization an engaging voice on social media. Tyler Emerick, I’m told you are known as "Mr. Sports" for your work at the State Press and just about every other sports media organization in town.
As a group, you have won highly competitive internships in New York with Bloomberg News, you’ve also interned or reported for Univision, MLB.com, the New Times and, of course, The Arizona Republic. Samantha Valtierra Bush created interactive graphics as an intern for USA Today Rich Media. What great experiences.
And wow, you dominated the student categories in this year’s Rocky Mountain Emmys, including taking home best newscast for Cronkite NewsWatch.
Another basic Cronkite has given you – You need to be there.
Nothing beats experiencing something in person. Good writing starts with good facts and details.
When I was a Cronkite student, we were required to cover a certain number and type of meetings and speeches in person. For me, that meant sitting through a water board meeting in Apache Junction.
Today, you’re covering the nation, and the world.
I know a group of you out there went to London this summer to cover the Olympics.
Natasha Khan covered the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Michel Duarte was part of a Cronkite reporting trip to the Dominican Republic last year.
So, not the AJ Water Board, but impressive.
Basic number 3: You need to build something that didn’t exist before.
At ASU, I was part of the group that brought back the yearbook after a 14-year absence. Seems quaint now, with Facebook and all the ways we keep in touch. But it was a monumental undertaking.
Our first “newsroom” was a donated dorm room at the Cholla Residence Hall. We would work all night, stumbling to class in the morning. We sacrificed free time and friendships, but we were creating something we believed in. And it was worth it.
You know that feeling:
Jessica Abercrombie advocated for student fitness complexes on the four ASU campuses.
Nick Gnat won a national journalism interactive contest for his business start-up.
And Chelsey Heath created “AZ Emerging,” a site to help smaller nonprofit professionals network.
How else has Cronkite filled you up? You have been challenged. You were asked to attempt something really difficult. Something you may have thought was beyond your abilities.
Right before this year’s political conventions, as part of News 21, you published an exhaustive look at voter’s rights, with more than 20 in-depth reports that included databases, data visualizations and video profiles.
Not bad to have clips from the Washington Post and NBC.com.
And a group of you traveled to Puerto Rico to report on the politically charged topics of illegal immigration and U.S. relations. Your work got play in the Miami Herald and was picked up by the BBC.
So you’ve been filled up. With experience. With travel. With challenges. With wisdom.
As you ready to turn your tap, here is what I hope for you. Here is what I hope, speaking as someone who was literally sitting where you are today.
I hope you always fight for the public’s right to information.
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking print, digital, TV, tablet, social media. No matter who you are reporting for, we’re counting on you to continue to defend the public’s right to know. Wherever you end up working, get a copy of the state’s public record laws. Read them. Know your rights.
As an education reporter, I covered many school board meetings. I always had a prepared statement with me, ready to go, in case the board tried to exclude the public from its business. Many times, you’ll know more about public records law than the officials charged with carrying it out. Take every opportunity to educate them.
I hope you hold our leaders accountable.
Shine a light on their actions. Hold them to their word. All over the country news organizations have started fact checking services to do just that.
At the Republic, I’m proud that we created AZ Fact Check, along with Cronkite. Our goal: Keep Arizona Honest.
This leads me to my next hope for you….
I hope you suggest that wild idea.
When we came up with the idea, we had no idea how we were going to create, staff and maintain a new political fact-checking website. But we knew it was the right thing to do – and we’d figure it out.
So, be bold. Suggest that wild idea. It just might just happen.
Author Sarah Ban Breathnach said, “The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.”
I hope you are dreamers who do.
And along the way…
I hope you make mistakes.
When you make mistakes it means you are trying. You are putting yourself out there. From them, you’ll grow. You innovators out there know of Harvard professor Clayton Christensen and disruptive innovation. One of his core principles: Plan for failure. Fail fast. Learn from it. Try again.
I hope you do something truly meaningful.
One year, we produced a project on the growing asthma rates among children in Arizona. I suggested that along with the reporting, we do community outreach and provide asthma screenings to kids. The final weekend of the series, 11 hospitals joined together to hold free asthma clinics and hundreds of children got evaluated.
That was a game changer for me. As journalists, we have the privilege of reporting on our community. As a media organization, we have the responsibility to serve it.
I hope you stay true to yourself and your ethics.
You will be tested. Here’s a hint, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Listen when that bell goes. Act on it. Speak up. Your integrity is what will set you apart as a professional journalist.
I hope you lose all track of time.
That means you’re fully engaged, fully immersed.
When the shooting happened in Tucson almost two years ago, it was a Saturday morning, but within minutes, the newsroom was filled with staffers asking, what do you need me to do? How can I help?
They didn’t leave for about a month. It was an important story, we had work to do, and the hours simply didn’t matter.
I hope you ask for what you want.
It’s amazing what people will give you, if you just ask. Once we were planning a leadership seminar for women. We were brainstorming the ultimate Arizona woman to interview. We thought that Sandra Day O’Connor would be the ultimate guest. A few months later, I was interviewing O’Connor on stage before a packed ballroom at the Arizona Biltmore. Colleagues asked, “How in the world did you get her?” My answer, “I just asked.”
Along those same lines, I hope you are fearless.
Ask the tough question everyone wants to know. Demand the records. Ask for proof. The only way to beat spin is with facts. With the truth. Demand it. This is your job.
And this next one may come back to haunt me, but….
I hope you make your editors, your news directors, your managers, just a little bit nervous.
We hire you to be you. Not us. Question things. Ask why? Challenge how things “have always been done.” Suggest change. Experiment.
I hope you realize there is a bright future for you.
Change is hard, but there has never been a more exciting time to be in journalism. You have learned critical thinking. You write clearly. You communicate boldly. You innovate. Those skills are badly needed. You may get a job or you may create one. Talent rises quickly. We’re counting on you to bring it. Your ideas. Your enthusiasm. Your knowledge.
And, in order to do all the things we’ve talked about here, I hope you stay the news junkies that you are today.
You have to be informed. You have to stay educated. You need a broad view. So as a graduation gift, to keep the addiction strong, I’m giving each graduate a six-month subscription to all our digital products at azcentral. Everything online. Everything for smart phones. Everything for tablet.
And finally, I hope that as full as you feel right now, as filled to the brim as you are with ideas and experiences, I hope you realize there is always room for more.
That is the beauty of being a journalist.
We get to learn, every day.
We get to grow, every day.
We get to experience, every day.
We get to be filled, and fulfilled, every day.
You are so fortunate.