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News Leader Gives Graduates Message of Hope

December 13, 2007

Rodriguez speaking at convocation

Rick Rodriguez, former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and one of the nation’s most prominent Latino journalists, told Cronkite School graduates that massive changes in the journalism profession mean opportunity for them.
Rodriguez delivered the keynote speech at the Cronkite School’s fall convocation ceremony. The school awarded 86 bachelor’s degrees and eight master’s degrees at the ceremony Dec. 14 at Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium.

“For you students, this is a time to dream of what can be, not what has been, to dream of how you will fit into a future that is the most complex, the most challenging and the most exciting in the history of the news business,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez acknowledged the thousands of jobs lost and the shrinking resources at newspapers across the country. But he said that the current uncertainties haven’t changed the need for quality journalism. In fact, he said, there’s an increasing need for reliable sources of news.

The following is the full text of Rodriguez’ speech:

I want to thank Dean Callahan for giving me this wonderful opportunity to speak with you today. And I want to recognize my dear friend and former colleague whom I admire greatly, Professor Tim McGuire.

Our business is about truth. So here it goes.

The truth is that the industry is at a crossroads, for while we are searching for our future business models, we are also searching for our journalistic souls.

The media world is transforming in ways we have yet to imagine. For you students, this is a time to dream of what can be, not what has been, to dream of how you will fit into a future that is the most complex, the most challenging and the most exciting in the history of the news business.

Changes in the business have made us better in many ways. But we’ve already seen thousands of jobs lost and constantly shrinking resources, which can’t help but impact how we carry out our mission.

My message today, however, is not one of despair for the present or the future, but one of hope. Hope that all of the uncertainty, all of the change, can be seen in another light. That it can be seen as an opportunity to be true to yourselves and to the profession.

As you students are poised to enter our industry, ask yourselves, why did I choose this career? Certainly, it wasn’t for the money. Or the regular 9-to-5 hours.  Or, nowadays, the job security. You could have chosen another career and been very successful.

Most of us aren’t here for those reasons. We’re here because this is our calling. And it is a noble profession – filled with special responsibility, but also great rewards.

Let me tell you my story. I certainly didn’t do it for the money.  In my first job in journalism, I took a 10-cent an hour pay cut to go from a tortilla factory to a newsroom.

I started as an intern. I was only 18, so it was a long time ago. But that experience at an early age opened my eyes to the world. I saw history unfold in my hometown of Salinas, Calif. It was a farming community from which I had rarely ventured except on family vacations to places such as Disneyland or San Diego.

At that time, Cesar Chavez was making a bid to organize farm workers who were overwhelmingly Mexican. Many of them were here illegally. For me, it was an awakening of sorts, an opportunity at an early age to witness and to try to decipher the politics of power, labor, class and race.

Many of my friends from high school were the sons and daughters of growers. I was the grandson of immigrants from Mexico on my Dad’s side, who at first came here illegally to toil in the fields. I had cousins who were members of Chavez’s United Farm Workers union. This was my version of “Roots.”

It was heady stuff for someone like me, a shy young man who loved to write, who was raised to want to make a difference in the world, and who yearned to speak truth to power. Here was a profession that allowed me to do that, to be true to myself, to my ideals, to share what I knew about the world and what I saw.

My goal was not to deny my background or who I was but to use my insights in a way that might help others understand what was going on in the community.

My standard was to try to be fair and credible, rather than being “totally objective” – a standard that can’t be met on any but the most basic of stories. In other words, I felt journalism allowed me to true to what I knew. It allowed me to tell stories about people from all walks of life. It was a profession full of passionate professionals, and it was based on principles that I could freely embrace. People, passion, principles: I was hooked.

So when I went to Stanford as a community college transfer, I was still shy but brimming with confidence. I felt like when it came to journalism, I knew it all.

And it started off so well. At the time, we were in the midst of another journalism transformation. We were switching to computers from “hot type,” which used hulking machines to punch out moveable type from molten lead. Professors at Stanford weren’t familiar with the new processes, so I served as an assistant for one class, advanced journalism. I got an A+.

Then came the reality check – a magazine writing course. I started off well, with the highly regarded professor using my lead paragraphs as examples of good writing. Then the professor had a stroke. A series of substitutes followed, mainly drawn from the ranks of professional journalists attending Stanford on one-year sabbaticals on Knight Foundation fellowships.

I remember being called in by one of the instructors who reviewed my story. She was succinct and blunt: “You need to change professions,” she said. “You’ll never make a dime in journalism.”

It was a sobering message for a 21-year-old. True to character, I chose defiance rather than despair, even though in my heart I knew I hadn’t given that story my best shot and that some of her editing points were dead on. Still, I knew I could and would be a successful journalist. I used her words for years as motivation to succeed. Indeed, years later, I had risen to be executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the first Latino to hold that honor.

A couple of years ago, I told the story to Jim Bettinger, who heads the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford. Jim had invited me to speak on a panel at a reunion of Knight fellows. After the panel discussion, I asked Jim if that substitute instructor was in the audience. He replied, “She is and, in fact, is walking toward you right now.”

She introduced herself and I quickly asked her if she taught magazine writing during her time at Stanford. “Yes,” she replied. “Were you in that class?” I nodded. “What did you write about?” she asked.

“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I do remember you telling me that I would never make a dime in journalism.”

“I couldn’t have done that,” she said at first, then added, “I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” I said. “I’ve used that as motivation throughout my career.” In truth, it was a valuable lesson, much more valuable than the class itself.

Then I added, “I’m sorry I went there so quickly. Did you have a question?”

“Well,” she said. “I was thinking about going back into journalism and was wondering if you had any job openings.”

To me, that moment was almost surreal. It had me thinking about karma. But in retrospect, the ultimate lesson was one of perseverance, of staying true to myself, to what I wanted to accomplish, and to be honest with myself about what I needed to improve to get there.

To the professors in the audience, I’m certain you have better ways to motivate. My generation has its memories of what was; the generation in your classrooms has the opportunity to create what will be. Teach them to do it with compassion, to do it with courage, to do it with honor. Teach them to strengthen the foundation that we and generations before us have laid so that what they will do will endure and prevail and be passed on to the generations to come.

With all the uncertainty around us, one thing hasn’t changed – the need for quality journalism, and, in fact, it’s a need that is greater than ever. The ability to do in-depth, investigative reporting will set us apart. I believe that so much that I made watchdog reporting the central theme of my year as ASNE president and the focus of my tenure as editor of The Sacramento Bee.

You students will no doubt be facing a tough job market. But as sources of information proliferate, there will be an increasing need for reliable sources of news. What you will have to offer, as trained, professional news-gatherers, will be in great demand. It will be a commodity. I urge you to persevere.

You are so fortunate, for the future rests not only in your hands but in your minds. Think about how you use information. Think about what information you find valuable and credible. Think about how you and your friends like that information delivered. And then dream and develop the next steps.

But while you’re dreaming about becoming the next media tycoon, don’t forget your foundations in this noble profession. During these difficult times, I believe in my heart it is those people, those organizations, who resist the temptation to panic, who stay true to their course and who stay true to the values that are the heart and soul of this profession who will survive.

Don’t forget the special role journalism plays in the creation of a sense of community and the continuation of democracy.

Most of all, don’t forget to be true to yourself, to have the courage of your convictions. Even when your view of the future is obscured, that sturdy moral compass will help you find your path.

And a part of the world will be better for it. That’s the honest truth.