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Soeteber Keynotes Convocation for 187 New Cronkite Graduates

May 7, 2008

Elle Soeteber speaking at Convocation

Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor Ellen Soeteber delivered the keynote convocation address to the 187 newest graduates of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

The Cronkite convocation ceremony, held May 8 at the Grady Gammage Auditorium on the Tempe campus, featured Soeteber, who served this past semester as the school’s second Edith Kinney Gaylord Visiting Professor in Journalism Ethics.

Graduating senior Lauren Hengl of Phoenix was among 20 graduating ASU students to win the university’s Alumni Association Award. Each ASU college selects one student for the award, based on high academic achievement, leadership and service. Hengl was director of the ASU Homecoming Parade, president of the Spring Welcome program, the Chi Omega Outstanding Woman of the Year, a Cronkite NewsWatch reporter and a member of the Campus Environment Team.

Two other Cronkite students – Thomas Cerchie of Mesa and Patrick Schaefer of Fargo, N.D. – were among 34 graduating students to receive the Moeur Award for achieving a perfect 4.0 grade point average and completing their coursework within eight consecutive semesters at ASU.

Nineteen students were inducted into Kappa Tau Alpha, the college honor society that recognizes academic excellence and promotes scholarship in journalism. Inductees represent the top 10 percent of their class studying print, broadcast or online journalism.

The Cronkite School also recognized outstanding undergraduate students Hengl, Schaefer, Annalyn Censky of Tempe, Marisa Freed of Tucson, Benjamin Glicksman of Tucson, Ryan Kost of Chandler, Jordan Lapier of St. George, Utah, and Tiffany Tcheng of Tempe. Master’s degree candidates Ashley Biggers of Albuquerque, N.M., and Keridwen Cornelius of Phoenix were named outstanding graduate students.

Graduating senior Victoria Cohen of Marina Del Ray, Calif., delivered the student convocation address, and Soeteber, the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor, delivered the keynote address. Her address follows:

This is such an honor – and such a daunting one.

I apologize if I seem to be squirming a bit in my cap and gown.

I probably shouldn’t admit this to you. But this is the first time I’ve ever worn a cap and gown.

Now, yes, I have a degree in journalism – as you will have in a few minutes.

But I didn’t go to my own college graduation.

I was working.

I couldn’t take the day off.

It wasn’t my dream job. But it was a good one for someone fresh out of journalism school.

After all, at that time:

The nation was in the midst of a recession. College graduates – especially those in journalism – were scrambling for jobs.

Afternoon newspapers were in precarious circumstances – scrambling to figure out how to stop the hemorrhaging of ad revenues and readers.

At the same time: The communications business was in the midst of a dramatic transformation.

Technology was changing how journalism was produced and delivered.

Venerable practices of journalism and public relations were being challenged by smart writers and fresh thinkers who were experimenting with new forms.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?  Let’s see:

a sour economic environment;

a tight job market;

radical technological change;

new ideas that were redefining communications;

trepidation about the future of journalism, especially in newspapers.

This sounds just a wee bit familiar -- yes?

Of course, this is also the environment into which you are graduating – an environment of change and uncertainty.

No one knows what lies ahead for journalism – in any medium – be it print, broadcast, digital, or in new media that have yet to be created. 

And the difficult truth is this:

Uncertainty is an uneasy environment to inhabit.

But there is probably only one thing we can forecast with confidence for the span of your careers. And it’s this:

Constant change is likely to be the one constant in your field of work – or in any field of work.

Now: Social scientists have documented that change – even the happiest changes such as graduation, new jobs, new homes, marriage, and so on – can produce stress.

So changes in your field of communications promise you some stress ahead.

But – and this is far more important – this constant evolution offers you extraordinary opportunities.

This shouldn’t feel like a scary time to be graduating. It is an exciting time to be graduating.

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Let me look back again briefly before looking ahead:

My career has spanned a period of ongoing change in the business of journalism.

We have been perennially changing. And, for the most part, I loved it. I didn’t just embrace change – I loved it.

In 3 ½ decades in journalism, I never had the chance to get bored.

Did some of these changes come with pain? Oh my god, yes – absolutely. The first two afternoon newspapers for which I worked went out of business early in my career.

That was scary.

Even more scared were all those middle-aged white men – wearing white shirts and skinny neckties – who didn’t know what to do with all these different folks who were invading their newsrooms and companies:

young men who looked like long-haired freaks,

and all these girls,

and these black men,

all these outspoken young people obstreperously telling them that their ways of doing things were the ways of the dinosaurs.

This is what you now get to do to us Boomers – you get to wreak revenge on behalf of your grandparents’ generation.

More important is this:

You get to take head-on the tremendous changes in our fields of communications.

You get to lead the change.

You get to figure out the future of the media.

You get to make incredibly important decisions.

You get to be creative. You get to experiment. You get to try things that haven’t been tried before.

You get to figure out new ways of reaching people – and to help them understand vital information.

You get to lose sleep over it. Some of you might lose hair over it or gain weight over it. I certainly did the weight part.

There is no question that the challenges you face will be tougher than those that I and your predecessors have faced.

The threats are greater, and therefore the challenges are greater.

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Decision-making in media has become far more complicated than it has ever been.

Two of the main contributors to this fact are these:

the increasingly complex diversity of our own nation, and

the instant access to information around the world: What you do now can and does reach people all over the globe; often these are people who have very different cultures and beliefs from ours.

Both phenomena bring more and more diverse values into direct conflict.

To the first point: Think about how much easier it must have been to make decisions in those old newsrooms, when the opinion-elites – and even the not-so-elites across our nation – were a pretty homogeneous bunch. 

A lot of those decisions were poor ones – especially for the rest of us who weren’t white men of a certain age.

Today: You can’t think one-dimensionally. You have to not only embrace diversity in all its complexity. You have to try to understand it.

This is a very good thing, but it is harder.

At the same time, the impact of our decisions can reach anywhere and everywhere.

Think about the infamous case not long ago when Danish editors printed those controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Now, I don’t know whether these editors knew that it is an offense to the Islam faith to pictorially depict the Prophet.

Even if the Danish editors did know this, they surely didn’t expect the images to provoke riots across the Middle East.

And only a few years earlier, they wouldn’t have – because almost no one outside of Denmark would have seen the newspaper cartoons.

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I’d like to make another point:

There is an unfortunate misperception that our nation is no longer interested in news – in journalism – in reliable information or insightful commentary.

And yet: Look at the intense interest in this year’s presidential election – particularly among young people – and tell me if you think this is so.

People want information that is important to them, that is relevant to them. And they want it in ways that are readily accessible, interesting, and engaging.

So this is a big part of the challenge ahead for you: to explore all sorts of new avenues for reporting and delivering news, to create new formats and new sources of information.

That’s the fun part.

The harder part right now is the successful development of new economic models that will pay for good journalism.

The biggest problem plaguing the so-called the MainStream Media is not readership erosion. Indeed, when you add in the websites produced by newspapers: More people than ever are getting news from newspaper staffs.

The most threatening problem is that the traditional sources of our advertising support are eroding – and these losses are happening far more significantly and rapidly than are the declines in readership or TV news viewership.

Much of this shift is due to external forces, such as department-store consolidation and free want-ads.

Solving this economic equation is probably your biggest challenge ahead.

But, and this is the key point:

What an extraordinary opportunity you have.

You get to make change. You get to create change. You get to lead the change.

Don’t be scared. Be excited.

Be truly excited.

You are well-armed for this role. You are smart and energetic and creative. My experience at Arizona State has proven this to me.

Also, you have an excellent grounding from your studies here at Arizona State and particularly at the Cronkite School.

And, you must not let yourself get hung up on “how we’ve always done things.”

You have to devise effective ways to communicate with your generation and with the ones who come after you.

This will require you to be open-minded – and years of working with young journalists have taught me that they can often be the most reactionary traditionalists.

I used to think this was the fault of journalism professors. After my time with students here, though, I’m not so sure. It might be innate with you all.

This challenge will require you to screw your minds around thinking about things until your eyes are crossed and your brains feel like pretzels.

It will require you sometimes to tell people of my generation that we might be wrong. Please do so respectfully, and without crude language.

It will require both guts and smarts.

This is your challenge.

This is not just what our profession expects of you.

It is what our nation needs of you.

Clearly, the events of your own lifetimes so far – around the world and at home – show that we need informed, effective, honest, and independent journalism more than ever.

Does this challenge sound like high-flying, blah-blah-blah, commencement-speech jargon?

Well, my darlings, whether it sounds like this or not: It’s what you must do.

Please have fun doing so.