What I would tell journalism graduates

I spend a lot of time talking to high school and college classes about the future of the news industry. But given the current state of affairs, I wonder if the journalism’s Class of 2009 is as confident to enter the this world as the rest of their fellow grads.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the clout or a PhD to give commencement addresses at most universities. You won’t see me at the podium of a prestigious journalism school this year, but if I were there, this is how I would advise the Class of ’09:

Congratulations, graduates. You’ve achieved a tremendous milestone in your lives. After four or more years of developing the skills you need to become a bona fide journalist, you now stand ready to apply those talents into your livelihood.

But keep this in mind. Once you’ve packed up your diploma and worldly possessions and step beyond the campus limits, all entitlements you’ve enjoyed during the first quarter of your lives will cease to exist.

At that point, you are on your own.

And what you face seems insurmountable. As journalism graduates, you are entering an industry in crisis. Newspapers are cutting back significantly or folding. Television and radio, while not as highly publicized, face similar declines in viewership and revenue. The Internet offers promise, but the successful ventures so far tend to be those that get by on shoestring staffs and budgets.

As as you look for a job in your field, you won’t be alone. You’ll be competing with more than 9,000 journalists who have been laid off since January of this year. Add them to the 16,000 people out of work in 2008, and you see the line for existing jobs is very long. In fact, one out of every four journalism job that existed 20 years ago no longer exist. You’re joining a growing group of people vying for fewer jobs.

Despite the gloomy forecast, I urge you to not give up.

We need you.

Despite appearances, the news industry is not heading towards extinction. It is undergoing an evolution. After the death of dinosaurs, the earth developed new life that grew and prospered. Likewise, from the death of the old media, a new, more exciting and prosperous media will emerge.

And we need you for that evolution.

For you see, the media is not dying because people don’t want news. Contrary, news readership continues to grow. More people are tuned in to what is happening today than ever before. Traditional news sites like the New York Times and Washington Post have highly-trafficked Web sites. Sites like CNN and BreakingNews are among the most followed on Twitter.

What is changing is how people get their news. That is something the current media refused to acknowledge from the outset, and it is the reason we are in trouble today. People may not want to read a paper at the breakfast table anymore, but they still want to know what is happening in their town, their region, their world.

People will still read a good story. The difference is that we must now give it to them on their terms.

And that’s where we need your help.

We need dedicated, passionate people who can tell a great story. But we need people who also understand their audience and what they want. You’ve grown up in a world that we older folk have trouble grasping, and you may see new, innovative ways of getting the story out that we are blinded to. Together, we can make the industry evolve into something that is relevant, vibrant and informative to readers.

So don’t give up.

If you’re lucky enough to land a job, congratulations. Put your best into it and be active in helping your company evolve. Be idealistic, but also be realistic. Don’t be dismayed by the setbacks, but keep your vision and help us achieve it. Don’t give up.

If you are still looking, continue to practice your craft however you can. Start a blog, network with friends, do freelance work in your spare time, do volunteer work. Continue to refine and hone your skills. Get a job to pay the bills, but don’t give up.

If you have an idea that may help the industry, try to go out on your own with it. Great ideas don’t always come out of board rooms. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name one great idea that originated in a board room. If you are successful, you will be noticed. If you aren’t, cut your losses and move on. Stay optimistic. Don’t give up.

Above all, don’t stop learning. Everything I learned in college became obsolete within 10 years. You’ll be extremely lucky if everything you learned outlasts your college loan payments. You don’t need to go back for a masters degree, but continue to read up on industry trends, take advantage of classes offered from community colleges to industry groups like the Poynter Institute. Expand your skills. Knowledge is gold. Continue to invest in it.

Yes, the headlines are bleak and the outlook is bleaker for the news industry. There is not much to hang hope on right now. But there is hope. We cannot allow the news industry to die, for to do so would endanger a key foundation from which our society was built on.

There is hope. And though you may not realize it now, you are a very big part of it.

Don’t give up.

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