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University of Missouri School of Journalism Commencement Speech

Columbia, MO, Jesse Hall – I went back to my alma matter yesterday to deliver the commencement speech at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism graduation ceremony. I do presentations all the time, but always with the support of visuals. The process of writing a speech was new and intense, but it was rewarding to share the experience with the Class of 2008. I was introduced by graduating senior Robert Crosby.

Robert Crosby: Our speaker is Brian Storm who graduated with his Missouri School of Journalism master’s degree in 1995. Mr. Storm is president of MediaStorm, the award-winning multimedia production studio based in New York City. MediaStorm has won several nationally recognized awards for its multimedia and documentary work. In just the past two years, the company has won multiple Webby Awards, Pictures of the Year International awards and an Emmy. Mr. Storm…

Brian Storm: It’s quite an honor to be here on this important day at this critical moment in journalism.

I’ve been thinking about what to say to you all for some time. Trying to put myself in your situation given the current climate.

I was in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Tuesday with some friends and I asked them about their graduation experiences. One woman graduated from NYU a few years ago and Bill Cosby was the speaker.

I said, “Wow, that’s pretty huge. What did he say?”

She said, “I don’t remember, but he was funny.”

Given that even Bill Cosby was not memorable, I feel the pressure on me is officially off.

But, then I realized, I’m not funny.

What I am is optimistic and passionate about journalism.

How can that be given that both the economy and the journalism industry are in a crisis?

Record numbers of lost jobs, homes and retirement funds are creating a divide between the American Promise and the American Dream.

At a time when people need quality news and information, traditional media are hemorrhaging and appear headed for bailout style CPR.

How did we get into this mess?

The moment journalism institutions began answering to their shareholders and their ever-increasing demands for profit margins, the public’s need to know was in jeopardy.

Walter Williams wrote in The Journalist’s Creed that “The supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.”

There’s no mention of 25% profit margins as a metric for success.

If you want to make a pile of money, this is not the right profession for you.
Frankly, Journalism needs defending against those who would sell it down the river for a quick buck. Journalists lead a rich life, but rarely get rich. We are inherently purpose driven, not profit driven.

Simply put, we, the practitioners of this craft, need to take journalism back.

You’ve just received a world-class education from the most storied journalism school in the United States. You are entering a profession desperate for new solutions. As such, the opportunity for you right now is absolutely huge.

You simply need to take the profession on your shoulders and make it what you want it to be.

At this moment of radical change in our profession, I see an opportunity for a new breed of journalistic entrepreneurs collaborating with each other to create compelling stories, using new tools and creating dramatic change in a global marketplace.

We need you to bring energetic idealism to the table at this turning point in our profession.

Imagine what it must have been like to be alive during the industrial revolution. How epic the turmoil must have been to existing businesses. Every aspect of life was disrupted by the changes occurring in agriculture, manufacturing, production, and transportation.

Imagine what it would have been like to be the owner of a horse and buggy business. And to, for the very first time, see an automobile drive by. What was that?

The right question to ask yourself at that moment is what business am I in?

Am I in the horse and buggy business? Or, am I in the transportation business? Are you in the newspaper business? Are you in the magazine business? Are you in the broadcast business?

Or, are you in the business of storytelling?

We are living at the start of a communications revolution that will change society as much, or more, then the industrial revolution did.

Think about the companies and products that have only recently changed our lives:

How did we get rid of our junk before eBay?

How did we find our way before GPS?

How did we waste our lunch hour before YouTube?

Xbox,
PS3,
The Wii.

Really, your parents played board games like Monopoly and Yahtzee.

They watched commercials too. No TIVO.

Can you imagine a world without Google? A world where you can’t do reconnaissance on your blind date?

What did we do before:
Amazon
MySpace
Yahoo
Skype
Flickr

And of course, iPods.

Did you know that iTunes recently passed Walmart as the number one retailer of music in the world?

I’m so excited I just twittered.

Honestly, no one has command of all these new capabilities. And, that is why the opportunity is so exciting.

As an industry, we are like awkward teenagers driving a Ferrari. The next few years will see incredible advances in our journalistic abilities.

It’s going to be crazy exciting. And you get to define it.

To do so, you will need to maintain the highest journalistic standards. This is where your Mizzou experience will serve you.

I don’t think the communications revolution that we are going through is about some reinvention of storytelling or journalistic creed.

The way we tell stories has evolved over the years, but beginning, middle and end still works. Ethical and accurate information will still rule.

I think the revolution is happening because of access. Access to powerful tools and access to global distribution in an increasingly connected planet.

It used to be that a high definition video camera would set you back $70,000. Now they are a few thousand dollars and I own one. It used to cost $250,000 to have a broadcast quality post-production system. Now, for less than $5,000 you can edit with a Macintosh that’s so fast it requires a seat belt. As the cost of entry plummets, the fidelity of the toolset is exploding. Thank you Moore’s Law.

Of course, having the tools is only part of the equation. We all know the famous adage, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” The fact is, we all own a printing press now.

MediaStorm is a team of six people. We only recently stopped working out of my apartment. But, we have visitors to MediaStorm.org from more than 130 countries each month.

How do these people find us? We aren’t a mainstream media company. We don’t spend any money on marketing.

We simply produce and publish compelling stories.

As old business models fail, I expect to see an influx of independent, purpose-driven collaborations. Small teams with passionate experts operating for the public good. The new world of open access makes this possible.

The average consumer today has an abundance of choices and more access to information than at any other time in history. It’s actually information overload. What we are all fighting for now is mind share.

Quality is what people care about. It’s what they are trying to pinpoint in a sea of information. It’s what they will forward to their friends when they do find it. It’s what they will blog post. We had one guy in Russia do a blog post about a story on our site and for a week straight our traffic was up 15 X. All coming from Russia with love.

One guy spread the virus through Russia with a simple blog post.

This surge of connectivity is another recent innovation that I’m hugely optimistic about. I think it’s the greatest hope for restoring quality journalism.

Marc Andreessen sent an email in the Fall of 1993 to only 12 people. Mosaic, the first web browser, spread virally and changed how we communicate with each other.

Connectivity is the new killer app.

My goal at MediaStorm is not simply to generate awareness; it’s to create change.

I want to share one example with you. We produced a piece about Congo called Rape of Nation earlier this year. Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale spent EIGHT years documenting the story of how diamonds mined in African war zones are financing the ongoing conflicts. It’s the story Leonardo DeCaprio dramatized in the Hollywood blockbuster Blood Diamonds.

A women from Oak Glen, California, Shea Downey, wrote in our reader feedback: “Thank you so much for your coverage on this devastating issue.” Reading this I felt we accomplished our first goal of raising awareness and compassion.

But then she goes on to say, “I am a small, fine jewelry retail owner.” This is the most powerful type of connection that we can hope to make. This is a person who can create real change by choosing where to purchase her diamonds.

She then writes, “I intend to forward this to all I know in the industry.”

YAHTZEE!

She’s driving awareness to her personal network, a highly targeted group of diamond buyers.

It’s true that less people care about Congo than Britney’s belly button. For me, it’s not about reaching the largest possible audience; pandering to the lowest common denominator. It’s about reaching the right audience with a relevant message.

Today, there is a robust infrastructure in place to reach these specific audiences and to create real change.

I’m inspired by this new ERA of connectivity every day and I’m constantly looking for ways to leverage these connections. On Wednesday, at 9:54am, I updated my Facebook status with:

Brian is writing a commencement speech.

I then posed a question to my network:
What would you say to the University of Missouri School of Journalism Class of 2008?

I want to share a few responses with you:

First, from your very own Brian Brooks at 9:59am, “Ignore the medium. Think content.”

At 10 am, photography agent Paul Melcher writes, “Be the change you would like to see happen.”

Both quite poetic. Words to live by.

Then, Mizzou grad (MA ‘91) Adam Berliant at 10:01 am wrote, “I remember the commencement speech that I heard when I graduated from there. The guy was a reporter from the New York Times. He essentially said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go into journalism.’”

While I don’t agree with that level of cynicism, it’s true, not everyone will make it as a journalist. There are 20,000 students who will graduate with a degree in photography alone this year. Only the very best will succeed in this craft.

Look, I wanted to play shortstop for the Minnesota Twins. You know what, I wasn’t good enough. Granted, your odds of making it as a journalist are better than mine were of making it as a Major League Baseball shortstop, but it’s going to be tough and you will need to be great.

So, back to more Facebook advice. Patty Caya, a student at NYU, wrote at 10:08 am, “Be the generation that finds the new model for journalism and makes it work. Take the talent and training and idealism that brought you to study this profession and apply all of that energy to figuring out the future rather than mourning the past. You will need to be part of a changing profession and that won’t be easy. If you want to do something that is easy, do something else.”

Tough love from Patty. To which Adam Berliant, at 10:14 am, posted, “New idea: Just read your Facebook comments.”

Ok, so I will.

Mizzou grad (MA ‘92) Dick Doughty wrote, “They must fall in love with the world. Otherwise they will become hacks and careerists. Beyond that, tell them they are historically lucky SOBs. For real. Graduating at a sunset of cynicism AND hard economic times. Struggle is always at the heart of the best stories!”

Mizzou grad (MA ‘94) Elizabeth Osder wrote, “Be about WHAT you get to do and not WHERE you get to do it. The WHERE’S are shifting but the WHAT is why we all came to MU. It’s the fire in your belly, your drive to tell stories, to witness.”

So, what then is the key ingredient for success? Simply put, Passion.

My friend Jesse Kornbluth, once a Contributing Editor of Vanity Fair but who now writes almost exclusively on the Web at HeadButler.com, wrote, “I encourage kids to place the biggest possible bet on what they really CARE about. The plight of the coal miners? Go to West Virginia. Become the world expert. Surfing? Move to California. Beg a job as an assistant board shaper, write for surfer rags. Rock? Be a roadie if you have to, just to get into position. Take the plunge. Write. Suffer nobly. Everything you have learned is preparation for what you are now about to learn. On the other side of a million words, the world will see you and you’ll know you weren’t crazy. Or, sadly, that you were.

See, Jessie is a good writer.

You start today from a very ideal place, The Missouri School of Journalism. A program with 100 years of tradition.

There has never been a more important time for the Missouri Method of Journalism, to help people understand the complex world in which we live. You will need to build on these values to move our profession forward. And, we are counting on you.

It is one of the most exciting times in history to be a young journalist. You have an almost limitless palette of storytelling tools, an audience unbound by physical borders and the most powerful communications technology ever developed at your disposal.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Our role as journalists is to help the bending process. This is your time. This is your moment.

I offer you congratulations on your accomplishment today and wish you great success in your journey.

A note of special thanks to those who shared their ideas for this speech including those noted above, Elodie Maillet, Ed Kashi, Merrill Brown, Rich Beckman, Tom Kennedy, Kenny Irby, Richard Koci Hernandez, Liz Ronk, Andreas Gebhard and to the 46 who made comments via Facebook.

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  • http://blog.mankatschen.tv Stéphane

    Hello,

    It’s good to read this kind of analyse about our work and his future. This time,it was a graduation ceremony speech, but I think you could say the same things to many established journalists, particulary here, in France.
    We’re experiencing the same cuts-off, and same interogations this side of atlantic. No more money, ads going away, so what is there to do?
    One response is given by media big bosses with theyr reaction face to Josh Cohen during the ‘etats generaux de la presse” (http://mediawatch.afp.com/?post/2008/12/13/Newspaper-bailout%3A-what-role-will-Google-play-in-the-news-ecosystem). Google is the evil please give us more public funds to save our business!
    Another is drafted in your speech : work, be passionated and work more! I’ve made my choice
    Thank you again for this little christmas gift ;o)

    Stéphane

    PS : Sorry for my bad english…

  • Greeley Kyle

    I loved your commencement address. You were funny, relevant and wise in the right places, but most importantly, your words gave the graduates hope in what many see as a bleak time in our industry, nation and world.

    I’m glad you put the speech on your website because I plan on using excerpts in my introductory lecture for my Broadcast II class. You said a number of things that could be of value to all students, and I intend to pass them along.

    Many thanks from someone who’s sat through dozens of graduation speeches and found yours one of the most memorable.

  • http://brianjosephlewis.wordpress.com Brian Lewis

    Brian,

    I think your admonition to focus on the content and ignore the medium is refreshing and timely. Regardless of platform, people are going to recognize quality media “product” (I dislike that term, as it ignores the intimacy and necessity of content in todays world – I think Liz Lemon’s media/food conflation is closest to reality in terms of functional equivalents today).

    Anyway, great address, best of luck, and watch out for a rez down the road:)

    Cheer,

    Brian Lewis,
    MA Candidate, University of Missouri School of Journalism

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