My first job in journalism was at the New York Daily News. It was, and is, a tabloid in the best sense of the word. We covered what we called the three Ms — murder, mayhem and Madonna. We snuck behind police lines at crime scenes. We called in tips from pay phones. And at midnight we would go to Times Square to wait for the competing papers to be delivered to a newsstand. It was a terrific first job — and a great time for newspapers, which were flush with advertising revenue and had no competition from the Internet. People look back on those years, in the mid-1990s, as a heyday for print.
But let me tell you this: those of you going into journalism are arriving at a time of much greater opportunity.
Of course there are uncertainties — which you have heard all about. The decline of local news…the disappearance of print advertising…the proliferation of listicles, and clickbait. I’m sure a few parents of graduates have watched these trends with interest.
Yet there is a bigger reality unfolding — one in which the truth of a story can reach millions of people in moments, and where audiences are expanding to the size of entire populations. At The Washington Post alone, we have doubled our readership in the last year, and now have some 50 million visitors to our stories per month. That would have been an unthinkable number in our supposed heydey. All of the growth is online, of course, and much of that online growth is really on mobile devices. What that means is something astounding: we as journalists have the potential to reach readers, in the palms of their hands, on a scale the world has never seen before. As The Post executive editor, Marty Baron, put it in a landmark speech in Riverside California earlier this year, “Never have I seen a moment of so much excitement, and so much anxiety.”
You may have heard that all this technology, all this scale, is rendering traditional journalism obsolete. Anyone can post a news story on Twitter, or livestream video of an event using periscope. Anyone can throw a document up online. And that is true. But something else is also true: often the most important stories are literally too dangerous for witnesses to just post on Facebook, or too secret for the people who know them to share. The hardest stories are ones that people cannot tell in the first person, for fear of retribution…or don’t want to tell, for fear they won’t be believed.
Let me give you two recent examples I had the honor of working on up close. The first, Jay mentioned already. Two years ago, a young NSA contractor named Edward Snowden became outraged by what he saw working at the agency, and decided the public needed to know about widespread phone surveillance that had never been disclosed. Snowden obviously had the technical skills to write this up himself on a blog. But he believed news that explosive had to come with extra credibility. So he brought the documents to reporters, ones he sought out because he trusted them, and that he believed the world would trust, too.
A short time after that, a colleague of mine at The Post, Carol Leonnig, started breaking stories about problems within the Secret Service. Agents were drinking on the job… or failing to do their jobs at all. A gunman shot at the White House residence while the president’s daughters were home, and no one noticed until the bullet holes were found several days later. Carol’s information came from people with firsthand knowledge…people who took great risks to share the stories with her…people who could never tell these stories themselves without being prosecuted. So Carol became the messenger. Her reporting forced a major overhaul at the Secret Service, and in my view helped make the president safer. It also won her a Pulitzer prize.
These are examples of what we still call real journalism — and there are so many of them for you to go and find in the years ahead.
For now, let me leave you with a few practical pointers. I’m going to break the first rule of listicles, which is to make them odd-numbered, and give you just four things:
First, Listen more than you talk. This is the key to good reporting, and also a good life practice. Most importantly, it will spare you having to cringe as you listen back over interview recordings wondering why you said all those things.
Second, show up in person. Stories won’t come looking for you. The people you interview will give you more if they know you made an effort. The same is true of bosses. I got my first full-time job by finding an empty desk in the breaking news part of the newsroom where I wanted to work — and where I had been told I couldn’t get a job because I was too inexperienced. I sat there until finally one day, a story broke, and there was no one else available.
Third, everyone knows something someday. Be polite to people.
Fourth, the news will always be there.
Oh, it’s addictive, alright. On election night in 2012, I was 10 months pregnant. I was 70 pounds bigger than I am now, and six days away from my daughter being born. Everyone in the newsroom was worried that I would have the baby right there. But you know what I was worried about? Missing the next day‘s story, and the inauguration, and everything else that would follow. I stayed at work until 2 am, trying to hold on to every last thread. And you know what? I went into labor the following Monday, and returned from work 5 months later…to even bigger stories, including Snowden.
The fear of missing out is a powerful force, and sometimes it feels like journalists invented it. We love to be where the action is. But it also takes its toll, especially in a 24-hour news cycle, and it can be a distraction from your long-term goals. Set your own priorities, follow your own gut. If it means missing a story here or there…well…there will always be another story.
Thank you. And congratulations, again