Pulitzer-winner John Branch headlines JMC commencement
Congratulations to more than 40 students who graduated from CU Journalism & Mass Communication on December 19! Our commencement speaker was New York Times sports feature writer John Branch, who received his master’s degree from Journalism & Mass Communication in 1996. Branch won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing this year for his multimedia project “Snowfall.” Here’s the text of Branch’s speech. You can watch the full ceremony on our livestream channel
Fall 2013 Commencement Address
John Branch (MA ’96)
Journalism & Mass Communication
University of Colorado Boulder
Director (Christopher) Braider, Dean (John) Stevenson, distinguished faculty, friends and family members, people who wandered in from the cold and have no idea what is going on here, Moms and Dads, MY mom and dad – they wanted to come to make sure I wasn’t joking that I was asked to do this – and, most importantly, the graduates of the Class of 2013:
You did it. You did it! You each should be heartily congratulated on your achievement. It is a tremendous feat of daring and perseverance. And I’m not talking about getting a degree. I mean, a lot of people get degrees. Thousands of them are being handed out at CU this week. It’s a nice achievement. It’s one of the few things left in life that no one can take from you. A college degree. Pretty great. But it’s not what makes you special.
What makes you special is this: A journalism degree. You didn’t believe the cynics who said that journalism is dead – some of whom, perhaps, are sitting in the gallery of family and friends. You ignored the misinformed who insisted that there was no more School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado. You heard it was “discontinued,” yet you continued. You laughed in the face of unpaid internships and tuition hikes. You survived here in Boulder, through floods and fires and a bad football team. You will, if all goes well, survive this speech.
Yep, you majored in journalism. What were you people thinking?
All I know is that you were thinking with an open mind. And that says a lot about you. I would like to spend this time telling you what to expect from a career in journalism. But I can’t. I have no idea what you’re going to find out there. And that’s the beauty of it. These days, we just don’t know. A career path? I don’t think so. Predictability in this business has been plowed under, leaving you to stomp out your own trail.
This isn’t dental school. Most of you don’t know where you’ll be in 10 years. If you do, you’re wrong. Many of you don’t know where you’ll be in one year. That’s OK. Some probably don’t know what you’re doing for dinner. You might want to get on that.
You want predictability? You should have been an accountant. But you don’t want to be an accountant. You will find that when you meet accountants, they will want to talk about your job, not theirs. There’s a reason for that. As a journalist, get ready for a lifetime of people asking you about your job, because it almost certainly will be cooler than theirs.
It’s no coincidence that so many of my favorite people in the world are journalists. They are smart, open minded, compassionate, hardworking and adventurous. Especially the photographers. Those people are great. Hang out with them.
I pick on accountants in part because I recently saw a list of the “10 Most Useful College Degrees in 2013.” Number 1 was, of course, “accountant.” Number 2 and Number 3 on that list were “marketing” and “business administration.” Guess what? I have those degrees. I don’t find them particularly useful. Which probably explains why I’m not across campus at the Business School giving a speech right now.
But Number 9 on that list of most useful degrees: Journalism. It’s one spot in front of finance. Take that, finance! If nothing else, that should make your parents happy. We’re No. 9.
This is why I’m especially proud of you. You don’t know exactly where you’re headed and what you’ll find. But you have confidence to follow your hunch. You followed it here, and you’ll follow it out these doors. It is a skill that all good journalists must have. And it comes in handy in real life, too.
Let me tell you a secret: journalism is not that hard. You just tell the truth and follow your hunch. That’s it. A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of stories on a professional hockey enforcer named Derek Boogaard, found dead and alone at age 28, in the prime of his career. Over several months of reporting, I often told Derek’s father that I’m just picking up rocks and looking under them. It occurred to me that journalists are just big kids. We pick up rocks. We look underneath. And then we tell everyone what we found.
If that sounds anything like you, you’ll find your way in this ever-changing world of journalism. And since journalism is really just the study of current-day life, you’ll find your way in life, too. What better training could you have for life than journalism, and vice versa?
At this point, a Journalism degree is basically a license for adventure. And adventure means – I looked it up – “an exciting or very unusual experience,” or “a bold, usually risky undertaking.” That sounds better than being an accountant, doesn’t it?
So, if you have not heard it enough these past few years, let me say it to all of you: Congratulations for having the courage to follow your hunch. Most people don’t. I didn’t, the first time around, which is why I have a Business degree. Be proud to be a Journalism major, especially one from the University of Colorado.
These are strange, tumultuous, scary, incredible times for journalists, and truth tellers and rock picker-uppers are needed in this crazy world more than ever. The more others run from it, the more opportunity they leave for you. Journalism isn’t dying. It’s changing. It’s not being “discontinued.” It’s being reinvented. And you are the re-inventors. How lucky are you?
That’s why you should be commended, at commencement, for stepping forward into the great unknown. If you are good at this, and you badly want to do it, you will make it work. And we’ll all be better for it.
And now, some advice. I don’t expect you to remember it. I don’t expect you to remember any of this. We’re all just players in some grand tradition of graduation ceremonies, where we celebrate our individual accomplishments by dressing in matching robes, wearing flat-topped square hats at jaunty angles, and finally – finally – getting to wear tassels on our heads. Nothing says “achievement” like brightly colored tassels hanging near your ear.
Part of this tradition includes listening to an older person give advice to an audience that wishes he or she would stop talking. I am the older person, you are the weary audience. I hear, again and again and again, that audiences don’t have the attention span for long narratives anymore. Good thing that The New York Times doesn’t believe that. I’d be out of a job.
I have put my advice into list form. That’s mostly so that you can tell when I’m getting near the end, which is nice. So here are SEVEN pieces of advice — seven things NOT to do. You might have been tempted to make a list of 10, because that’s a round number, but nothing in real life comes in 10s. Don’t be a cliché. That’s a free piece of advice that I won’t count: Don’t be a cliché.
Don’t try to be liked: Journalists are not in the business of making friends. You will make a lot of them, because you are compassionate and smart and interesting and you will meet a million people. But be careful. You are in this business to find truth, and the truth often hurts. Objectivity still matters, more than ever. Heroes fall, institutions fail, and you need to be positioned to tell the stories fairly and accurately.
Here is one way to test your appetite for this work: If you work on a story and your biggest concern is how it will be received by the subject of the story, you are in public relations. In journalism, your primary allegiance is to the readers and viewers – an audience of strangers. Understand that.
Don’t be a jerk: I know that I just told you not to try to be liked. But that doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Your greatest tool – your only tool — is your integrity. You can do this job – and do it best – by treating people with honesty and fairness. The only reason people shouldn’t like you is because you showed the world something that they did not want revealed, not because you were an insensitive cheat and a liar. In any debate about the morality of a journalistic enterprise – and those debates take place constantly — make sure that you are on the right side. It’s not that hard.
Don’t assume you know what the next day brings: If you want a predictable schedule, be a banker. Here’s a story: I was a business reporter. The reason I became a sports reporter is because a sports reporter where I worked died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. In desperation, with the football season about to start, my paper handed me a plum beat, covering a top-25 college team. I had never covered a football game before. Sadly, my big break came when a colleague died. It happens.
Another story: On a sunny day one April, I was covering a hockey playoff series between the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. At the moment, it was the biggest thing happening in Denver. I was at the Avalanche practice rink, waiting to interview a player, when I overheard something about a shooting at a high school. Within 30 minutes, and for the next two days, I was at Columbine High School. Expect the unexpected. That’s what makes this interesting. That’s why we’re here.
As an aside, one of the clear memories I have from that time at Columbine is seeing a Denver television reporter, a guy who had been around for years, walk around to teenagers outside the school. They were crying or wide-eyed in shock. He brusquely asked them, as if moving down an assembly line, “Do you know anyone who died?” With each silent shake of the head, he moved to the next person. “Do you know anyone who died?” No introduction, no compassion, no thank you. A jerk.
Don’t be the story: Resist the trend to inject yourself into your work. Journalism is about other people. Drop the ego.
Don’t just be a jack of all trades. Master something. I know a lot of journalism schools, including this one, have been told by newsrooms and those who hire graduates that they want new employees who can do it all – who can write, who can photograph, who can video, who can edit, who can write code. What they want is a Swiss Army knife. For you, it’s probably a healthy thing, to have been exposed to a lot of different aspects of journalism. It’s great training. But now you need to rise above the rest. And that’s by being the best at something. Find your passion. Be better than anyone else at it.
Don’t be afraid to be original. Too many people in this business are enamored with the familiar and the famous. It’s why Denver newspapers and news stations provide breaking news about every groin pull involving the Broncos. We know it’s not the most important thing going on, but we think that’s what the audience wants. In fact, the audience doesn’t know what it wants. It just knows what it’s used to getting. Journalism is not a formula. Especially not now.
My goal is to write stories you’ve never read before. It’s harder than it sounds. People often ask me about the famous athletes I’ve interviewed, and they always seem vaguely disappointed when I shrug. Most of my favorite story subjects are people you’ve never heard of, like the nine teenaged girls in Tennessee who found themselves playing on a hopeless basketball team in a school for juvenile delinquents. I find their stories so compelling, so heart-wrenching, so much more important than any professional game that I’ve ever covered, that I went back a year later to write about them again, and have plans to follow their lives over many years.
In fact, some of my favorite story subjects are people I never even met, like the big kid from Saskatchewan named Derek who became the NHL’s toughest man and died of an overdose as he tried to shield the world from his pain. A lifelong beer-league bowler from Michigan named Don Doane, who was 62 when he finally bowled his first 300 game, then fell dead of a heart attack as his friends congratulated him. And Jim Jack, Chris Rudolph and Johnny Brennan, three men who dared to live the way others dream, only to be snuffed in an instant by an avalanche last year.
Every story is about people. A big reason I’m here, I know, is because I wrote a detailed account of that deadly avalanche called “Snow Fall.” The story and its multimedia presentation received a lot of attention. I’m guessing a lot of you were forced to read it for class sometime over the past year. I’m sorry if you’re tired of it. But I tell people that Snow Fall is not a story about an avalanche. It’s a story about people in an avalanche. There’s a difference. A story is only as good as its humanity.
Now that you’re graduating, there’s another lesson in Snow Fall that you should consider. Sixteen people at The New York Times worked on Snow Fall. Besides me, there was a photographer, a copy editor, a video journalist, several computer programmers and coders, designers, graphic artists, even a cartologist. Many of those are jobs that did not exist in our newsroom just a few years ago.
So, no, I can’t even tell you what the newsroom will look like in a few years. I won’t hazard a guess about the entire industry of journalism. The digital world has changed everything, and it will continue to change things in ways we cannot conceive or predict. You are part of that. Embrace it. I think you already have.
Actually, there is no No. 7. I decided to stop at six. Don’t be predictable.
What this means is that you are almost finished listening to a speech you’ve probably already forgotten. A few weeks ago, I took to Twitter – hey, I’m not that old – and asked followers to offer advice that I should pass on to you. The first response came from another journalist: “It’s not too late to stay and get a useful degree,” he wrote.
See? Aren’t journalists fun? But I’m sure it’s a sentiment that you heard when you chose to come here, and while you were here, and will continue to hear as the tectonic plates of our industry grind, as newspapers go out of business and the hugely important world of information dissemination splinters into fragments and bytes not currently conceived.
Journalism? Who in their right mind would get a degree in journalism these days?
I can’t think of anything more useful than chronicling lives and events, and I can’t imagine a more fascinating time to do it. It won’t be easy. It may not always be profitable. But you have already followed your hunch to reach this day. You’ve come this far. Keep going. The rest of the world will follow.