Those of us in journalism pretty much know the extent to which our field is being decimated by the simultaneous unraveling of the economy and of the journalistic business model. Still, Barbara Ehrenreich’s commencement address at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism is well worth reading.
The dean gave me some very strict instructions about what to say today. No whining and no crying at the podium. No wringing of hands or gnashing of teeth. Be upbeat, be optimistic, he said — adding that it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a few tips about how to apply for food stamps.
So let’s get the worst out of the way right up front: You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are furthermore going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry. You have abundant skills and talents — it’s just not clear that anyone wants to pay you for them.
Well, you are not alone.
How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid-off paper-mill workers, construction workers and miners. They’ve got skills; they’ve got experience. They just don’t have jobs.
So let me be the first to say this to you: Welcome to the American working class. . . .
The rest is worth reading, too. Despite Barbara’s glumness, she focuses on how essential journalism is—and how, because of that, it will, must, somehow endure:
. . . Which brings me back to the subject of journalism as a profession. We are not part of an elite. We are part of the working class, which is exactly how journalists have seen themselves through most of American history — as working stiffs. We can be underpaid, we can be jerked around, we can be laid off arbitrarily — just like any autoworker or mechanic or hotel housekeeper or flight attendant.
But there is this difference: A laid-off autoworker doesn’t go into his or her garage and assemble cars by hand. But we — journalists — we can’t stop doing what we do.
As long as there is a story to be told, an injustice to be exposed, a mystery to be solved, we will find a way to do it. A recession won’t stop us. A dying industry won’t stop us. Even poverty won’t stop us, because we are all on a mission here. That’s the meaning of your journalism degree. Do not consider it a certificate promising some sort of entitlement. Consider it a license to fight.
In the ’70s, it was gonzo journalism. For us right now, it’s guerrilla journalism, and we will not be stopped.
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