To Grads: The truth about journalism

June is grad season, and globetrotting millionaire journalist Christiane Amanpour has graduated to the place for old journalists.  No knock on Amanpour who left CNN and war zones to join Disney’s Sunday salon in D.C.

My quarrel with her is over what she said to the 2010 class at Harvard recently.

I’m not jealous of her. I spoke at Harvard’s Class Day in 1977 as class humorist.  I told 3,000 mostly rich white people about being a Filipino at Harvard. I appeared as Marcos.  It was a crack-up. For details, you’ll have to get my book “Amok.”

I don’t know if Amanpour channeled a dictator during her speech. In fact, I wouldn’t have known about it had she not used that new media technique known as Twitter, where she tweeted thusly: Delivered Harvard Class Day speech for seniors yesterday. Great honor for me! Urged them to pursue journalism, find passion and purpose. 6:08 AM May 27th

Twitter’s great isn’t it? But here I can respond in more than 140 characters.

I’m glad she’s honored. It was an honor for me. My first stand-up comedy routine. And then I went into journalism.   Amanpour did the reverse. She spent years in the trenches covering wars and wearing Safari outfits, and then went to Harvard to deliver her biggest one-liner:  She actually urged people to pursue journalism.

That’s a funny line.  But easy for a multi-millionaire journalist  to say.

The fact is many of the journalists I know are currently under or unemployed. Among them a few Pulitizer prize winners and a number of regional and local award winners who just can’t get a job because there aren’t any.

The journalism industry’s business model has disintegrated in the last five years, and the only way a news organization  seems to stay in business is by cutting wages, people,  and coverage.

It’s not pretty.

In Honolulu, the small paper bought the big paper making the city a one newspaper town with one too many staffs. Many of my old colleagues who have done nothing but journalism are now polishing up resumes to send where? The next newspaper that will go under?

In radio and TV, your best prospects of getting a job is not having done a hot story, but being hot and young (which means you have no kids, mortgage, nor a need for a high salary). Great.  But it’s unlikely you’ll cover Watergate. Or even a City Hall scandal.  Maybe you’ll get a murder. Is that your passion?

And if you’re a minority, the days when diversity was valued by the mainstream media are over.  An industry loses compassion in survival mode.

You want the future of journalism? You’re seeing it. The niche market. Highly targeted audiences. Not the shotgun approach of the “mass media.”  When was the last time your local mainstream paper even printed the word “Filipino” in the context of your life, your community?  That’s why one of the outlets I write for, the Philippine News, the oldest Filipino newspaper in America, has real value.

Perhaps I’ve reacted to Amanpour more acutely because recently I gave a talk to 5th graders at the ACORN Woodland Academy in Oakland.

How can you tell 5th graders in the inner city with a straight face to go into a dying industry?

So I was honest.  I told them you could make millions, or you can make ten cents a word. I told them they are already  licensed to be journalists. The First Amendment (which they had just learned about) gives them that right.

Now the question is are you curious? Do you want to know–everything? And once you do know, are you burning to tell everyone the truth about it?

If so, you are cursed, but journalism will be both your blessing and reward.

That’s more honest than Amanpour’s message at Harvard.

(Oh, and I also told them to learn how to tweet).