A message to media studies graduates, from a journalist who doubted his own career prospects

On June 12, 2019 I had the honour and privilege of addressing the 2019 graduating class of Centennials College’s School of Communications, Media, Arts and Design as their convocation speaker.

In preparing for my 8-minute address I spent weeks considering what makes this moment such a unique time for the industry; how the conversation about media studies and other arts programs have evolved since the time I graduated from one such program in 2010; how my own experiences as a journalist have shown me the true power and influence that the media can have; and the high level of responsibility that comes with that power and influence.

I wanted to share these remarks more widely because I feel they are applicable to anyone graduating from a media studies program right now, especially those who doubt their own career prospects.

Please find the full script below. You can also now find the video here.

Members of the board of governors, incoming President Dr. Craig Stephenson, members of the dais party, students and guests; I am here today because I suck at math and science, although I did alright in English.

I didn’t want to be an English major, so I did what you all did, and enrolled in media studies. It sounded like fun, not too much work and it involved a lot of writing. Plus we got to watch movies and read comic books and call it homework.

About a year in I noticed my friends were volunteering for the campus radio station or starting web design companies making websites for local businesses, and I started looking around for something I could do. I ended up volunteering for the school paper, and while I enjoyed the writing part the time commitment was a bit much.

I was a little unsure about it, until one-day representatives from the disabled students union came into the office to complain about a lack of accessibility on campus. I went to the student council president and asked him about it, and he shrugged off the issue, explaining there was no room in the budget. Then I wrote a story about it, that story made it to the front page of the school paper and suddenly people on campus were talking about it.

A few days later, some room was miraculously found in the budget. I can still remember walking around campus, watching the construction crews build new ramps and crosswalks, and I knew right then and there what I wanted to do with my life.

I ended up becoming an editor of the school paper, going to journalism school and after struggling for a few years as someone else’s employee I decided it might be more fun to struggle on my own. Today I write for some of the biggest news organizations in the world as a freelance journalist, reporting on what it’s like to work in an office, while working from home in my sweatpants.

When I started writing about the future of work so much of the conversation was about STEM education, that is, science, technology, math and engineering; Basically, all the stuff I sucked at. The headlines at the time were, “how are we going to get more children into STEM?” “How are we going to get more women into STEM?” “How are we going to close the STEM talent gap?” “Are there enough STEM students in the pipeline to meet the demands of the future workforce?”

There I was with my undergraduate degree in media studies and my Master’s in journalism, spending my days writing about how the only skills that mattered were the ones I most sucked at. And if you had asked me seven years ago when I began my journalism career, I would have said the future belongs to the engineers, the scientists, the mathematicians and the technologists of the world.

Today the conversation has changed dramatically, and I can now stand before you and confidently say that the future belongs to the artists, the communicators, the designers and the storytellers. Why? Because of the rapid pace of technological innovation, ironically the very thing that caused people to jump on the STEM bandwagon in the first place.

It was long believed that in a world of technological disruption, the only safe job was to be the disruptor.  It turns out that those hard skills have a pretty short shelf life, and it’s only getting shorter. Industry standards are changing so rapidly and technology is becoming so sophisticated that the hard, technical skills one learns in post secondary school are often obsolete by the time they collect their diploma.

A recent report by RBC predicts that more than 25% of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted in the coming decade, and half will go through a significant overhaul of the required skills. Think about that from the employer’s perspective. When half your workforce suddenly becomes obsolete, you have two options: fire half your staff and replace them with those who have the right skills, or retrain the people you’ve got. Most employers will probably choose the latter.

Because those hard skills will have to be taught and retaught so frequently, and because many of them will be automated out of necessity, they have little value. It’s the skills that easily transfer between roles, and the skills that can’t be programmed that are going to have the most value to employers in the future.

Communication skills, creativity, the ability to learn quickly, the ability to solve abstract problems, being comfortable with ambiguity; those will be some of the most valuable skills in the future.   

I remember other students making fun of the media studies program when I first arrived on campus in 2006. The movies and the comic books didn’t help. The value of these skills and the power of these platforms was so underestimated when I began my university career thirteen years ago, that I actually started to believe them, and seriously doubted my own career prospects.

But when I saw the reaction to the article I wrote about accessibility on campus and the actions that resulted it became crystal clear to me that there is incredible power in storytelling and in the arts.

And because our course materials included comic books I knew that “with great power comes great responsibility,” at least according to Spiderman’s Uncle Ben.

As the future tellers of society’s stories and communicators of its messages you have an incredible burden on your shoulders, and I urge you not to take it lightly. You are graduating into a world that casts doubt on the information it receives, especially when that information doesn’t conform to the recipient’s existing worldview. You’re graduating into a world where your work will be under a finer microscope than any generation previous, the chorus raging against you louder and more powerful than ever before, and the temptation to bend to its whims never greater.

I am here to remind you that whatever you do with the piece of paper you are about to receive, know your work will, in some small way, shape how others view the world in which they live. That is incredible power, and like any power there’s going to be a temptation to abuse it.

Sometimes skewing that worldview can make for a catchier headline, more pageviews, more subscribers, more sales or more interactions. You will be tempted at some point in your careers to ignore the long-term implications of your work in the pursuit of short-term gains, but before you begin your career journey I want to remind you that the most valuable currency in this line of work is credibility.

Credibility is not something gained in one day or in one piece of work, though it can be lost in one. Building credibility instead requires a longstanding commitment to the truth; to internalizing the responsibility you have to the public and to not breaking that trust. You can’t program AI to have credibility, you can’t go to school to learn credibility, you can’t wait until its convenient to start building credibility.

You gain credibility by walking out those doors today, and committing yourself and your career to honesty rather than exaggeration, to the public good over personal gain, to sharing the stories that are too often forgotten instead of the ones that are more likely to go viral, to creating art and design that challenges your audience’s perception of the world, rather than reinforcing it.

The world needs more honesty, more integrity, and more credibility now more than ever. As the 2019 graduating class of Centennials College’s school of Communications, Media, Arts and Design you are in a unique position to provide it, and I can’t wait to see what you do with that responsibility.

Thank you and congratulations class of 2019!  

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