Graduation address: There’s life in the media yet


The Dark Knight Returns

I was asked to speak at a graduation of Sydney University arts graduates, primarily media students, on the afternoon of 15 May 2015. 

I want to begin by adding my respects to the traditional owners of this land, and their elders past and present.

First of all, I want to thank the Arts Faculty for doing me the great honour of asking me to speak today. I only graduated late last year, and it occurred to me on that day that I’d probably never wear these amazing robes again – thanks so much for the chance to dress up once again as Academic Batman.

It’s wonderful to be here in the Great Hall on a perfect Sydney day. This is a truly special place in which to conclude an academic career – and I want to say to those who’ve never previously visited this magnificent venue before – welcome to Hogwarts.

Sorry I promised myself I’d do that! Although JK Rowling is an arts graduate. Accio relevance to my speech!

I want to start by congratulating you all on successfully completing your degrees. It’s not easy to focus on more than 140 characters at a time in this hyperstimulated era, as I found when writing this speech – did you know you can play Nintendo Game Boy games online for free, and the final series of Justified is really very good– sorry – so the sustained effort needed to complete your studies for years on end is a huge achievement.

I also want to congratulate you on your bravery. Doing arts and dabbling in media and pursuing things that interest and engage and excite you is brave in this society, sadly.

Well, I work alongside an awful lot of arts graduates at the ABC – one of the few corporations where this degree might be a distinct advantage, in fact – and there are a lot of us in the media more broadly.

And that’s because the media is still a place for arts graduates who are passionate about ideas, passionate about principles and passionate about stories. You have imagination, empathy and originality – and, crucially, the ability to express it. You can think critically in an age where few people seem to have time to think much at all.

So you should be extremely proud of being people who think about things besides yourselves, and profit, and shareholder value, and how to fill your own bank accounts – at least I hope you are, or you might be in for a rude shock.

Congratulations also to the parents too, who encouraged your offspring to pursue their interests, as opposed to compound interest. I’m sure that now they’ve graduated, everyone in front of me is no more than 4 or 5 years away from moving out of your homes.

We also have a lot of media and communications students here… and as that’s my field I want to address many of my comments to you.

Those of you who want to work in the media, face enormous uncertainty today, much like Johnny Depp. Working in a major media organisation can be like attending a wedding in Westeros. Many of those around you won’t be around at the end of the day, and some will end up getting flayed by House Bolton. At Fairfax nowadays, they play the Rains of Castamere in the lifts.

And this is because whenever you look at the long-term audiences for traditional newspapers or TV or radio station, one thing is clear: winter is coming.

But this is also a time of unprecedented energy and excitement in the media. As old titans downsize, dynamic new outfits take their place. Just yesterday, the Federal Treasurer was interviewed live on Twitter’s Periscope app by Buzzfeed. If I’d read that sentence to you a decade ago, you’d have thought I was either demented, or in marketing – two Venn diagrams which, you’ll find, intersect quite a lot.

But from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, Vice News to Huffpost, new outlets are popping up everywhere as rapidly as abusive comments crop under any article published online ever.

So what I’ve decided to do for the rest of this speech is demonstrate  the most important media skill you can have in 2015, and offer you a listicle. My friends at Buzzfeed tell me that the best listicles have prime numbers, and that 17 is the best. That’s not a joke, they researched it. We haven’t time for that many, so please allow me to offer you the 7 things I wish somebody had told me when graduating.

1) Have a go

I’m copying that line from Sydney arts graduate Joseph Benedict Hockey, but at least I’m attributing it, which according to the Daily Telegraph puts me one step ahead of the Daily Mail.

And it’s the most crucial thing I want to tell you today.

I started a creative business with friends from this very uni, a stone’s throw from where we are sitting today. In fact, after this is over, we should go and throw stones at the place where The Chaser began – it would seem fitting. And we did that because my friend Charles Firth finished university after a protracted, aka standard, arts degree, and didn’t want to join the conventional workforce. I was studying law at the time, and the debt I owe Charles for saving me from that life can never truly be repaid.

We started a newspaper which at the time was not the incredibly stupid decision it might seem today. Back then it was merely a bad decision, so we committed to 8 pilot editions of the Chaser satirical paper to find out if it was financially viable. After the eight we had our answer – it wasn’t. But we were arts graduates, not accounting graduates, and so we ploughed on for another 82 issues before yielding to the financially obvious.

Still, it began an incredibly wild ride that’s still continuing 16 years later. Some might think it’s slightly less wild now that I’m a middle age radio presenter at a public broadcaster – but it’s still pretty wild when someone challenges the answers in Norman the Quiz, let me tell you.

Thanks to having a go, I got to be in the room at the Logies the night that Steve Irwin’s snake bit Channel Ten newsreader Tim Webster. I got to perform onstage around Australia singing a song about how disturbingly hairy I am which made my family proud – hey, they gave me the genes – and I ended up in court on a charge of aiding and abetting offensive behaviour, to which I of course pleaded guilty. All of which proves either that you should indeed have a go, or the Arts faculty should choose more reputable occasional speakers.

And it’s easier to have a go than ever. When I was an undergrad, taking photos, making video, generating graphics, broadcasting radio and building websites required specialised equipment. Now you can do almost all of that on a smartphone. The only thing stopping you trying anything in the media landscape nowadays is your own willpower – oh, and you’ll need regular meals and a bed. Sorry parents.

2) Dive in and learn on the job

When we started the paper, we weren’t the best comedy writers in the world. We weren’t even the best comedy writers at this uni. But doing it again and again made us less rubbish to the point where we had something resembling a career. It’s all about flying hours, and you should dive in and learn from your mistakes – unless you’re an actual pilot.

3) Be across the tech

Knowing how things work gives you creative control. You don’t have to code – sorry, Bill Shorten – but you should be a person who knows how to update the website, or correct the layout, or edit the video, or mix the audio track. The geeks are inheriting the earth, so be enough of one to produce your own content.

4) Reinvent yourself

One of the extraordinary things about the media is how many chances you get to try something different. Take Red Symons, my colleague who presents breakfast on the ABC in Melbourne, used to be a professional television gong hitter on Hey Hey, and before that was a Skyhook. Take the Daddos, who collectively have held every single job in the Australian media including mine. Take Kyle Sandilands – preferably somewhere far away. Just this morning Kyle won unfamiliar praise from many on social media for confronting Barnaby Joyce over Johnny Depp’s dogs. If Kyle can seem the good guy in a conversation, anything’s possible.

5) Pick the right targets and tell the truth

I think it was proved that keeping the bastards honest isn’t possible when the Australian Democrats were deregistered earlier this year, but some of you might bring a few down, like Kate McClymont, who has done so much to remind us that investigative journalist is as valuable as the Obeid’s property portfolio… used to be.

6) Partisanship is boring

I don’t want to know what you’re going to say before I read your article or hear your voice. Don’t preach only to people who already agree with you. As we found with the Chaser, it’s much more fun to have a war on everyone. By the way, please ignore that last bit if you end up working in foreign policy.

7) It’s all about the audience…

Nowadays you can measure your audience exactly and attracting them is the key to survival. Also if people don’t like what you do, they can now tell you directly.

But that isn’t everything – because often, as Steve Jobs said, people don’t know what they want. Most of us – and that includes many producers, marketers and media executives – can’t think beyond a brief that’s similar to something else that’s already worked. That’s why so many people make almost indistinguishable cooking and talent shows.

I’m here to tell you that you won’t make the next This American Life, but you might just make the next thing that is as good as This American Life.

Back your own taste and judgement. Give the audience something they haven’t even seen before. I’ve found that this may occasionally make you a national pariah, but in the end of the day you should be satisfied with what you’ve done. Whether other people like it is up to them.

In my own case, that meant writing a novel about a Sydney Uni SRC election, which was deeply satisfying in every respect except sales.

Which brings me back to the words of your fellow graduate – and former SRC president – Joe Hockey. Have a go. Start a website. Write a novel. Make a podcast. Film an online video series. Maybe don’t start a newspaper unless you’re incredibly wealthy… but Morrie Schwarz’s is going well. Try what you really want to do before you settle. Many of you will do extraordinary things because that’s what people who sit in the Great Hall and receive degrees from this faculty tend to do.

I can’t wait to find out what this latest crop of arts and media graduates from the University of Sydney are going to do. And as per media tradition. I’ll be looking on with a combination of awe, intense pride and bitter, resentful jealousy. I may even use the phrases “young whippersnappers”, and “back before the internet”.

The world is yours for the taking, and as of today, it’s for people like me to stand back and watch you take it.

Unless you want to write a novel about an SRC election – sorry, that’s been done.

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