“All gerbils die, and when they do, hardly anybody really gives a damn.”

Not bad for a graduation speech. Doug Bates, an editorial writer at the Oregonian, gave University of Oregon J-School grads a soupcon of wisdom recently on how not to do journalism in these perilous times (h/t Romenesko):

I’ve decided “gerbilism” is a pretty good word for what’s been going on in the news media these days. Gerbilism is an apt term for something that’s soft and warm and cuddly, safe and timid, with no sharp teeth and no bite whatsoever. Gerbilism, I’ve decided, is partly responsible for a lot of our nation’s problems today.

I agree. I just take longer to say the same thing.

Bates acknowledges journalism’s grim economic outlook, but suggests this is not a cause for pulling in horns. Just the opposite:

That’s all true, but let me tell you something: These might be tough times, but they’re also exciting times. You are entering a period of great ambiguity but also incredible opportunity. Yours will be the generation that reinvents what has come to be known as the “mainstream media.”

It has happened before. Toward the end of the 19th century, one man became immortal, as well as fabulously wealthy, by reinventing the American newspaper. Joseph Pulitzer revolutionized it by introducing such innovations as sports coverage, multi-column headlines, comics, women’s fashion news, lots of photographs, color illustrations and what came to be known then as the “new journalism” of muckraking and exposes.

Pulitzer’s model of newspapering was so successful that the industry stuck with it for over a century — too long. So long that American newspapers became conservative and hidebound, years ago.

For too long, the newspaper industry has needed the next Joseph Pulitzer, the next visionary who would reinvent the product and set it forth on another century of good journalism and commercial success.

(We, of course, take a backseat to no one in bowing to Pulitzer, who built this place. And did you know John Singer Sargent painted his portrait?)

And so, Class of 2009:

Today, I challenge every one of you to channel such U of O greats [he mentioned Nike’s Phil Knight and Dan Wieden and former Oregon Governor Tom McCall] and help change the world, the state, and the media. And whether you do it in journalism, advertising, public relations or some form of new media yet to be invented, please join the fight to keep shallow, fluffy worthless gerbilism from further weakening American democracy.

I don’t know if serious journalism will die, but I do know this: All gerbils die, and when they do, hardly anybody really gives a damn.

There’s only one thing Bates might have added about gerbils—they’re often made to run in place, pointlessly spinning wheels all day.

He’s right. Resist gerbilism. Do journalism.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.