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2015 Encaenia
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John Honderich’s convocation address

John Honderich's convocation address

honderich_indexDelivered May 14, 2015.

Chancellor Lynch, President and Vice Chancellor Cooper, Board Chair Godsoe, Deans, esteemed colleagues, graduands, family members and honoured guests.

I want to begin by expressing my profound thanks to the public orator for those exceptionally kind words. It’s not often you get compared to Julius Caesar. Ole fellow newspaper hacks don’t usually speak about each other this way.

But I think I could get used to it.

I also want to say how special it is to be awarded this distinction from a college I hold so dear. And to be witness today to the graduation of the journalism student I have sponsored and mentored, Somed Shahadu from Northern Ghana, is nothing short of exhilarating.

Somed, you make me so proud. Your story is one of extraordinary diligence, perseverance and personal courage.  May your success be an inspiration to others.

Finally my distinction in standing here today is even more enhanced when I think of the significant cumulative achievement of my fellow honourees – Roselle Green, John Bragg and my fellow Torontonian and proud business partner Michael Macmillan. It is truly a privilege to be honoured with you all today.

While I may have graduated twice from another place, my links to King’s began a long time ago, not surprisingly to its school of journalism. I came here first when the legendary George Bain was running the school, then later when John Godfrey took over. I have watched it grow and prosper. And over the years, King’s has produced some truly great journalists, several of whom have come to work at the Star. I think it fair to say the school today has carved out a distinctive niche of excellence among Canada’s top tier schools of journalism. It’s a reputation to be very proud of.

But it is now the glowing graduates before me to whom I would like to pay special tribute – and offer a few words on the exciting path before you. Throughout this room I sense that magic of anticipation that excites every graduating class. The world is before you. The possibilities grand, the potential – without boundary. For that, I am sure you are grateful for what King’s has provided. Not only your degree.  But more importantly, the knowledge, the rigour and the thirst to excel that will undoubtedly serve you well in the years ahead.

Each one of you surely has an ambition, a goal or a life plan. But I would hope that part of that plan would involve a commitment to live a meaningful life, to participate as a citizen of this country and to participate in your community. In my experience, when one takes one’s passion and intertwines that with one’s community and then grounds it in a personal code of values, the resulting sense of achievement can be nothing short of extraordinary. You have had the great fortune to attend King’s at a time when public discourse and the open debate of great issues is fulsome and rich. However, one must never take this for granted. For in order for this public discourse to take place, all of you must be informed. You must have the best information to make informed decisions and to participate meaningfully.

To me, the quality of public debate, if not the very quality of life, is a direct function of the quality of media that serve it. Indeed, I go further.  The very functioning of a healthy democracy is predicated on a well-informed populace. If the media don’t function well and don’t do the hard-hitting, ground-breaking investigations along with the bread and butter coverage of our institutions, we will all suffer.

In my view, it is newspapers that have always played a unique role in this informing process.Through ground-breaking investigative projects, searing features, pointed commentaries, hard-hitting crusades and biting editorials, newspapers have most often set the agenda for public discussion. They provide, when well run, the means for a populace to examine itself, a channel to ferret out lies, abuse and corruption and a vehicle to give voice to those whose voices are not often heard. This is not to deny the impact of the electronic media.  Nor is there any set rule that says newspapers must play this role. But for decades, if not centuries, this has been the case.

I always like to cite the example, especially when I am here, of celebrated King’s journalism graduate Jim Rankin who 15 years ago definitively exposed the practice of racial profiling within Toronto’s police force. His series rocked the city and the police took us all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. We won at every level. For this series alone, it took more than $1 million, more than one year’s work, countless court challenges and a determination that only comes from a media institution flush with both resources and an iron will.

Yet what do newspapers face today?

An online revolution that has decimated the traditional media across the continent with reporters being laid off by the hundreds and newsrooms shrinking everywhere. Meanwhile, more and more young people like this graduating class are switching to the web where blogs and websites flood the space with up-to-the minute news and commentary. And you do it for free. Make no mistake, this shift has already had a profound impact on the quality of media in Canada – and consequently the quality of our debate.

There are some who rhapsodize this trend as a democratization of information – allowing one and all to participate in news gathering and commentary. They herald this as the welcome disarming of journalists as the gatekeepers of news and information. I do not share this view, because these same bloggers and instant commentators rarely choose to dig deep or launch in-depth investigations. Speed and instantaneous reaction are the bywords of the net. Meanwhile, as newsrooms shrink, both the resources and reporters required to do serious journalism are in shorter and shorter supply.

Who today has that $1 million that Jim Rankin had 15 years ago to do his decisive work? Precious few.

To me, there is absolutely no question traditional journalism will survive. There will always be a need for story telling.  And I don’t think it matters on what platform stories keep being told. We are already seeing a revolution on this front.

But it is the fate of serious investigative journalism that I worry most about. Is facebook the answer? I think not. What about twitter? It seems more and more young people get their news from Twitter – which is another story! But 140 characters to do an inquiry into racial profiling? I think not. Instagram? Are you kidding?

My generation has been scratching its collective head trying to figure this one out. But we’re far from the solution. My guess is it will be your generation that comes up with the solutions.  You are the ones leading the way in this new digital age. And I have every confidence you will do so.

So I say to you all today, be demanding in what you expect from your media. Remember always you have a vested interest in being well informed and making sure quality journalism survives. My good friend and fellow journalist Sally Armstrong has a great way of putting this challenge. “There are no innocent bystanders in this process,” she says. “Either you are part of the solution, or through inaction part of the problem”. At issue is nothing less than the vibrancy and health of our society. And if this honour today serves to highlight this challenge, my joy will be doubled.

Thank you.