Rick Reilly -- ESPN.com columnist and 1981 University of Colorado alumnus -- delivered what amounted to a farewell speech to CU's School of Journalism and Mass Communications on May 5th. True to his journalistic style, he offered a mixture of advice and risqué one-liners that kept graduates in stitches and school administrators in a cold sweat.
His advice ignited anew the tension between bloggers and conventional journalists. At one point he quipped that bloggers were only good for "holding down couch springs in their mothers' basements." Reilly further advised some 280 graduating media professionals:
When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON'T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! What you know how to do now is a skill that 99.9 percent of people don't have. If you do it for free, they won't respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody's boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON'T!
My stomach went into a knot and I quietly murmured to myself, "That's easy for you to say, old man."
Reilly is one of the highest paid journalists in the business. His weekly column at ESPN.com draws an estimated $3.4 million a year and he owns homes in Denver and Hermosa Beach, Calif.
The thrust of Reilly's message -- take pride in what you do -- was timeless. But with all due respect Mr. Reilly, demanding pay from an industry that is financially reeling will do as much to get you to first base as showing a date your Beanie Baby collection. I know from experience. (The former... not the later)
He cut his teeth in a different era. During the speech, Reilly should have had an expiration tag attached to his robes dated 1979. That was when he got his first journalism gig as a sophomore in college at the Boulder Daily Camera.
Things were different in '79. The Empire Strikes Back was in production, Starbucks was a mom-and-pop coffee shop in Seattle, and a network dedicated solely to sports -- that was sure to be a flop -- called ESPN was launched. No Internet, no blogs, no Twitter... different time, different world.
Journalism was reserved for a privileged set of trained professionals. It was an exclusive fraternity and Reilly was a prized pledge. The heralded jokester hasn't seen the unemployment line since his days at the Camera. He quickly rose through the ranks of some of America's most respected print publications -- The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN The Magazine.
Much to Reilly's and many journalism purists' chagrin, writers are no longer bound by journalism's power structure. The Internet has provided a means for writers to hot-wire their way to the top through blogging. Bloggers are undesirable second cousins that Reilly and company would prefer not to call colleagues. Unfortunately for him, some of them get pretty good.
Take Reilly's ESPN counterpart Bill Simmons (aka "The Sports Guy"), one of the web's first sports blogging sensations. Simmons landed a job with ESPN in 2001 after being spurned for years by newspapers and "reputable publications." For four years, Simmons forwarded an AOL column he wrote for free about the Boston sports scene to family, college buddies, and anyone else interested. He tended bar at nights to pay for his writing habit. He built a following, and eventually ESPN took notice.
Today, his ESPN.com column draws an estimated 2.5 million hits a week and Simmons is in the process of starting his own sports and culture website on ESPN's dime. On a Boston radio show in 2005, Simmons mused on his experiences,
I tried to do this [writing] conventionally. I spent three years at the [Boston] Herald and even tried to make my mark at the [Boston] Phoenix. The bottom line is that newspaper unions have killed this business -- writers stay too long and never leave, and young writers who would kill to have their jobs never have a chance.
I've been an avid Reilly follower since junior high, but asking him how to eke out a writing career in the current journalism economy is a little like asking Kate Middleton where to find a reasonably priced wedding dress. Young writers should follow Simmons' lead and be more worried about exposure than a paycheck.
P.S. - Mr. Reilly, if you need an unpaid intern that can give you another decade's worth of pithy, culturally savvy zingers feel free to tweet me... if you know what that means.