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Commencement | Thomas Curley Address to SOC Graduates

Commencement Address
(as delivered)

American University School of Communication

May 12, 2012

Thomas Curley
President and CEO, Associated Press

Good morning. Thank you.

Let's cut to the chase. I understand Lindsey is looking for a job. You've got one! We'll work out the details at the reception after.

Listening to that generous introduction, I am reminded of the one at my own graduation. The fellow was awarded an honorary degree in equally glowing fashion. Not long after graduation, his company went kaput. So please keep in mind what you've heard this morning, that there needs to be perspective on these things.

I am descended from teachers, several generations of them. It's important to begin by saluting the folks who did so much to help you get here. As I look at many of their faces, they helped me get where I am. They are deserving of all accolades. I salute them first this morning.

I am especially honored to join you. Degrees are truly one of life's notable achievements. A degree from American University is especially thrilling and humbling. Washington has become my home, and unlike seemingly everyone running for office and from Washington, I'm happy to be here and proud of it.

At a moment like this, one is expected to dispense a bit of advice. I've always found this task particularly amusing. The road I traveled compared to you is so last millennium. So let's get this part of the assignment out of the way and then talk about what matters, which is you.

There are three things you can do to help yourselves: First, make mistakes. In fact, make plenty of them. Second, figure out how to work and play on teams. And, third, the one lesson I hope you have learned very deeply while you've been here, and that is to keep growing.

Mistakes are what really penetrate and result in life changing progress. The psychology professors can explain it. I'll simply report it's the one lesson I have practiced many times over. Thomas Edison said, when asked why it took so long to design the light bulb, he said, "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

The team thing is how the world works these days. Failure there will have consequences. Peer evaluations—remember middle school?—are the toughest and the quickest way to be tossed onto the street. The lone wolf or the renegade who succeeds makes for a fantastic story, and I even confess to having written some of those myself, but today's global marketplace is complex and intertwined. You can go a lot farther if you get along with others.

Growth is what we've got to talk about because it comes closest to defining your world, perhaps both the hopes and fears. When you arrived here four or more years ago, there was no iPad. Facebook barely extended beyond a campus in Cambridge. And tweet to the extent it ever entered the popular lexicon was confined to reruns of Saturday morning cartoon shows. Google news search is only slightly more ancient.

It began when you were in that middle school. So change, actually turbulence, is what you face and why I think you are so fortunate. More than any time in history, certainly more than your mothers and fathers have experienced, young people are free to invent their world or, more precisely, turn dreams and ideas into working realities.

Consider what has happened in Arab countries in the past year, driven by young people ready to risk all for a better future. That change was enabled in large part by the digital revolution that has been taking place in your lifetime. In the first three months of the Arab Spring uprisings, tweets per day hit 252,000, or three every second. When Osama bin Laden was killed, there were 5,000 tweets per second, a record that was eclipsed when Steve Jobs died and tweets hit 10,000 a second.

There's a reason why we have moved from the dot com, 40 something millionaires of a decade ago to 30 something and now 20 something mobile billionaires. OK, the sudden riches or winner take all bit feels weird. But it's happening because people are really capturing this emerging world.

For you, it defines a moment of incomparable opportunity. Look, I know it's tough out there, and this change thing can be really upsetting. And let me divert for just a second from the positive script of commencement addresses the world over. Life is messy and sometimes downright miserable. Nearly every industry has been turned on its head by the digital revolution. Unemployment is uncomfortably high, and economic progress is uneven. Newspapers, to pick on my heritage, have lost half their revenues just since most of you entered this university. Thousands of journalists, some of them quite courageous and exceptional, have lost their jobs.

But there's an upside, and it's the one you must embrace. The number of people, for instance, having access to news—solid news, not statist propaganda—has doubled since you entered high school. The number of news items accessed on a given day has grown many fold. The number of people being connected to electricity will grow by more than a billion in a generation.

News still breaks unpredictably. Just since you've been in school the Gulf oil spill, a wicked financial crisis, the death of bin Laden, Japan earthquake tsunami nuclear crisis and the Arab Spring to mention a few. The world wants to know about these events right away. Of course, this is the world you know. It started with browsing and searching the World Wide Web, and now it's part of every generation's lifestyle as we update our status and share the news with our friends from the moment we wake up until we get back in bed at night.

Last year alone the number of mobile connected tablets in the world tripled, and the traffic per smart phone tripled. One of the things we can tell you is all this has nothing to do with wires and gadgets. The greater change is cultural. Think back when you first set foot on campus. You probably remember being both excited and scared. You know so much more than you did four years ago. It's a world open wide to innovation and to the opportunities being created.

We know how people will be consuming information. We even know the range of devices they'll be using and what they'll be comfortable paying for it. That's all very new. It is a world you will create, and the rest of us will have to adapt to. We're hoping some of you do so well you can afford to hire a few of us older people to help. Actually, we're very skilled at navigating change, and reasonably interesting, too.

There are a few things that are scary. Debt will be a burden on your generation for years. Opportunists will try to upstage the United States. And anyone in a leadership position will have to learn to deal with today's style of discourse, which, unfortunately, is often about deceit and vilification. Frankly, we're hoping you do something about that.

Some of you no doubt have big dreams. I encourage you. Have the passion to follow those dreams and your heart. I was too busy chasing daily news to dream or even see a bigger plan to carry me through life. I just followed my nose, literally. One day running down a beach and noticing unusually thick smoke a few miles away, that led to the amazing summer of 1968, when cities were burning and temperatures were hotter. Young people everywhere were fed up with a far off war in Vietnam, with politics and adults they saw as unfair. Those times make the Occupy Wall Street protests look like a cocktail party at the country club.

For me, that meant front page story after front page story. I was 19. It was years before I figured out why I fit in journalism. After all, these are the folks who actually run to danger. It was decades before I understood why I was associated with change. Every breakthrough, major and minor, in which I have participated, has been opposed.

Think about it for a minute. How do you do anything new? By thumbing your nose at conventional wisdom. Every innovation has to challenge an orthodoxy, a mindset of perspectives. Orthodoxies are populated by people who are sure they are right and equally sure they know more than you. Sometimes they do. Or perhaps at one time they did.

Soon after I joined A.P., I gave a speech that decried the dramatically escalating trend toward government secrecy in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and how that practice undermined democracy. Many media leaders disagreed with my doing this and said that the timing was wrong. Memories of 9/11 were still too close to push for the cause of open government, they said. But a remarkable thing happened. The speech received enormous attention. It came as a relief to many. After several years of quiet acceptance of growing government secrecy, the media and public began to challenge it again. And I learned a valuable lesson. The political apparatus at the White House tried to put pressure on AP directors to stop these kinds of speeches. Who knew a person from a small town in Pennsylvania could rattle the White House?

It was just the inspiration needed. The board stood firm. A coalition was formed. The Freedom of Information Act got its first update in 40 years. The conversation changed, too. The effort is now seen as making government more competent and making it responsible to us. It is about making sure every American has the right facts and accurate information, so he or she can make informed choices. Every day our journalists, and those of other media organizations, put their lives on the line and endure great deprivations in order to reveal to the world the real story of the country he or she is in. They sacrifice to give voice and hope to the people who need it most.

As I reflect on a life spent in journalism, I am humbled most by those who stepped forward at great risk to themselves to help us tell those stories. It may be the Syrian resistance fighter desperate to get the story of government oppression out to the wider world or the individual who told AP about the new underwear bomb because he thought Americans should know about the latest challenge to their safety.

Those who dare to speak out are also our heroes. My generation was described as the most activist in history. We weren't active enough. Raise the bar and enjoy the fight. It's worth it. Each generation has to define and win the freedoms that matter. That's the opportunity of your lifetime. You're about to walk through a door that's open wider than at any previous moment in history. May you speak up for what's right for your family, your community and, maybe, even for the world.

To the class of 2012, congratulations and Godspeed.