I got asked to speak to a class of business students about two weeks ago. The students were all upperclassmen, all entrepreneurial-minded. I talked about learning how to adjust to life after college, and then we got into the Q&A. One student asked me if I had any heroes in journalism.
“I’m not going to stand up here and be the reporter who tells you I want to be Bob Woodward when I grow up,” I said.
She looked at me blankly.
“I don’t know who that is.”
I went into defense mode.
“Oh… oh, that’s okay. You’re not a journalism student. You’re not legally obligated to know his name.”
“Who in here knows who Bob Woodward is?”
There were 16 students in that room. They were all 20 or 21 years old. They were all well read. Several of them have founded their own businesses.
Point is: These are not dumb kids.
Not a single hand went up.
And I stood there, just kind of numb. This wasn’t me pulling out a reference to a semi-famous writer for SI or Esquire or the LA Times. This wasn’t me proclaiming my love for Studs Terkel.
This was Bob Fucking Woodward, the man who brought down the President of the United States. Every one of these students knew what Watergate was.
Not a one knew who’d written the stories that had forced Nixon’s resignation.
A few nights later, I met up with Chase Davis, a fellow Mizzou grad who runs the tech arm of the Center for Investigative Reporting. I mentioned that story to him, and he said the wisest thing: That’s the perfect anecdote to explain how insulated journalists are from the rest of the world.
And he’s so spot on here. I don’t think there’s a reporter out there who doesn’t want to see his/her story create impact. Create change.
But the truth is, so much of what we do doesn’t break through to a large audience. So much goes ignored.
That shouldn’t stop us from reporting. It can’t stop us from telling great stories.
But it’s something we have to be aware of. Historically, news organizations have done a lousy job interacting with readers. Things are getting better — thanks, Internet! — but only a fraction of readers are actually taking to social media/blogs to talk back.
We in the journalism world have to work quadruply hard to break through with our stories. We have to continue to expand our networks beyond the newsroom. We have to be a part of the conversation out in our communities.
Because forty years ago this June, Bob Woodward was part of a team that produced the single most impactful piece of investigative journalism that’s ever been done. Woodward’s stories forced the most powerful person in the known universe to resign his office.
And forty years later, a group of well-educated, well-read students didn’t know his name.
They should. One day, I hope they will.
We have to keep telling important and powerful stories. But we also have to work so much harder to share our stories.
There are so many people out there who still aren’t reading, and who don’t make news an active part of their lives. We need to break through and get to them.
Our work has only just begun.