By Jacob Turnrose | Opinion Editor

On Saturday, May 27, John Diaz will address this year’s graduating class as the commencement keynote speaker. Diaz has been the opinion page editor for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1996. Recently, Diaz moderated a panel conversation with three of the nominees for the 2017 Visionary of the Year award. This award was started by the Saint Mary’s School of Economics and Business Administration in partnership with the Chronicle. The Collegian had the pleasure of interviewing Diaz.

How did you get involved in journalism? Why?

I became interested in the news (especially sports and politics) at a young age. I delivered the Oakland Tribute (then an afternoon paper) while I was in junior high in Livermore, and I always felt a sense of excitement as the truck was pulling up at “the shack” where the carriers gathered to get their papers for delivery. As I was folding papers, I often found myself enthralled with the news on the front page. I joined my high school paper in my senior year (El Vaquerito, Livermore High) and found that I really enjoyed it. When I got to college (Humboldt State), I thought it would be fun to join the student newspaper, the Lumberjack, even though I was initially undeclared. I soon became a journalism major, and the only real question was whether I would go into print or broadcast. I took the first job I was offered, with the Red Bluff Daily News, circulation 8,000 — covering everything from rodeos to fires to the Tehama County Board of Supervisors — and I never looked back.

Why do you think journalism is important, especially in today’s political climate?

Journalism is more critical than ever in this era of “fake news” and a Trump administration determined to de-legitimize the media by calling us “enemies of the American people” and threatening to “loosen up” libel laws to make it easier for public figures to file lawsuits against news organizations. Journalism provides a vital independent watchdog over the government and the people in power. I also think this era only amplifies our burden to earn that public trust: by adhering to our values and standards of accuracy, fairness and accountability.

As someone who’s been in it for so long, what are your reflections on journalism as a career?

The business model of newspapers has been challenged in many ways from the day I entered the profession: by television news, by changing work patterns and lifestyles, by economic cycles and, more recently, the Internet. Interestingly, the biggest impact from the Internet has been on advertising. There was a time not long ago where a business had to advertise in a big-city newspaper to reach potential customers or job applicants. Not anymore. They can now easily connect with their customers directly in an individualized way. As a result, our revenues shrank dramatically, and that forced deep cuts in newsroom staffing.

What advice do you have for student-journalists?

Be bold. Make a difference. Take on sensitive subjects. Be the go-to source for people in the campus community who want a straight-up account of what is happening.

What advice do you have for students interested in journalism as a career?

You don’t need to study journalism to launch a career in the profession, but it is critical to get some hands-on experience at a student newspaper or broadcast station. Internships will give you a great edge when you apply for a job. In fact, some of our entry-level hires have had two or three internships. Also, don’t specialize too early, either in subject matter or medium. The more flexible you are, the better your chances of getting a job. And here’s the bright side: Our profession needs an infusion of young people who are digital natives and possess not just the technical skills, but a grasp of the new ways people are communicating with one another.

Generally speaking, what topic will be addressing during your commencement speech?

I’m still formulating my thoughts — thanks for asking, you’re prodding me to get going on this! — but the general theme will be the threat to truth and knowledge we’re seeing today in the “real world.” Don’t worry, it won’t be a downer: I want to be positive on this special day for the Class of 2017, and talk about how each of you can apply the values and pursuit of knowledge to bring about change and offer an antidote to the cynicism and polarization that is so pervasive in society. I also promise to keep it succinct: I am very aware that this is the graduates’ day, and the last thing they want or need is a long speech. I am extremely honored to be invited to join this great occasion.

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