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Abandon ship!

With print journalism an uncertain profession, Cal Poly students are switching to PR

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OPPORTUNISTS :  Liz Poeschl (left), Anthony Circosta, and Kelsey Magnusen are all public relations students and all think print is dead. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • OPPORTUNISTS : Liz Poeschl (left), Anthony Circosta, and Kelsey Magnusen are all public relations students and all think print is dead.

It’s called print journalism or traditional media or even old media; call it what you want, it’s old news, according to some people. Newspapers are going the way of the 8-track, soon to be nothing but an archaic heap of pulped trees slathered in ink, according to Anthony Circosta, a Cal Poly public relations graduating senior. Circosta, like many Cal Poly journalism students, is pursuing an education that, unlike print journalism, he thinks might actually 
result in a career for him—he’s going into public relations.

During the past two years the numbers of Cal Poly news-editorial students and public-relations students basically switched. During the fall 2007 quarter the journalism department carried 79 news students and 49 PR students. By winter 2009 there were 78 students in PR and only 50 in news.

It’s difficult to judge a trend over just 
two years, but with newspapers full of stories about the decline of their own industry, it’s hard to imagine there is 
no link.

The journalism exodus isn’t just local. Historically there have been annual increases in the number of California State University journalism students. The trend changed in fall 2008, when the number of students dropped for the first time in 
a decade.

Zach Lantz is a 20-year-old journalism major at Cal Poly. He said his professors are beginning to hint that print journalism is less viable as a career option and the business model is changing.

“I hope it’s possible for newspapers to find a new way to generate revenue,” Lantz said. He added, “It’s definitely a scary reality if we lost legitimate newspapers and just ended up with bloggers.”

Cal Poly’s Journalism Department Chair Bill Loving is old school. His droll voice carries a tone of mild disdain for the blogosphere. “I’d hate to make foreign policy based on ‘Joe the Plumber’s’ ideas.”

Loving has taught college journalism programs throughout the country for decades. He’s seen the rise of media giants 
that scooped up newspapers and are now purging reporters to pay off debt.

“What we do as a profession has value,” he said. “What the corporations that look to media operations as cash cows; well, what they do doesn’t have value.”

There’s definitely less dollar value in newspapers lately. According to the Audit Bureau of Control as published in Editor & Publisher, all of the top 25 U.S. newspapers are losing readers. New York Post circulation was down 20.55 percent from October 2008 to March 2009, for example, which followed a 6.25 percent decrease from the previous six months.

Newspapers, as Circosta described 
them, are just “ink on dead trees that are pulped up.”

Two other Cal Poly PR students who spoke with New Times had the same take: Print journalism isn’t dying, it’s being lowered into the ground. Asked about the future of print, Kelsey Magnusen, a 20-year-old sophomore, laughed: “They’re circling the drain.” And new media has a finger ready on the garbage disposal.

Liz Poeschl, a 21-year-old graduating senior, believed online news is struggling to prove itself now, but is poised for a coup. “I think that blogs, they’re not really experimental anymore, it’s just the format is experimental in news.”

For now, PR agents depend largely on newspapers to spread their stories. That’s changing, too. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have made reporters almost obsolete, some Cal Poly PR students argue.

Anyone with a Twitter account can bypass newspapers entirely: just hop online and “tweet” 140 characters directly to the audience. A company CEO can simply broadcast a message on YouTube without having to go through the hassle of press conferences and reporters, students said.

Even now that they’re the majority, the PR students say they feel like the bastard stepchildren of the journalism department. They’re overtaking news journalism, but there’s only one fulltime PR professor and limited classes. Magnusen said she’s only two years into her education but has completed 75 percent of classes for her major.

They’re still more likely to land a job. In 2007, an annual survey by the University of Georgia found that public relations students were the most likely to land a full-time job after graduating compared to other journalism focuses.

“I think, yes, students are looking at journalism as a business and saying, ‘Wow, big newspapers are closing and very few people are getting hired as reporters,’” Cal Poly PR professor Doug Swanson said. “And they’re looking at the marketplace and public relations seems to be a good option.”

Mary McCorkle, who heads the Cuesta College journalism department, has an optimistic outlook on the future of non-PR journalism. “I know that’s cliché, but I just see this as an open window to a wonderful future,” she said. Technology is constantly expanding the reporter’s resource arsenal, McCorkle went on, and incoming students are learning new ways 
to take advantage. “My students don’t 
have to go on and just read the New York Times today, they go on and read the Jerusalem Post.”

For now, the online news world is kind of like the Wild West, Circosta said. Everyone is rushing to cyber space with often opinion-laden stories and they’re all just trying to strike gold. Fortunately for PR students, they think they know where the gold in journalism is. Eureka.

Keep reading the paper, staff writer Colin Rigley has no PR skills. He can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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