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Story California

CSU-trained Journalists: Vital to California

Hazel Kelly

California citizens need reputable news and trusted information today more than ever, and the CSU is preparing the future workforce of truth-seeking journalists.

stack of newspapers on a table

​​​​​​​​​​​​Nearly 1,000 students graduated with journalism degrees from CSU campuses in 2018-19. These graduates often go on to become professional journalists in California, playing a key role in gathering news and sharing vital information to communities.  

While the CSU's journalism programs educate students on the fundamentals of journalism—verifying facts, interviewing, storytelling—they also train for skills that can set graduates apart from the rest. “For a student to be competitive in the job market, they must have a broad range of skills: be an excellent writer, tell stories on multi-media platforms, know things about web delivery, social media and video and audio," says Jason Shepard, Ph.D., chair of the communications department at Cal State Fullerton. “Students are increasingly expected to have a niche in a particular area or beat—whether that's environment or politics or sports."

At Sacramento State's Department of Communication Studies, professor Phillip Reese is training students in the art of data journalism, another high-demand skill for today's news media professionals. His data journalism and data visualization courses train students how to find, analyze and then visualize data for a lay audience. Journalists who are able to crystallize data and break it down into a compelling story will have a competitive advantage, says Reese, who also works part-time at the Sacramento Bee as a data specialist.  

“Those skills, even in this tough job market, are very much in demand," Reese says, explaining that while journalists are often not drawn to math, those who are able to take a spreadsheet with thousands of numbers and find a story within it have a skill that news organizations want.

In addition, Shepard says it's important that we teach future journalists how to be skeptical but not cynical. “We need to teach them how to understand the role of journalism in holding people in power to account," he says.


Student Media as Learning Labs

Beyond the classroom, student journalists gain valuable experience working for their campus media outlets. “We've had a long tradition of student newspapers, which are such fundamental learning labs for journalism. That's why it's so important for universities to support vibrant journalism as a model for what we want in society," Shepard says.

The COVID-19 crisis has presented its own unique trials—and opportunities—for student media coverage. CSU​ campus newsrooms across the state have continued to produce news content during the pandemic to keep students informed during a time when there are often more questions than answers.

“Our campus newspaper [The State Hornet] has been all over it. They've broken news and been the first on a lot of campus-related stories," says Reese, touting that the student-run publication won a 2017 Pacemaker award (and was a finalist in 2018 and 2019) from the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP). “They've done a great job of keeping up with the news and keeping our students informed."

At CSUF, the Daily Titan has also received many accolades (including honors from the 2020 Best of College Media from the California College Media Association), as have many of the CSU's student-run media. The Daily Forty-Niner and DIG MAG—two student-run publications at Cal State Long Beach—won multiple awards from the ACP this year.  (And in 2018, CSU student publications won a collective 116 awards for collegiate journalism.)


Power of Partnerships

In addition to student-run media, many CSU journalism students gain real-world training outside the campus thanks to unique partnerships with professional news organizations.

In fall 2019, Reese organized a partnership with the McClatchy newspaper group to provide local reporting experiences for his students. During the semester, students wrote stories about new California laws and how they would affect the communities in which some of McClatchy's largest California publications are based. The newspapers included the Fresno Bee, Merced Sun-Star, Modesto Bee, Sacramento Bee and San Luis Obispo Tribune.

“The goal was to instill what it was like to work on a big enterprise story," he says. Students engaged in fact checking, news writing and interviews, and about a dozen of the student-produced articles were published as a result.

This semester, in another partnership with five community newspapers near Sacramento, Reese tasked his students with reporting on proposed bills and what those laws could mean for the respective communities. 

Another partnership benefiting both CSU students and the media is the CalMatters College Journalism Network. Launched in March 2020, the new program currently has six student fellows from a combination of CSU, University of California and California Community College campuses. Two of the spring 2020 fellows are CSU students.

“It's a great opportunity to improve the breadth and depth of CalMatters' higher education coverage and provide mentoring and training for the next generation of journalists," says Felicia Mello, CalMatters' College Journalism Network Editor and founder of the program. “We collaborate with student journalists on stories about how higher education policy is affecting their campuses," Mello says. Stories are published on the CalMatters website and made available to its media partners.

 “[The students] have a perspective that makes our reporting a lot richer. Fellows share an intense curiosity about the big issues affecting students today and have their finger on the pulse of what's happening around them," Mello says.

Mello empowers student journalists by reminding them that they are representatives of the public and their fellow students. “They are real journalists and deserve to be taken seriously. They have a right to ask those tough questions and get answers," Mello says, adding that her talented student fellows already have quite a bit of reporting experience under their belts.

While the program is in its early stages, Mello says that they are interested in partnering with student media outlets and will continue to recruit new fellows on a rolling basis. Fellows are selected to reflect both the ethnic and geographic diversity of college students in California, she says.


Indispensable Local Journalism

Many CSU journalism graduates begin their careers at smaller local news organizations, playing a vital role in community journalism. Shepard says these local media outlets are the “watchdogs of local government—the eyes and ears of California citizens. It's the small local news organizations that have been a critical component to the fabric of local communities."

Reese adds that smaller local news outlets help to inform the public so they can make decisions about local laws and elected officials. “A lot of the things that matter in people's lives is decided at the local government level," says Reese.

But smaller local news organizations (as do the larger ones) continue to face financial challenges—ones that are likely to increase during the COVID-fueled economic downturn. “It's scary to think about what will happen if these local media outlets cease to exist," Shepard adds.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a major news organization that does not have a CSUF alumni working there." —Dr. Jason Shepard, Communications Dept. Chair, CSUF 

Shepard says that CSU journalism students and graduates have an opportunity here: “to have a mindset about reaching new audiences in new ways that help sustain the business model for journalism that will need to be there into the future​local journalism in particular."

Speaking of the importance of local news, several CSU alumni have been selected to serve on Report for America's 2020-21 reporting corps, including two Cal State Long Beach alumni, a San Francisco State alumna and a CSUF graduating senior. The program places journalists in local media newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities as part of the nonprofit GroundTruth Project.

And many other CSU alumni serve critical roles in professional media. “You'd be hard-pressed to find a major news organization [in California] that does not have a CSUF alumni working there," Shepard says, adding that CSUF has one of the largest accredited journalism programs in the United States.

CSU journalism alumni can also be found in media organizations across the country. CSUF's very own journalism lecturer and Daily Titan newsroom advisor Walter Baranger is an alumnus of the program who went on to become a long-time news editor at the New York Times before returning to teach at his alma mater.

As today's media landscape continues to evolve, the CSU is committed to preparing the next generation of journalists to keep California citizens informed.



Learn how the CSU prepares more communication professionals for California. ​

CSU Journalism Programs

Many of the CSU's campuses offer journalism degree programs (or related majors with a journalism emphasis) to prepare future professionals for this vital field. Select a campus to learn more:​