When Advanced Web Offset, the last major offset printer in San Diego County, closed and then merged with Anaheim-based Advantage ColorGraphics, the fate of local print publications—including those of high schools and colleges—was at stake.
This, coupled with declining signups and ad revenue, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of digital media, could lead some to believe that print media is on the decline.
But Dean Nelson, director of Point Loma Nazarene University’s journalism program, explains that this idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
“The reality is that printed newspapers still serve a very important function and have a very high readership in niche markets or in smaller communities,” he says.
“Student newspapers are experimenting with magazine formats, and this is another successful form of local publishing,” said Temple Northup, director of journalism and media studies at San Diego State University. “They often generate the highest advertising revenue.”
Northup also advises against total depressurization.
“If you’re looking for local news, it can be difficult to find online rather than finding a newspaper that will come to you and speak to you,” he says. “If print media falls away, you may lose every last bit of local coverage.”
With all of these elements in mind, North County’s collegiate publications at Palomar College, MiraCosta College and California State University San Marcos are feeling the pressure to conform.
Not gone, but possibly forgotten
Erin Hiro, professor of journalism at Palomar College, recently announced the campus newspaper’s transition to an online-only format.
“The biggest concern with The Telescope staying online is that the campus community will forget that we have a campus newspaper,” she explains on her website.
Back in 2018, Hiro noticed that fewer people — especially college students — were picking up the print edition of The Telescope. Hiro says she believes this is a generational phenomenon, which is also related to her observation that students have a harder time distinguishing between analysis and facts. This may be because television and online coverage does not always identify the information as such.
“Misinformation is a big problem – we’re trying to counter that by focusing on finding sources and putting them into (stories),” she says.
While digital news has its advantages, Hiro explains that the format isn’t easy to navigate.
“Our readers click on the fun things to do, the fun things to see,” she says. “They care about film reviews, sports and how Palomar is doing, but we want them to care about what influences them as well.”
She adds, “Nobody covers Palomar College except us. It is our job to serve as a watchdog and (report) that Palomar does what it promises.”
Hiro clarifies that this is not an implication of wrongdoing, but rather a reminder of the importance of journalism in a democratic society.
Students leaving Palomar also affect their program.
“You need a four-year degree in journalism — most students want to do their four-year degree,” she says. “They don’t have time to attend all of their courses, especially if they’re receiving financial aid.”
“You Must Be That Watchdog”
Marbella Ramirez, a student at California State University in San Marcos and editor-in-chief of The Cougar Chronicle, says the newspaper is in a similar situation.
“We don’t have an official journalism program,” she explains. “It is difficult to attract students who study journalism. … Many CSU schools are in the same situation.”
She says CSU schools share stories through each other’s publishing platforms. In addition, CSUSM students network with other institutions on campus to promote their voices in their publications.
“We use these resources to connect—we’re all intertwined,” she says.
In developing her opinion piece for the San Diego Union-Tribune, entitled “Student journalism programs are at a crossroads. Are there going to be no more print newspapers?” Ramirez tried to reach out to high school journalism programs across the county. She noted that many were on hiatus or not currently working on a release.
Additionally, she shares that The Cougar Chronicle was one of the clients lost in the Advanced Web Offset merger. One of her concerns is the missed opportunity for high schoolers and college students to feature their peers in print.
“These students are our future,” she explains. “How many will go beyond high school or college and make a difference? We always say, ‘You have to be that watchdog’, but you also have to support the future of these students by being the first reporters.”
She adds that student journalists help set the standards that cultivate their fellow students’ ideas about journalism early on.
“A lot of our students are getting messages from social media right now – we as students need to be a reliable voice,” she says.
Ramirez says she is undeterred by her challenges. She has focused on improving the look of The Cougar Chronicle and giving fellow students a chance to experiment with different ideas.
To better align with new opportunities, she says, “We need to advertise in a certain way and push that our site looks amazing so we can attract advertisers and get help from the community.”
The Chariot, MiraCosta College’s student newspaper, went fully online during the pandemic and has been on hiatus since this semester. The school doesn’t have a dedicated journalism program, although it once had one — rather, the newspaper is part of its Life and Leadership office and is run by student volunteers.
Student Services Assistant Superintendent and Vice President Alketa Wojcik says the decision was made after a careful review process, which also took into account how students would like to receive information. She explains that The Chariot is funded with college money for a consultant and working capital from the Associated Student Government. It also sells ads, but these haven’t been as successful in the past two years.
“With the input from the students in the coming year, we will examine which options best support our students in finding information and tackling problems,” she says. “It will come back, but in what format or structure is yet to be determined.”
In the meantime, students receive a newsletter every Monday and can read newsletters produced by other campus institutions. According to Wojcik, the ASG is actively working to improve communication with students on issues on and off campus, which includes sponsoring the debate in the 49th congressional district and co-sponsoring the League of Women’s Voters forum on California proposals.
Hope for print news and journalism in general is not lost. Some believe a major hurdle is an industry misunderstanding.
“When I talk to college students about journalism, many will say, ‘I think I’m interested in journalism, but I hate politics,'” says Nelson of Point Loma. “The assumption is that journalism is about politics.”
While he believes in the value of print, Nelson acknowledges that young people use TikTok, Instagram and other platforms to tell stories every day. He would like school administrators to bring in professional journalists to inspire children to take the reins.
“I can’t think of a single reporter in San Diego County who wouldn’t want to work at a high school or a community college or even a middle school to produce some kind of news show,” he says. “If schools were to get in touch with professionals, I promise they will be surprised at how willing professionals would be to help them.”
Awakening this interest early is more important than ever.
“A free society only works with an informed citizenry,” he says. “Having people who can tell a truthful, accurate, and verifiable story to inform their public — that’s the only way a free society works.”
Despite the challenges journalism faces today, passion for storytelling is not in short supply. Many young people want to make a difference in the world with their voice.
Alex Ortega, news editor of The Telescope, sees the move to digital in a positive light.
“I think it all happened very quickly. Online journalism has taken full hold in the last two decades, then social media news in the last five to 10 years,” he says. “I think it’s one of those necessary things. Printed news is really bad for the environment and expensive, and for many newspapers it’s not very economical.”
He says the benefits of online formats include the ability to make simple edits and include multimedia elements such as videos, images and podcasts.
Whether it’s online or in print, Ortega says, “It’s exciting and thrilling to cover stories and see his name get out there. … The aspect of seeking the truth and spreading information is so important – it’s an important part of my life now.”
Charlene Pulsonetti is a local freelance writer.
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