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communicating the news

LESS THAN A MONTH before Mike Weekley’09 graduated from Albright with a degree in communications, the Reading Eagle laid off 52 employees.

Weekley says the layoffs sent a chilling message to students like him, who hoped to work in journalism. He’d planned to go into writing or marketing with a focus on arts and entertainment. But with the recession and upheaval in news media, Weekley wasn’t sure how he would break in.

“It was kind of scary because the public perception is that it’s almost impossible to get a job in journalism, or in the field you want to go into,” he says.

Dwindling advertising revenue and changes in the way the public consumes news have created instability in traditional news media. More people consume news online, but Internet ads are far less lucrative than traditional ads. As a result newspapers shed at least 14,775 jobs in 2009, according to the blog "Paper Cuts."

MediaFinder.com, a database of publications in Canada and the U.S., says 428 magazines folded that year and 275 new magazines launched. This February CBS started cutting about 6 percent of its 1,400-strong news staff and ABC News announced plans to cut its 1,400-person staff, reportedly by at least 300 people.

Albright alumni who work in communications are changing the way they go about their jobs. And students who dream of writing professionally are finding different paths.

Weekley found not one job in print media, but two. He began selling ads for the Pottstown Mercury newspaper and Penny Pincher advertising directory, and then started a similar job with Local Pages Publishing, a company that produces information directories. He’s also written entertainment articles for the Mercury.

Weekley didn’t plan to sell ads, but he’s happy and thinks sales experience will be helpful as he continues a career in publishing. “I really do like the company I’m at now. I think I will try to stick it out for awhile,” he says.

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NEW METHODS AND OPPORTUNITIES

For 18 years Lauren Ashburn ’89 worked in television, most recently as managing editor and executive producer of "USA Today Live," a part of the Gannett newspaper chain that produces TV shows and online videos. In December she left to form her own firm, Ashburn Media Company. Based in Washington, D.C., Ashburn produces content as diverse as magazine columns and Web-based video projects.

Besides the fact that she’s always wanted to start her own firm and has three young children at home, she struck out on her own because shrinking newsrooms create more need for information.

“Companies are cutting employees right now because the biggest expense on their books is salaries and benefits,” Ashburn says. “The content has to come from somewhere.”

Kellie Connors ’07 represents tech firms as an account executive at S&S Public Relations. In her two years on the job she’s adjusted how she connects with reporters.

“When I started there were tons of consumer technology reporters,” Connors says from her office in Princeton, N.J. “We’ve seen a lot of them lose their jobs in the last couple of years.”

So she follows reporters from one place to another and reaches out to online media more frequently. As an example she listed CNET, a Web site that focuses on tech products.

“CNET can be seen by millions of readers, and it’s just one click away,” Connors says.

While the Internet is changing where journalists work, it’s changing how public relations professionals connect with them. Many of the reporters Connors works with don’t want to be inundated with phone calls and some don’t even want e-mail. They tell her to connect with them on Twitter, a social-networking site that allows people to write missives of up to 140 characters at a time. Connors encourages clients to set up blogs and accounts on Twitter and Facebook.

Paine PR, led by Daryl McCullough ’86, also tells clients they need strategies for online communication platforms like Facebook and Digg. His firm, which has clients as diverse as Sony and Procter & Gamble, uses tools developed by companies such as BuzzLogic and Radian6 to keep tabs on what people are saying online about clients.

“Something is being said about you somewhere,” McCullough says. “You should be actively seeking that out.”

The Internet allows anyone to voice opinions, which McCullough says creates numerous chances to reach out to the public beyond traditional media. And PainePR treats citizen journalists and bloggers the same way it treats traditional reporters. “That’s a good thing for democracy and society in general,” McCullough says. “Anybody that takes the time to share their point of view publicly should be treated with respect.”

it's a mouse

Despite of traditional journalism’s collapsing business model, the growing prominence of blogs and the number of journalists jumping from old media outlets to online startups, evidence shows newspapers and TV newscasts still tell the most stories.

One week last July the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism studied 53 news outlets in Baltimore, including newspapers, radio stations and news web sites. The study found that traditional media carried 95 percent of stories containing new information that week. Baltimore newspapers have less information than they used to, the study found, but web sites merely retell stories already told somewhere else.

At Albright, instructor Margaret Rakus knows her students read online, but she can no longer assume they are aware of big stories.“They don’t read newspapers,” she says. “They don’t watch the news on television, but they will seek out news online that pertains to them.”

FUNDAMENTALS STILL MATTER

Edward Trayes, Ph.D. ’60 is sick of hearing about newspapers’ demise. “It’s a recurring story, and it’s a tired one because they haven’t really figured it out yet,” says Trayes, a journalism professor at Temple University.

He’s convinced newspapers will survive for years, even if they lack a paper edition or come out just a few days a week. One reason for that, he says, is that newspapers remain the perfect way to deliver grocery-store ads, coupons and other local advertising.

“Whatever happens, it’s going to be about content and packaging content for today’s news consumer,” Trayes says. “There are a lot of different models that are being looked at.”

He sees the future of print media as a constant state of flux, and predicts a mix of weekly newspapers, family-owned papers in small towns, large regional papers in big cities and free newspapers.

Jon Bekken, Ph.D., associate professor of communications at Albright, says news outlets will, at some point, figure out how to wring income from web sites. Maybe that will mean different kinds of ads or paid online subscriptions. Maybe some publications will cut their prices while others will hike them. Advertising will come back within two years and newspaper-company bankruptcies will be resolved, he predicts.

“We’re far from having an answer, but I’m confident there will be one,” Bekken says.

He and Rakus say most of Albright’s communications students are having a hard time finding direction for their future careers since it’s hard to see what the future of the field will look like. While some are interested in writing, advertising or public relations, Rakus says they don’t know exactly what they want to do. Few see newspapers in their futures.

Elizabeth Gordon ’12, a history and journalism major, came to Albright hoping to land a job as a war correspondent. She still wants to work in journalism, despite Bekken’s warnings of the low pay and cutthroat job market. Now she’s interested in editing or political reporting but isn’t sure what jobs will be out there when she enters the job market. “I just put my faith in God and whatever happens, happens,” she says.

The growing presence of technology in news media has led Rakus and Bekken to adjust their teaching. In the spring of 2009 they taught a class on blogging in which students wrote about events and issues on campus and produced video and audio reports to go with their blogs. They plan to incorporate elements of this class into other communications courses.

Some students want to be taught about the latest technology and other college journalism programs have started classes on Twitter. But Bekken considers it more important to focus on skills that professional communicators will always need: Gathering information, verifying it and presenting it to the public.

The same is true in public relations.

“You still need to teach, ‘How do you get a reporter to cover your story in the first place?’ ” Rakus says.


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