Why journalism is still a good major

New chairwoman touts its emphasis on writing skills

The Journalism department’s new computer lab— 25 Macs strong.

The Journalism department’s new computer lab— 25 Macs strong.

Photo By Robert Speer

For Susan Brockus Wiesinger, journalism is more than an occupation, or even a calling. It’s in her blood.

Her grandfather was a newspaper publisher in Abilene, Texas. Her mother and father owned five small-town newspapers in the Southwest and Nevada. Her earliest memory is of sleeping under her dad’s office desk while he and her mother put the paper to bed. She started working at a newspaper—the Los Alamos (N.M.) Monitor, which her parents founded—when she was just 9 years old.

Today, at the age of 46, she’s the newly installed chairwoman of the Journalism Department at Chico State, where she is fervently making the case that, contrary to popular perception, the profession is not dying—far from it. If anything, she says, the skills the journalism program teaches—multiplatform writing and storytelling chief among them—are more in demand than ever before, and job opportunities abound.

Yes, she tells students, corporate daily newspapers are suffering mass layoffs, but the nation’s thousands of community newspapers are doing well, as are magazines. And the need for clearly and cleanly written content in other arenas—on the web, in business, on cable or broadcast television, in the public-relations field, and in many other areas—is growing rapidly.

When students ask her where they can find jobs, she has a one-word reply: “Everywhere.” The department has a “tremendous placement rate”—98 percent in the first two years—and “Our best PR students are getting really good jobs in places like New York City, San Francisco and Chicago.”

Here’s what she most wants interested students to know: “We are a writing program. That’s our thing.”

Her challenge, she says, is to get the word out about what the program offers. “Journalism has never had to market itself before, but now it does.”

Fortunately, the department—which includes specializations in both news-editorial and public relations—has an exceptional PR company of its own, the student-run Tehama Group Communications, which is putting together a multimedia campaign touting the department’s offerings. And, on the news-ed side, it has the multiple award-winning Orion student newspaper, an invaluable hands-on learning environment that is a major attraction to the program.

Meanwhile, Wiesinger has been doing “little things” to spread the word and heighten visibility: launching a J-Department Facebook page (www.facebook.com/CSUCjourno) and putting up prominent signs on all department office doors, for example.

In an even bigger step, the department has begun the process of changing its name to the Department of Journalism and Public Relations. “We need to elevate PR,” she explains. “Journalism and PR are different things, although the skill sets are the same.” The new name, she believes, will put the two disciplines on equal footing.

Susan Brockus Wiesinger wants students to know how valuable a journalism major really is.

Photo By Robert Speer

Weisinger is a slender, animated woman with a writer’s ability to talk in full, clear sentences, which she does passionately when the subject is journalism.

Interestingly, she didn’t major in journalism in college—her “one act of rebellion,” she says. But at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, she worked on the college newspaper, including as editor, before graduating with a major in sociology. Afterward she worked for newspapers for about 15 years, including 12 years as editor and publisher of the Humboldt Sun in Winnemucca, Nev., which was owned by her parents.

From there she went to work for the Lafayette (Ind.) Courier, owned by the vast Gannett chain. Gannett encouraged her to get a master’s degree, so she attended Purdue, in nearby West Lafayette, where she wrote her thesis on Gannett and corporate journalism.

Ironically, what she learned in the process soured her on continuing to work for the company, so she instead went on to obtain a Ph.D. in communication and then taught at Purdue for five years. She’s been at Chico State for seven years, reaching the rank of associate professor.

Wiesinger’s students will be surprised to learn she no longer goes by Brockus, the name she’d had for more than a quarter-century. She changed it after marrying John Wiesinger in June. One of her several reasons for the change was that her ex-husband, Lewis Brockus, also teaches in the Journalism Department. They parted amicably and remain good friends and co-parents of a teenage son, but she wanted to avoid confusion, so she took her new husband’s name.

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When Wiesinger talks to incoming freshmen journalism students, she likes to ask them bluntly: “Why are you here?” She wants to learn whether they have passion for the profession—because of its importance to democracy, because of the teamwork required to practice it well, because reporting and writing vivid, meaningful stories is fun and exciting and never boring.

And she wants to encourage them, to make sure they know that by majoring in journalism they are going to learn skills that are invaluable in almost any profession and that will make them attractive to recruiters.

A lot of journalism departments these days are moving away from emphasizing writing in favor of teaching multimedia, she says, but she’s hearing from employers that too many of their students can’t write.

The journalism major is one of the smallest at Chico State, just 41 units. Even though that keeps the faculty list short, it’s better for the students, she believes, to take a wider range of classes in other disciplines: “We’re giving them the writing skills and then telling them to go learn about the world!”

The J-Department faculty are first-rate, Wiesinger says, and outgoing department Chairman Glen Bleske did a superb job of supporting their efforts and ensuring that the department remained student-centered. “He’s going to be a hard act to follow,” she admits.

Her job, she continues, is to make the department “more viable and visible” in order to attract students and protect it from budget cuts. Most of all, she says, “I want everyone to know what we do, and that we do it extremely well.”