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College of Liberal Arts

Once a Journalist, Always a Journalist

Group photo of former members of Cal Poly Journalism Advisory Board at a restaurant
Written By Jayan Kalathil

Student journalism at Cal Poly has a long and rich history, dating back over 100 years to the first student campus newspaper in 1916. While the names of these publications have changed over the years, from The Polygram to El Mustang to Mustang Daily to Mustang News, the one thing that has remained constant is the Journalism Department’s commitment to teaching its students excellence in quality journalism.

That tradition continues to this day. In the past year, Mustang News was named the best university newspaper in California by the California College Media Association and a national Pacemaker Award finalist by the Associated Collegiate Press. Additionally, the student-run Mustang Media Group earned more than 30 awards at the fall 2022 College Media Convention, including first place for Best Broadcast News Program for four year universities. It’s no wonder that so many Cal Poly journalism alumni are proud of where they got their start in this field and continue to be involved in the program.

One such alum is Susan Houghton (Journalism, '82).

“In the ’80s, everyone in the world wanted to be a broadcast journalist,” she said.

As a student, after working for Mustang Daily and KCPR, Houghton landed an internship at KSBY-TV, eventually becoming a weekend reporter.

“You carried your own camera and shot your own footage," Houghton explained. “It was still on film, so you waited for it to be processed, and then you edited it and went down to the control room and ran the chyron machine as part of that as well. It was really an immersive experience.”

Susan Houghton headshot

After graduation, Houghton went to work at KFSN-TV Channel 30 in Fresno before switching to a distinguished career in public relations for PG&E, acting as spokesperson for Diablo Canyon and the Morro Bay Power Plant. She spent most of her career as head of Public Affairs for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, among other high-profile positions. In 2018 she was inducted into the Cal Poly Journalism Department’s Mustang Media Hall of Fame for both her professional accomplishments and her philanthropic work founding several nonprofit organizations.

In 2010 Houghton was asked to join the Cal Poly Journalism Advisory Board and connected with a group of fellow Cal Poly alumni who became close friends during their 10 years serving together on the board. These included her college roommate, Rebecca Alarcio (Journalism, ’81), as well as Ellen Pensky (Journalism, ’75), Claudia Buck Page (Journalism, ’76), Frances Squire (Journalism, ’73), Tracy Campbell (Journalism, ’82) and Melanie Bedwell (Journalism, ’77). Together they helped create the Journalism Endowment with the goal of attracting Cal Poly journalism alumni to support the program and pay it forward to current students. Concurrently, they helped launch the Jim Hayes Symposium, applying their public relations skills to do everything from designing the program and creating the décor to soliciting sponsorships. Named for a beloved former Cal Poly journalism professor, the semi-annual event brings together students, educators, journalists, communications professionals, scholars and the public to address current challenges and ethical communication.

“Most of us knew Jim and had him as a professor. Educators like Jim can have a significant impact on the life of a student and he certainly did for all of us. We wanted to create an endowment specifically to honor Jim, our time in the class and to create this legacy for Cal Poly journalism,” Houghton explained.

While their time on the board has ended, this group of friends continues to meet up and socialize regularly.

“We all graduated from Cal Poly at different times, but we get together several times a year and have a once-a-month call,” she said. “We try to stay in touch because there’s nothing like sharing those Cal Poly memories.”

In addition, they like to discuss the news of the day, as well as the radical changes that have occurred in their profession over the years.

“News has changed so much in the time since we were working journalists that it’s fun to have those ethical debates about social media or what is real news or how things have changed,” Houghton said.

The changes that she sees concern her, which is why Houghton feels that it’s now more important than ever to support journalism.

“With the lines blurring so much now between fake news, real news and social media news, trusted sources like The New York Times or the Tribune -- places where you know journalists have a fair and researched approach -- are critical,” she said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. It’s about that search for the truth. It’s about journalists who care about the facts. It’s about us making a difference in investigative reporting in a way that our democracy demands.”

Houghton explained that supporting Cal Poly journalism can mean many different things aside from financial support, such as mentoring a student, providing an internship, attending department events, introducing people to connections, hiring a recent journalism graduate or simply helping spread the word about the program. But she emphasized that the main thing is just getting involved and giving back somehow.

“For me, being an alum, yes it's about supporting the department financially, but it's also about giving your time and your talents too,” she explained. “So, find the way you can give back to Cal Poly in a manner that adds value. That’s what our group has done.”

Houghton says she owes a lot to Cal Poly journalism and continues to be involved in a new campaign for the Journalism Endowment. She is happy to do whatever she can to help ensure that the department continues to thrive and provide an excellent education for the next generation of journalists.

“What I’ve realized in the 30 years or so since I graduated is that that Cal Poly Learn by Doing philosophy has served me well,” she said. “I’m grateful that my Cal Poly experience gave me the confidence to go out and reach new heights and try new challenges and do things I probably never would have done if I hadn’t gone to Cal Poly.”