Community college papers face tough odds to keep programs

At four-year colleges and universities, newspapers can enhance thehigher-level educational experience for many students. But at communitycolleges, student newspapers can cause staff members to crumble under thepressure.

Hersson Preciado said he has seen his college newspaper cause at least twofellow students to leave school altogether. That’s because as a formereditor-in-chief of Talon Marks, the paper at Cerritos Community Collegein Norwalk, Calif., he has seen students attempt to juggle the paper, school,jobs and family and social lives.

“It has taken a toll on a lot of us,” said Preciado, who isalso the former Journalist Association of Community Colleges’ (JACC) SoCalstudent president.

Because of their unique circumstances, community college studentjournalists are often forced to tackle many issues differently than students attraditional four-year institutions ‘ from battling with overbearingadministration to keeping their papers alive altogether.

Student struggles

Preciado says it can be difficult for communitycollege students to be successful in school while working at a paper.

“Either you start failing things or you just start taking less andless classes so ultimately you’re there longer and longer,” he said.”The longer you’re at a community college, the more stressful itis.”Linda B. Boles, the Community College JournalismAssociation’s Midwest region representative, calls community collegestudents “non-traditional.”

“Most (community college students) have job and family obligationsthat the university-level student does not have to contend with. By the timethey juggle job, family, class time and homework, they have little to no time todevote to ‘extras’ such as a stringer on their collegenewspaper,” said Boles, who is also the faculty adviser for RichlandCommunity College’s the Communicatur, in Decatur, Ill. “Thisproblem is especially applicable for the non-journalism student: a student whois a good writer or photographer and wants to participate but who has littlefree time left over.”

Overbearing administration

Community college students and theirpapers often face other hurdles in addition to feeling overwhelmed. Preciadosaid meddling school administration is a reality for community collegejournalists, more so than for their traditional four-year counterparts.

“They (administrators) don’t really quite understand the roleof the newspaper. They think it’s just another class,” Preciadosaid. “When they realize it’s not just another class … [and thatstudent journalists] can ’cause more trouble,’ they keep a closereye on it.”

He thinks some community college presidents interfere with theirschool’s papers because student journalists sometimes involve thecommunity when issues arise on campus.

“When something goes wrong at a community college, many times thepaper will take it to the city and then the city will get involved,”Preciado said.

Preciado said at the JACC, he saw a spectrum of community collegepresidents ‘ some meddled too much and others were “upstandingdefenders of journalism.” The JACC honors the latter annually with theFirst Amendment Awards.

The JACC’s Web site states: “Friendly administrators whounderstand and support First Amendment efforts by student publications are rareand highly appreciated.”

Rich Cameron, the Talon Marks’ adviser and head of thejournalism department at Cerritos, said dealing with administration requires acertain amount of finesse.

“It takes a confident and well-trained adviser to educateadministrators and board members. I don’t expect to be well liked by allof them, but I do expect to be respected,” said Cameron, who is alsosecretary of the JACC, in an e-mail. “And I think I manage that by showingthat I am not in control of content, that students are. I am their liaison, nottheir designated censor.”

Losing the print edition Cameron and Preciado recently battledwith Cerritos’ administration in order to save their paper’s printedition.

At Cerritos, administration decided May 21 to cancel the class that handlesthe production aspect of Talon Marks, which would have reduced the53-year-old paper to an online-only publication.

“We dealt with the situation like any other group fighting for itsrights has done in the past, through meetings, press releases, subcommittees,etc.,” said Erick Galindo, a former Talon Marks editor who wasinvolved in fighting for the print edition.

After the Cerritos community campaigned for several weeks to save the printedition, the school agreed to offer the production course ‘ if at least 15students register for the fall 2009 semester class. “We could stilllose the print edition in the fall if we fall short of the 15,” Cameronsaid. “All we gained was a chance to save the print edition.”

Cameron said losing the paper’s print edition would likely be”the beginning of the end of the journalism program at CerritosCollege.”

“The physical product gives a lot of students a reason to stay incollege, a sense of purpose, just as playing on an intercollegiate team does forathletes,” Cameron said. “Athletes could survive on intramuralcontests, but they’d soon move on to other schools with theintercollegiate sports program.”

He said if the print edition disappears, fewer students would sign up forall of Cerritos’ journalism classes, and the program would be at risk.

“We need to do much more with our online journalism and we’lluse this as a wake-up call,” Cameron said. “But print is not deadyet and we need to keep the print edition alive.”

According to Cameron, only about 70 of the 110 California communitycolleges have a journalism program that produces a student publication ‘and many of those are in jeopardy.

“Other community colleges in California are also having to makeoutrageous cutbacks, and we’re likely to see some publications fold in thenext year,” he said. “It is not unreasonable to see as many as 10percent of them go away in the next year or so. We may still be one of those asfar as the print edition is concerned if we can’t get our enrollmentsup.”

Cameron said the loss of community college papers and programs would havean effect on four-year institutions in the state as well.

“At many of them (universities) that have journalism programs, largepercentages of upper-division students are community college [transfer students]who cut their teeth on community college publications,” he said.”And many of the students who are doing that don’t start out asjournalism majors. They are undecided and then decided they like journalismafter they’ve tried it out here.”

Reviving a community paper 

Community college papers are also atrisk for complete dissolution. According to a study conducted by journalismprofessor Toni Albertson at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., none ofthe 19 community college journalism programs recently put on hiatus were everrestored.

At North Seattle Community College in Washington, the 30-year-oldPolaris decreased publication from one edition every two weeks to oneedition every three weeks and eventually stopped production entirely in 2007.Now, students at North Seattle are attempting to bring the paper back this fall.

September 29 is the tentative publication date for the first print issue,said Tracy Furutani, the Polaris’ acting adviser, who organized thegroup of students to revive the paper and is paying for the first issue herselfwith some aid from North Seattle’s Office of Instruction.

The Polaris, which survived through blogs run by students andFurutani, stopped publishing because of internal staff issues that left too muchstrain on staff structure and was always “a bit precarious,” saidFurutani. She said many students are “maxed out in their academiccommitments.”

Some of the staff problems the Polaris has faced would be less of aproblem at a four-year institution, Furutani said.

“On a non-commuter, four-year campus, students are more invested intheir campus environment. The newspaper is one way in which they can effectchange and exert control over their environment,” Furutani said.”Also, four-year colleges have actual departments, like communications,which can work with students over several years to develop their journalismabilities. I’m lucky to hang on to a good writer for two quarters, letalone a year.”

Furutani said after the first issue this fall, the staff will go back tothe student fee board, which does the budget allocations for student groups andhas previously rejected them, and “show them what has been accomplishedand what campus groups thought of the first issue.”

“Ideally, then, our allocation of student fee money will supportpublication of the print and electronic editions for the rest of the academicyear,” she said.

Advice from veterans

Because community college papers can beuniquely difficult to protect, community college student journalists often needto take extra precautions.

“Treat your program like a professional organization, and in thataspect remain efficient and organized,” Galindo said. “Keeping alist of former staffers and even some of the contacts that you have establishedalong the way will help out a great deal if you ever need to organize.”

Galindo said students should always maintain a strong relationship with thecommunity they cover, “because its support can be invaluable in anyfight.”

It is necessary for publications to “be vital to the campus,”Cameron said, and an every-other-week publication is not as vital as a weekly.

“Put priority on building a viable online site in case you getreduced to just that,” Cameron said. “And don’t get lax inrecruiting.”

Galindo had some words of wisdom for struggling community college studentjournalists: Do not lose hope.

“No matter what the people in charge say about what little chance youhave, don’t give up,” he said. “There were times when we feltdiscouraged to the point where some of the meetings we had with schooladministrators almost made me tear up. One administrator told me bluntly that wehad no chance of saving the print edition and all I did was say, ‘Thankyou, but we’ll see.’ “