Community college papers face tough odds to keep programs

At four-year colleges and universities, newspapers can enhance the higher-level educational experience for many students. But at community colleges, student newspapers can cause staff members to crumble under the pressure.

Hersson Preciado said he has seen his college newspaper cause at least two fellow students to leave school altogether. That's because as a former editor-in-chief of Talon Marks, the paper at Cerritos Community College in 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 is also the former Journalist Association of Community Colleges' (JACC) SoCal student president.

Because of their unique circumstances, community college student journalists are often forced to tackle many issues differently than students at traditional four-year institutions ' from battling with overbearing administration to keeping their papers alive altogether.

Student struggles

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

"Either you start failing things or you just start taking less and less classes so ultimately you're there longer and longer," he said. "The longer you're at a community college, the more stressful it is."Linda B. Boles, the Community College Journalism Association's Midwest region representative, calls community college students "non-traditional."

"Most (community college students) have job and family obligations that the university-level student does not have to contend with. By the time they juggle job, family, class time and homework, they have little to no time to devote to 'extras' such as a stringer on their college newspaper," said Boles, who is also the faculty adviser for Richland Community College's the Communicatur, in Decatur, Ill. "This problem is especially applicable for the non-journalism student: a student who is a good writer or photographer and wants to participate but who has little free time left over."

Overbearing administration

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

"They (administrators) don't really quite understand the role of the newspaper. They think it's just another class," Preciado said. "When they realize it's not just another class ... [and that student journalists] can 'cause more trouble,' they keep a closer eye on it."

He thinks some community college presidents interfere with their school's papers because student journalists sometimes involve the community when issues arise on campus.

"When something goes wrong at a community college, many times the paper 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 college presidents ' some meddled too much and others were "upstanding defenders of journalism." The JACC honors the latter annually with the First Amendment Awards.

The JACC's Web site states: "Friendly administrators who understand and support First Amendment efforts by student publications are rare and highly appreciated."

Rich Cameron, the Talon Marks' adviser and head of the journalism department at Cerritos, said dealing with administration requires a certain amount of finesse.

"It takes a confident and well-trained adviser to educate administrators and board members. I don't expect to be well liked by all of them, but I do expect to be respected," said Cameron, who is also secretary of the JACC, in an e-mail. "And I think I manage that by showing that I am not in control of content, that students are. I am their liaison, not their designated censor."

Losing the print edition Cameron and Preciado recently battled with Cerritos' administration in order to save their paper's print edition.

At Cerritos, administration decided May 21 to cancel the class that handles the production aspect of Talon Marks, which would have reduced the 53-year-old paper to an online-only publication.

"We dealt with the situation like any other group fighting for its rights has done in the past, through meetings, press releases, subcommittees, etc.," said Erick Galindo, a former Talon Marks editor who was involved in fighting for the print edition.

After the Cerritos community campaigned for several weeks to save the print edition, the school agreed to offer the production course ' if at least 15 students register for the fall 2009 semester class. "We could still lose the print edition in the fall if we fall short of the 15," Cameron said. "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 Cerritos College."

"The physical product gives a lot of students a reason to stay in college, a sense of purpose, just as playing on an intercollegiate team does for athletes," Cameron said. "Athletes could survive on intramural contests, but they'd soon move on to other schools with the intercollegiate sports program."

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

"We need to do much more with our online journalism and we'll use this as a wake-up call," Cameron said. "But print is not dead yet and we need to keep the print edition alive."

According to Cameron, only about 70 of the 110 California community colleges 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 make outrageous cutbacks, and we're likely to see some publications fold in the next year," he said. "It is not unreasonable to see as many as 10 percent of them go away in the next year or so. We may still be one of those as far as the print edition is concerned if we can't get our enrollments up."

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

"At many of them (universities) that have journalism programs, large percentages 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 as journalism majors. They are undecided and then decided they like journalism after they've tried it out here."

Reviving a community paper 

Community college papers are also at risk for complete dissolution. According to a study conducted by journalism professor Toni Albertson at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., none of the 19 community college journalism programs recently put on hiatus were ever restored.

At North Seattle Community College in Washington, the 30-year-old Polaris decreased publication from one edition every two weeks to one edition 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 the group of students to revive the paper and is paying for the first issue herself with some aid from North Seattle's Office of Instruction.

The Polaris, which survived through blogs run by students and Furutani, stopped publishing because of internal staff issues that left too much strain on staff structure and was always "a bit precarious," said Furutani. She said many students are "maxed out in their academic commitments."

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

"On a non-commuter, four-year campus, students are more invested in their campus environment. The newspaper is one way in which they can effect change 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 journalism abilities. I'm lucky to hang on to a good writer for two quarters, let alone a year."

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

"Ideally, then, our allocation of student fee money will support publication of the print and electronic editions for the rest of the academic year," she said.

Advice from veterans

Because community college papers can be uniquely difficult to protect, community college student journalists often need to take extra precautions.

"Treat your program like a professional organization, and in that aspect remain efficient and organized," Galindo said. "Keeping a list of former staffers and even some of the contacts that you have established along the way will help out a great deal if you ever need to organize."

Galindo said students should always maintain a strong relationship with the community they cover, "because its support can be invaluable in any fight."

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 get reduced to just that," Cameron said. "And don't get lax in recruiting."

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

"No matter what the people in charge say about what little chance you have, don't give up," he said. "There were times when we felt discouraged to the point where some of the meetings we had with school administrators almost made me tear up. One administrator told me bluntly that we had no chance of saving the print edition and all I did was say, 'Thank you, but we'll see.' "

Fall 2009, reports