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October 2, 2009: Student Press Law Center says community college newspapers face tough odds to keep programs

Student Press Law Center

The Student Press Law Center is an advocate for student free-press rights and provides information, advice and legal assistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them. In the national organization’s Fall 2009 Report, an article by Catherine MacDonald reported that community college students and their newspapers often face tough hurdles that constantly challenge a paper’s very existence.

Hersson Preciado, a former editor-in-chief of Talon Marks, the paper at Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, Calif., 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.”

Preciado 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.

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,” Cameron said. “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.”

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. The enrollment quota was met, and the paper now lives for at least the fall semester.

There is no evidence at College of the Canyons that school administrators made any type of effort to save the Canyon Call in this manner. Instead, the paper was simply eliminated without any notification to the 25,000 students who attend the college.

Cameron said losing the Talon Marks’ 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.”

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.

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,” said former Talon Marks editor Galindo. “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.’”

Click here for the complete Student Press Law Center story.

Click here to sign the online petition to save the Canyon Call.

Number of days COC has been without a school newspaper: 40