What is a generally excellent publication?

September 2, 2019

When I was teaching I taught my newspaper staffs, news writing classes, and mass communications survey classes that the goal of a news publication should be to be generally excellent. Some publications will have star reporters, photographers, or designers that would add to the identity of a publication, but what the reader/consumer deserves is a publication that does a good job across the publication in storytelling. The challenge comes when you try to define what generally excellent means.

It is a topic still on my mind as I regularly monitor online publication sites of California community college publications and produce a newsletter focused on community college journalism education and maintain a Facebook site that reposts stories from student publications.

There are many definitions of what makes a generally excellent publication.

  • Is it the way it looks (design)? Is it the scope of stories it covers, and what does that mean? For instance, does it cover a wide range of topics or does it focus on its geographic community? Should it repackage news from larger organizations so readers who don’t read other newspapers get at least some international, national, and regional news? Or should it focus on hyperlocal news?
  • Is it how well written and edited those stories are?
  • Is it all text, or does it provide a visually convenient way for its readers to find and understand complex stories?
  • Is it investigative or does it focus on covering events? Does having a major catastrophe happen locally give some publications an edge?
  • How about its editorial leadership?
  • Does its frequency make a difference? After all, some student publications come out as often as weekly (daily for some universities) while other have cut print versions to few and far between, if at all, relying on a digital distribution. (As an instructor, I found it difficult to motivate students to think about the demands of an online publication when they did not have a print version demanding a specific timeline. For instance, an event story can go online the same or next day, but if the print version of the publication was a week away then students took much longer to complete event stories.
  • Does the number of news stories it covers matter? And how about its balance of content. Beginning student journalists are more fond of writing opinion stories that require little or no extra information gathering on their part or “news” stories that repackage news from other sources, neither of which requires them to actually get out and talk to sources.
  • What role does consistency play? Any staff can put full effort into one or two issues, but maintaining consistency of excellence is much more difficult, especially with staffs rotating in and out every five or four or five months.

The Journalism Association of Community College for nearly seven decades has honored outstanding student publications with a general excellence award. Probably in the early 1990s it started adopting a definition of general excellence along the lines of the Associated Collegiate Press association and looks at five categories of excellence:

  1. Coverage and Content
  2. Writing and Editing
  3. Range of Opinion Content
  4. Layout and Design, and
  5. Use of Photography, Art and Graphics

Over more recent years JACC has lowered the threshold of how many issues a school year a publication needs to publish to qualify and has effectively jettisoned any distinction between broadsheet and tabloid publications. It still “discriminates” between print publications and online publications and holds a separate contest for online publications and print publications and offers a separate contest for online publications using similar criteria as that listed above. And online general excellence is considered when adding up sweepstakes awards.

It has wisely abandoned a horse race view of general excellence whereby awards were limited in number and there was a distinction between first, second, third, etc. place and decided to set a standard and award all those who met the standard, knowing if the standard was low enough that everyone easily met it then it was time to tighten the standard to encourage growth.

And while it has opened up its individual and writing and photography contests up to online entries –despite online audiences having different habits than print audience– it has not yet taken on the next step of evaluating news organizations as integrated units.

I used to teach my students that news publications served (or ought to serve) multiple roles to their audiences, too.

I argued that news publications serve a political or watchdog role, an economic role, a sentry role portending future trends, the traditional historical or record-keeping role, an entertainment role, a social role, and a marketplace of ideas and leadership role, among others. (For example, one could argue that the role of a print newspaper is to provide fish wrapping material. My mother used to use the newspaper as a source for grocery coupons, but I would include that in my definition that encompasses the economic role.)

Also big with me was the scope of sources students used in writing their stories. Part of my grading criteria included whether students actually talked to multiple sources for each story, or did they rely on what I referred to as “bogus” or “indirect” sources, sources where they merely quoted other publications. I guess you could call them primary vs. secondary sources, but that allows for their “primary” sources to be people, such as their friends or family, who had no direct knowledge of the story.

I was so focused on use of sources that major part of my weekly critiques of student work included counting up the number of sources used in each story in the publication. Knowing that some articles, such as opinion pieces, often did not include direct sources, I then emphasized the average of sources per story throughout the publication. If it fell below 2.0 then we either had too many non-source stories (balance) or we weren’t reaching out to enough stories. And I also noted that since we considered students to be the largest portion of our audience and most stories impacted them, then there should be student sources in most stories.

As I mentioned above, I run a newsletter and maintain a Facebook site that routinely looks at online versions of news written by California community colleges. One of the disturbing trends I see is the number of repackaged stories and opinion stories included in those publications. Outside of sports stories, there are relatively few original news stories. (And when it gets to sports opinion and arts opinion, students seem to focus on professional sports and non-local arts stories.) Many of those display and disturbingly small number of direct sources.

Allowing student staffs to write repackaged stories does have value in giving them curation experience, and those stories MAY be of more interest to student readers. (An early editor who influenced my journalism education told me once that there were two types of stories readers should be exposed to: the ones they want to read and the ones they OUGHT to read.) But I wonder if we are training our students in the journalism tradition when we fail to push them into the uncomfortable role of actually talking to sources.

And I wonder if a publication that overly relies on opinion stories and non-original/second-hand stories is truly generally excellent.


Teaching tip: Break out of the silo

August 29, 2019

The office silo

A longtime soapbox issue for me is that too often we journalism faculty silo ourselves and our programs.

It is natural. Increasingly colleagues on our campuses –and especially the administrators that run our schools– fail to understand our roles in teaching journalism. Administrators see our programs merely as public relations outlets rather than legitimate attempts to teach our students to report what is actually going on and what truly is important to them. (Increased administrative control at Liberty University story is an example.)

And when we get into the news publication classroom we are there to guide our students into producing a product. It is easy to put blinders on and focus on the task. Being a journalism teacher can be a lonely, unsung career.

We need to break out of those silos so that we can become better teachers. Journalism organizations such as the Journalism Education Association, College Media Association, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, Scholastic Press Association, Journalism Association of Community Colleges, California College Media Association intuitively know this and schedule conferences and conventions throughout the school year to bring like-minded colleagues together. These gathering typically are aimed at students, but they allow teachers to congregate, commiserate, and learn from each other.

But these gatherings are too few and are too far in between. More is needed. Not just for us, but for our students as well. And with tightening educational budgets, many schools are finding them too costly to attend on any kind of regular basis. As a young teacher I was excited when e-mail became a thing so that I could communicate with fellow journalism instructors at other colleges whenever I encountered a new situation. The Internet has brought us social media groups we can join for similar interactions.

Two other inexpensive ideas I tried work with during my teaching years were the Editor Exchange and Lunch Bunch.


One of the benefits of organizational conferences for students is that they get exposed to ideas and staffs from elsewhere. As good a teacher I believed I was, there is so much more students can gain. Mixing with students from other staffs will show them that the problems they face are not unique and the solutions they found are not universal.

But, again, conferences are too few and far between. And they usually come near the end of semesters. So I tried to work with area schools to set up field trips. I would take my editors –the whole staff was just too much– and have them meet with another newspaper staff for an afternoon. We teachers could leave the room and not worry about any specific agenda; the students could work that out among themselves quite easily. I found it helpful if the host school could supply pizza and sodas.

Then the next semester we would reverse it and the other school could send its editors over to meet with my staff. This was always harder as it is easier to host than to take an afternoon away from your college, especially if your students are producing a weekly publication. I often found that the home-and-home attempt fell apart when you invited the other school to join you … but not always. (And I always enjoyed seeing another school’s newsroom where I inevitably stole –er, I mean borrowed– an idea for mine. Not taking the effort was their loss.)

My students found these exchanges valuable and made new friends, some of whom they might run into when transferring to a university or working together on their first jobs. I actually tried to schedule more than one a semester with multiple schools. Finding a non-production day that worked for both schools was the tough part.


And if students could benefit from interaction with students from other schools, the same could be said for instructors. For instructors we set up what we called Lunch Bunch. Either monthly or every other month during the school year we’d schedule a lunch get together with instructors from as many nearby schools that made sense. Again, no agenda was needed. Just schedule a lunch at an area restaurant and those who can make it will. By holding it regularly you picked up some instructors who had to miss because of something extra scheduled that day. We became friends, shared what was going on in our programs, and commiserated. You no longer feel like you are alone. And, I believe, you become a better teacher.

– – – – – –

The whole idea is to break out of the silo of your program and your campus. I think you can take it further, by collaborating with other staffs to take on big stories that affect students on both campuses. But that turns out to be even harder to coordinate. The two ideas above only take a little time and initiative.


Teaching tip: The treasure map

August 26, 2019

One of the most fanciful tools I used before I retired to teach my students to think through the production process was the treasure map, where x marked the completion of the production.

I downloaded cartoonish treasure map from an online source and challenged my experienced editors –it is unfair to expect new editors to know it all early in the semester– to list, in order, the various steps in the process on the map. They were to include online and social media as part of the story assigning and gathering processes, to the editing process, to the final distribution process.

After they have completed them, I had them share and discuss with other editors, where they are likely to discover steps they missed.

I even challenged myself to work it through. In one version I came up with 34 steps, which included students attending and passing their other classes. (click on images to download pdfs)



Best Practices

August 23, 2019

A university friend once told me that his university provost came up to him one day and made a comment about the daily student newspaper published through my friend’s department. “I have noticed over time that the student newspaper gets better as the semester progresses, but then it seems to retreat to making mistakes at the beginning of the next semester.”

My friend checked and said, “Yes, isn’t it great.”

Well, it is not great that it kept resetting itself, but that is the nature of the beast. You teach students and they learn. Then a new set of students comes in and you have to teach them.

I advised community college student publications for more than 40 years and one of the things I noticed as I conducted post-production critique and post-production critique is that many of the things I was commenting on were things I had always been commenting on. I understood the nature of the beast, but I wanted to go deeper with my critiques, so I started writing down the most common errors. It finally came together in the following list of best practices. This came in especially handy as I starting creating PDF versions of my critiques.

Each student was given a printed and electronic version of the list and I had them blown up to poster size and posted around the newspaper lab.

The PDF versions were required reading for the students and freed me up to go on to deeper issues during the in-class critiques. To make sure students spent at least some time reading the marked up PDF critique I buried questions throughout the critique they were required to answer. In the critique messages I could refer students to a specific numbered practice.

The PDFs required a lot of time to prepare, but one of the advantages was an archive of critiques. (I retired a couple of years ago and my predecessor has chosen to go back to in-class critiques only.)

Here’s my best practices list in case some would like to start a list for their students.


  1. No story should appear in print unless it has first appeared online. Page editors have primary responsibility for making this happen.
  2. Ideally, all stories should be featured on the Facebook page and Twitter feed before they appear in print. The primary responsibility for this lies with the page editors. Secondary responsibility lies with the social media and online editors.
  3. The online editor should “touch” every story once it has been posted to assure that it has a snappy headline, has a photo attached if one exists, and the template layout is best for the story. Stories should be properly and consistently categorized and tagged. Web sources should be linked, as should be related stories where appropriate. Movie and other entertainment reviews should be linked to official sites when appropriate; movie trailers may be embedded with reviews.
  4. Event stories, including sports, should be featured online SAME DAY when possible, but no later than 24 hours after the event. Sports GAME stories should be featured online. Sports TEAM stories should be featured in print (as opposed to game stories). Team stories should feature upcoming contests high in the story.
  5. Dates in online stories should include both day and date (Wednesday, Dec. 3), but when stories are moved to print the date should be edited to include ONLY the day OR date, depending on the AP Style seven-day rule. Don’t use today, tomorrow, yesterday. Primary responsibility for editing dates rests with page editors.
  6. Once a story has been posted or printed it is permanent. It may be corrected for errors, but all requests to redact or remove will be rejected except when required by law (i.e., copyright violations).
  7. Authors retain the copyright for the work they create for Talon Marks, but all stories, photos, cartoons, designs, multimedia pieces create by and for Talon Marks constitutes a right-to-use for Talon Marks. Once accepted for publication, the right-to-use cannot be revoked.



  1. Stories should be thoroughly edited in Camayak before being posted online or placed on a page. The goal should be that when we copyedit the print edition there are no errors to be found because they have already been fixed.
  2. When online stories must be edited, we should note that they have been edited, especially if we are fixing a factual error.
  3. All written non-opinion stories should have a minimum of two sources, with three or more preferred. When copy editing, always check that sources are properly introduced (first and last name on first reference) and identified. Subsequent references use just the last name and/or singular pronouns. The exceptions to this are stories with multiple subjects with the same last name. If a sentence or paragraph with a first-reference name is deleted/cut or moved, double check to see if the name is now improperly used elsewhere in the story.
  4. A single paragraph should have only one attribution at most. If there are two attributions, make it two paragraphs.
  5. Anonymous sources or pseudonyms may not be used in stories except under extreme circumstances as defined by the editor-in-chief proper to publication.
  6. In addition to watching for spelling, style, grammar and factual errors, part of copyediting includes assessing the “interesting” and “understandable” focus of the leads. Avoid long leads, focus on results, avoid “when” leads, and draw the reader in.
  7. When copyediting, stop at every plural pronoun (we, us, their, them, etc.) and manually check to see if the subject noun it refers to is plural. If not, fix either the pronoun or the subject noun. Subject nouns may not always be in the same sentence or even the same paragraph.
  8. Single quote marks may ONLY be used for quotes within quotes or in headlines. If punctuation is present around a quote mark it ALWAYS goes INSIDE the quote mark, even with single quotes. The exception to this would be when single quotes and double quotes meet at the end of a sentence; then the punctuation mark goes between the single quote and the double quote.
  9. If a quote extends beyond one paragraph without interruption with attribution, place quotes at the beginning of both paragraphs, but ending quote marks only at the end of the paragraph where the quote ends.
  10. When changing speakers in a story, be sure to notify the reader early in the quote that this is another speaker. Do not wait until after a long quote for the attribution.
  11. To protect academic freedom, Talon Marks will not quote or otherwise cite statements made during and as part of a class without the express permission of the instructor and source making such statements.
  12. Talon Marks reporters should not cover stories in which they are involved as this creates a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict of interest.



  1. Photos should be cropped and pre-pressed to 900px wide x 600px deep at 200dpi. They should also be tone corrected. Vertical and square photos should be pre-pressed to 600px deep, regardless of the width; this applies to mug shots as well. NO photo should be placed on a page or online in its raw camera mode resolution and size. Because we are standardizing cropping sizes, page editors should be able to accurately calculate photo sizes for print pages even before they are properly pre-pressed.
  2. If a photo is resized on a page, it must be PROPORTIONALLY resized both directions. DO NOT use the “fill” command. NO STRETCHED PHOTOS.
  3. All print photos (and preferably online), except mug shots, should have two-sentence cutlines with the first sentence explaining who is doing what in the photograph and the second sentence giving a secondary fact. If the focal point of the photo is on specific individuals, the individuals must be properly identified.
  4. The focal point of a photo should be on one or more of the tic-tac-toe axes (rule or thirds). No photo should be cropped to put the focal point in the middle of the photo. No photo should have two focal points (i.e., individuals with gaps between them). A focal point is preferred over a generic crowd shot.
  5. All photos should have an embedded AP Style caption. (Note, no photo can get grade credit without it.) Photographers have primary responsibility for embedding cutlines. Photo editors secondary responsibility for checking that photos have embedded cutlines. If there is no photo editor secondary responsibility falls on the page editor. Photo captions should be embedded BEFORE a photo is placed on a page.


  1. Audio and video stories should be accompanied by a written story and/or, at the very least, a transcript.
  2. SoundCloud audio stories should have a relevant photo attached to go with the audio link instead of relying on the Talon Marks logo.
  3. If a meeting is filmed and posted as an archive (i.e., the whole meeting broken into multiple files for upload), the files should be uploaded to YouTube and a singlepostshould contain the links/embeds. But this should only be done if the videos are accompanied by a written or edited standalone video story. Posting of archive videos is not journalism, but can be an aid to journalism.
  4. Meetings should be live tweeted and followed up same day with Storify versions, complete with transitional explanatory paragraphs. Traditional stories should follow ASAP.
  5. The e-edition should be posted online as soon as the print edition is sent to the printer.
  6. Design/page postings should be posted in talonmarks.com within 24 hours of the print distribution. The preference is to do this before we leave on production night.
  7. Sports schedules and latest scores should be updated no less than weekly. But sports schedules, except for playoffs, should be entered into the system in their entirety as soon as they are available. Sports scores should be updated within 24 hours of a contest.
  8. Arts events and other events should be entered into “upcoming events” before a story is assigned to a staff member. Primary responsibility for this lies with the page editor.


  1. When designing a print page, headline sizes should graduate downward as they go down the page. Larger type headlines go at the top of the page. Refer to the headline graduation illustration in the Newspaper Designer’s Handbook.
  2. Print headlines should be written so that 1) word pairs are maintained wherever possible, 2) line lengths are equivalent, and 2) prepositional phrases are not split over two lines (see No. 1).
  3. Drop heads should be only one leg of a story.
  4. Bylines and jump/continued lines are considered part of the story, not a headline. As such, they should be place in the first leg (last leg for jump lines) of a story and square off with the tops and bottoms of the remaining legs.


  1. Adjust the leading (spacing between lines) of stories to avoid spacey last legs of a story. Watch out for the hidden extra return at the end of a story. The last leg should square off with the other legs of the story.
  2. The proper placement of page items is 1) photo, 2) cutline, 3) headline, and 4) story. (Ads are bottommost on a page). Maintain a 2/10 inch space between the tops and bottoms of page modules (i.e., the bottom of one module/story and the top of the next module/story). Photos and cutlines go together, so there should be no more than 1/10 inch between them. Likewise, headlines and stories go together, so there should be no more than 1/10 inch between them. There should be 2/10 inch between a cutline and a headline. Two-tenths of an inch is equal to the gutter width between story legs.
  3. If a story is boxed, or has a side or top/bottom separator line, leave 2/10 inch between the line and the photo/text.
  4. Be consistent with spacing.
  5. When designing a print page, first place all stories in standard six-column format. Adjust to variable widths only for visual identity sake. Wide measures are not the norm, but enhancements.
  6. When designing a print page, start with a four-column or wider photo/module at the top. Horizontal photos in the top half of the page should be a minimum of four columns wide. Horizontal photos in the bottom half of the page should be NO MORE THAN three columns. Never put a three-column photo in the top half of a page. If it is necessary to place a three-column photo at the top of the page you MUST shift it from the page corner so that it crosses the center gutter.
  7. Avoid photo collages in place of real news photos.
  8. Free Speech Zone-style presentations on non-opinion pages should follow a similar design/layout pattern to promote consistency in the publication. There can be flexibility in design, but the two designs should show signs of consistency in width and depth of photos, font choices, identifications, etc.
  9. Stories resulting in large blocks of type should be chapter-ized with subheads or accompanied with drop quotes, infographs or information boxes. (See info boxes graphic in Newspaper Designer’s Handbook)


  1. Blog-style projects should 1) be designed with blog-to-talonmarks.com-to-print in mind, and 2) include full navigation from front page to story post and back, as well as from post to next and previous post.
  2. Infographs should be designed so that what is being displayed is readily understandable with a quick glance. Most often this is done with headlines and related graphics.
  3. Infographs should indicate the source of information.
  1. Infographs that appear in print should also appear online.

Running a small program more than teaching classes

August 21, 2019

What mindset is required in running a small educational program like a community college journalism program?

I once served on what I commonly refer to as the Committee from Hell, but I learned something profound from doing so.

The committee was a tenure review of a teaching colleague in another discipline. The colleague’s original tenure review committee had denied tenure in the final year of a multi-year evaluation process and the colleague was taking advantage of an appeals right. The right allowed a second review committee made up of an administrator not connected with the original committee, a faculty member of the colleague’s choice (me), and one member from the original committee.

We were tasked with coming up with a unanimous decision. That was going to be a challenge if the decision was anything but denial because the original team member was not going to change his mind.

We spent probably close to 100 hours conferring and interviewing discipline teachers, students, staff members. (It did not help that I was suffering a bad cold in the middle of the process.) After sitting in on several of the colleague’s classes I thought she was a competent teacher who was also liked by students.

In the end we DID unanimously deny the tenure, but each of us got to the decision following separate paths. What swayed me was that the job description under which the colleague was hired called for “running a small program, including teaching.” While there was no reassigned time for such actions as class scheduling, adjunct reviews, club advisership, etc., they were implied in the job description. As the sole full-time instructor in my journalism program, I was familiar with the extra work involved. I often observed campus colleagues who taught classes two or three days a week and were off campus by noon to run their side businesses. This colleague also was an artist with a side musical career and did none of the extra work, not even evaluating the adjuncts in her program.

I understood that, too. I had a lot of teaching colleagues whose identity was strengthened by their continued outside involvement in the discipline that they taught.

Remember that I felt, even at the end of the Committee from Hell, that my colleague was a competent instructor. But running a small educational program is much more than simply teaching. Yes, it is REALLY important, but there are dozens of people the hiring committee could have chosen to teach. Odds are, if someone survived paper screening and got to the interview stage of hiring process he or she was qualified to teach. And those who advanced to the final selection process were assumed to be competent teachers. The hiring committee chose the best one to “run a small program.”

The first few years of growing as a teacher requires you to put most focus on development as a teacher. But you are also hired to “run a program,” as virtually every full-time community college journalism instructor is, even if journalism is only part of the load. The job requires that you stick around more than class hours. Some of the work is defined by contract: scheduling courses, maintaining office hours, reviewing student learning outcomes, submitting grades, etc. And the institution eventually will want its full-time faculty to participate in institutional activities, such as attending graduations and serving on committees. The first few years also involve tenure review, which ideally is set up to help teachers grow into the job.

But for the program to thrive it involves so much more, much of it often undefined, and one needs to find energy to put in long hours supervising newspaper production, working with printers, writing or updating curriculum, staying up on new trends in the discipline, advising and counseling students, advising student clubs, periodically reviewing your program, and more. A lesson I learned in life, and in grad school, is that you should also give back to your discipline. I hammered this into my adjuncts over the years: if they want to just teach part-time, okay, that is what we are paying you for. But if you want to one day be working full time in a community college journalism program, learn to do more.

I am proud to say that nearly half the adjuncts I had over the years went on to full-time journalism education jobs. That is more than many of my campus colleagues in other disciplines could claim.

If you are already a full-time instructor at a California community college, you know the college requires more of you than teaching. If you are new, prepare yourself. Don’t be the next one to need to ask someone to sit on a committee from hell.

The Journalism Association of Community Colleges a number of years ago started an award for volunteer of the year in its organization and named the award after me. I am proud of those who have given back to the discipline and even more proud that several of the winners worked under my tutelage at some point in their career.

Campus demands on new hires are greater today than ever before and the idea of giving back to your discipline may seem to be too much to ask, but it is not. And giving back to your discipline includes reaching out beyond your campus boundaries.


What is the role of the campus newspaper?

March 9, 2019

What is the role of a student newspaper in California community college journalism? Or, a better question yet: what are the roles of a student newspaper?

How one answers this question is important in how we teach our student publication courses. 

Most advisers could give relatively quick and simple answers to the question, but once you compare those answers across the state  you would find that the question doesnt generate simple answers.

For instance, one of the first definitions you must face is whether to emphasize camps news vs. community news. Almost all California community college newspapers, whether print-based or digitally based (you may notice that I did not say online-based, which is rapidly becoming an outdated term), cover at least some campus news, but increasingly I am seeing publications include community news. Some are even focusing on national and international news.

If you asked college officials the question they likely would say one of the — if not THE — roles of a student publication is to cover news of the campus.

I see some publications doing an outstanding role doing that — one of the best is Santa Barbara College — while others cover little campus news beyond campus sports. (Even then, college sports columnists show a fondness for discussing professional sports rather than dissecting their own sports teams.)

There are good arguments for covering community news as well as national or international news. For instance, if the campus publication is the only news students look at then letting them know what is going on in the world is important. And it is certainly more appealing for columnists and editorial writers to comment on national and international issues than delving into campus issues. Student voices and engagement in the world outside the confines of the campus is good.

And the borders around a campus are artificial when community news occurs. Off-campus community news, done right, requires students to look for local angles and provides opportunities for students to seek out sources beyond the familiar fellow students and campus officials. Pushing students outside their comfort zones, arguably is another role of the campus publication

One of the disturbing trends I see in some California community college publications that is rampant in opinion pieces, but even news coverage, is simply digesting news from other publication sources and not including original reporting. 

When I was teaching and advising student publications, a major teaching emphasis for me was encouraging students reporters to reach out to primary sources rather than secondary sources, which I sometimes referred to as “bogus sources.” (Calling them bogus was inaccurate because there legitimate uses of secondary sources, but my point was that students should not rely on them exclusively.) I see some student publications over-relying on secondary sources in non-campus stories and personally see that as a weakness in what we teach. On the other hand, when covering national and international news it is difficult for students to cultivate primary sources.

Is rehashing/curating news from other publications journalism? Yes and no. Much of what we see in broadcast news, both on and off campus and distinctly aside from “breaking news,” is summaries from other publications. I remember a term from my college days studying broadcast news: rip and read. Even when broadcast news journalists deliver original stories it is often the local newspaper that led the broadcast team to the story.

The shift from covering campus news to off-campus news correlates strongly to an emphasis in digitally distributed news. It is easier to re-tweet from other publications, for instance, than to produce and promote local/campus news. And without emphasizing the need for primary sources students lose an important component in journalism education they need to push beyond comfort zones.

Once the regular production of a print edition wanes it is easy to forget one of the original missions of the student newspaper: to cover the campus. As journalism educators, we easily see a broadening role for journalism programs in our colleges, but college officials often see the journalism program mostly as a means to a student publication that covers campus news. Stop covering campus news in favor of  community, national, and international news and college officials MAY start questioning the need for a journalism program.

They would be wrong, of course, but unless we educate them they may not consider the greater contribution of journalism education.

Hence the need to go back to the original question and be clear what the roles of student publications are.

Another answer many advisers would give would be that we are training future journalists. This can seem like a weak answer if college officials don’t interpret the evolution mainstream media are experiencing correctly. All that they will see is a retrenching of the traditional media workforce.

I would argue that the skill sets we teach transcend simply training students to enter the workforce of traditional media. This always hounded me when I had to produce program reviews and Career Technical Education reports and had to include job outlook data. What we teach students in our programs overall and in our student publications in particular transfers well into a variety of careers that don’t fit into traditional CTE paths usually associated with our discipline.

But that is a whole other discussion. In our student publications we teach communication, information gathering, storytelling/information sharing, team work, leadership, and more. Other disciplines do the same — just ask an athletic coach, a student government adviser, a speech teacher, a business teacher, a plotical science instructor, or just about any discipline teacher on your campus. 

So why do we need a student publication? Distributing campus (hyperlocal) news is one thing are we can do better than most programs.

What I like best with a strong emphasis on campus news is that it is harder for student journalists to do without getting out there and talking to primary sources.


The Jewel of JACC: the State Conference

March 30, 2018


The Journalism Association of Junior Colleges was formed in the mid-1950s when a group of junior college (as California’s community colleges were known as then) journalism instructors saw the benefits for students provided by the California Intercollegiate Press Association, which ran annual conferences for university journalism students, complete with writing, editing and photography contests.

The organization’s founders, which included a couple of its first presidents Irv Harlacher of Monterey Peninsula College and “Sky” Dunlap of Santa Ana College, did so with three main goals: to provide similar conference/contest opportunities for junior college students, to foster communication between the junior college programs and to create a “clearing house of ideas” for teaching of journalism.

Those are still the goals of a truly great organization that MAY be on the precipice of a major transformation I talked about in my last blog post. In the late 1990s/early 2000s we started referring to the mission of JACC to provide “extended educational opportunities for journalism students and continued education for journalism instructors,” the latter goal even more necessary due to the changing technology of the field.

The jewel of JACC is its state conference. Below is some history of the conference and some of my ideas on how JACC might transform it.

The founders created the conference experience by teaming up with CIPA and running concurrent conferences. That ended in the 1960s when the junior college numbers at the conferences had grown to a point that a combined conference was harder and harder to accommodate.

But there was another reason.

The California Education Code lies out general policies for the governance of the kindergarten through high school (K-12) public education system, the junior/community college system, and the California State University system. (The University of California system has a completely different charter that almost makes it an independent system that makes it own rules.) Even though the community college and CSU students have many characteristics in common –more so today than ever– the community college section of the Education Code more closely resembles the K-12 policies than the CSU policies. Indeed, even today the funding portion of the publication education system includes a formula for funding the K-14 schools.

One provision of that community college portion of the Education Code  that separates our students from the CSU students assumes a large population of 18-20 year olds in the community college system. (The average community college student today is closer to 26 than 19.) The legal age for drinking alcohol is 21 and community colleges are prohibited from allowing alcoholic beverages at many of its school-sponsored events. (The rule has been loosened a bit and local boards CAN approve it at special events, but not for general school-sponsored events, such as conferences.) This is not true for CSUs, which today are even allowed to have pubs on campus.

Drinking at conferences has always been a problem for the community college organization. In the 1960s the conflicting policies became a bone of contention between JAJC and CIPA and became a major cause for a split of the two organizations.

Today JACC still tries to enforce non-drinking/non-drug rules, but students, some legally allowed to drink in other circumstances and others just eager to drink on a weekend while away from home, challenge the rules.

(I had a conversation with a JACC adviser at the most recent convention who questioned when JACC was going to drop the ridiculous rules about drinking, unaware that they are based in the Education Code. JACC today must provide proof of insurance to contract for meeting space at a college or a hotel and without the rules and evidence of trying to enforce them would have trouble obtaining that insurance. No insurance policy, no conference.)

Early conferences by JAJC/JACC followed the model of CIPA and were held at college campuses, but it was not long before they grew in delegate size and made the transition to hotel-based conferences. One conference was even held in Yosemite in a tent-cabin campground. (See way below for one of my favorite JACC stories about that conference.) Another was held at the Asilomar camping conference center in Monterey. (I have another interesting story about that conference, too.)

Regional conferences continued to be held at member colleges.

By the 1970s, when gas lines appeared at gasoline stations across the country, JACC moved its conference to the middle of the state: Fresno. One hotel, in particular, the Hacienda Hotel (which at various times was known as the Sheraton Hotel) served JACC’s needs for a number of years. And by then JACC (it made the transition from JAJC to JACC in the early 1970s) had developed a structure for sharing responsibility for running the conference with all its members. It broke the state up into four northern and four southern sections and rotated responsibility for running each year’s conference.

  • Region One included 15 colleges in the greater Sacramento area and north to the state border
  • Region Two included 14 colleges in the area between San Francisco and Sacramento
  • Region Three included 11 colleges in the  greater San Francisco and greater San Jose areas
  • Region Four included nine colleges from the coastal area as far south as Monterey and colleges in the San Joaquin Valley
  • Region Five included 14 colleges from Bakersfield south to Pierce and Glendale.
  • Region Six included 10 colleges in the greater LA area as far south as El Camino and Long Beach colleges
  • Region Seven included 16 colleges from southern LA eastward and into the desert and Inland Empire
  • Region Eight included Orange County through San Diego counties

In 1982-83 it was Region Three’s turn to plan the conference. That’s when my 35-year stint on the JACC board of directors began. I was into my second year as a full-time instructor at West Valley College in the San Jose area. I had the help of great colleagues Herman Scheiding of Foothill College, the irascible Warren Mac of DeAnza and the cool-headed Art Carey of San Jose City College, but took on the role of conference coordinator.

It would be the first of three stints as conference chair over the years.

Drinking continued to be a problem and I like to tell about the liquor store a quarter mile away from the Hacienda, which had extremely profitable nights/weekends twice a year: New Year’s Eve and the JACC conference. We didn’t need insurance to book hotel sites in those days and at times JACC was the Wild West despite the Education Code. (Ask me in person some time for stories from those days; I have some doozies, one in particular involving sex and handcuffs.)

One of JACC’s conference problems today, which I address below, is cost of the conference. In those days the registration for the conference was just $100 and included your hotel stay. Later we kept costs “down” by leaving the registration fee alone, but making the hotel stay a separate cost.

We left the Hacienda/Sheraton –which by the way was shortly reconfigured into a retirement facility– but stayed in Fresno. My second stint as chair involved moving the conference to what was then the new seven-story Holiday Inn across the street from the Fresno Convention Center. By then, the grand experiment of rotating responsibility of running the conferences to different regions of the state had fallen apart.

Two years later the great Wil Sims of Modest College (those who never knew him missed out on knowing one of the best friends JACC ever had) helped move us to a campus setting at Fresno State University. He became our first “permanent” conference coordinator and served for three years and did such a great job that the organization grew a hefty financial cushion, one that evaporated later on as conference costs rose while we held steadfastly to as-low-as-possible registration rates.

By 1999 we had grown too large even for Fresno State –to find a place for the group to sit down together for an awards banquet we had to go half way across Fresno to a private banquet facility. Besides, food costs at the campus settings were starting to rival food costs at hotel settings. A $15-20 dinner, for instance, suddenly becomes closer to $30 each when you add on mandatory tax and tips. So, the board of directors decided to transition back into a hotel setting.

And we’d tired of Fresno after nearly 20 years there. The board decided to look to our state capital as a setting that could draw part of the organization (southern colleges) to travel across the state. The intent was to eventually share the travel burden and rotate between north and south, possibly even looking at San Jose or San Francisco as northern sites. So in 2000 I took my third stint as chair. We ended up at the Double Tree Inn and have had a long-standing good relationship with it.

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Perhaps here is a good place to talk about one of the defining characteristics of JACC conferences that limits where it holds them. Certainly hotel rates are a big factor in where JACC chooses to go; we want the lowest rates possible for a decent place to stay. But JACC does something else that limits its choices; college stacks as many students as we can into rooms so that they don’t have to pay for as many rooms. JACC requires a hotel with a high percentage of rooms with two double beds in them (double-doubles). All hotels have SOME double-doubles, but a limited number around the state have as high a percentage as we require/use. Keep that in mind when we discuss how to make JACC sustainable.

JACC is also somewhat unique (I know, that is a non-sequitur), is that it books its conferences by college delegation, rather than by individuals. (Other organizations might take delegation-based registrations for the conference, but require lodging registrations to be by individual.) Some of JACC’s hotel problems would go away if it registered as individuals, but it would create even more problems for us.

Besides moving from both a campus setting to a hotel setting and from Fresno to Sacramento came with three other important changes:

1) Computers became part of the conference scene back when we were still at the Hacienda (there are even more stories to tell about that transition) but everyone had to bring them with them, just as they had to bring manual typewriters before that. After a few years at a campus setting we had become accustom to not carting computers and printers along. If we were going back to a hotel setting, we had to address that problem. The answer became the notorious AlphaSmarts. Everyone hated them, but they provided an elegant solution until laptop computers were more ubiquitous (yeah, another non-sequitur).

2) We bit the bullet and raised the conference registration fees for the first time in a long time. It was a big jump because that was what was necessary. Had we raised the fees gradually over the years –something I still think JACC should be doing– the shock would not have been as great. Still, the 2000 conference in Sacramento drew a larger number of student delegates than ever seen before at a JACC conference. And that number climbed slightly each year until about two or three years ago when it saw a dramatic drop in both membership and conference participation. Over the years we added additional fees, such as contest fees for the “mail-in” competitions. The why-for and way-for is steeped in several reasons, but the main one was to avoid raising the “registration” fee.

3) We changed the membership dues dramatically, and in doing so, priced out some struggling programs. In earlier days we had a more successful way of covering operational costs of the organization. I’ll cover that below. (We still give out about $3,000 in scholarships each year, though our original and best way to pay for that no longer exists.)

Another change that came along later deserves some attention. As we evolved into a dedicated conference chair position we moved to compensating the individual who took on the role. We started with woefully low stipends and played around with the idea of percentage commissions. We rejected the latter for some sound reasons. In the early 2000s the board approved a massive payment change that was morally appropriate, but financially unsustainable. Instead of stipends of $500, $1,000 or even $2,000 for all the work put into planning and running the conference, the board approved a cost of $10,000 and folded in responsibility running regionals and the faculty conference, which I have not even mentioned heretofore in this post.

It was morally appropriate because it was “fairer” to the person running the conferences. (Twice that amount would have been closer to market value.) It also added a sense of stability to conferences as necessary skill sets being concentrated in one person made running conferences more efficient. But it was financially unsustainable and nearly bankrupted the organization. I am not sure that Timi Poeppelman was EVER paid that $10,000 a year, though she transformed the conference into a world-class convention for our students. It was a failed experiment that might better have been phased in more slowly to gauge the right balance of morality and financial sustainability.

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Well, that pretty much takes us through today with conferences.

  • They cost a lot and require either a dedicated (and ideally paid) conference chair position or a really dedicated volunteer army. One problem with the latter is that it is too easy to find yourself with “reinventing the wheel” every year, though JACC has gotten much better at handing down traditions.
  • The dramatic drop in membership and conference attendance exacerbates the financial problems and can threaten the organization’s existence in its present form.
  • The organization has shed the high-cost conference coordinator model. That creates a burden on a volunteer-run (volunteers have always been a part of the conference, but their role at the top was diminished under the formal conference coordinator model) team, who deserve more thanks and accolades than they will ever receive. Potential burnout is a real problem.



Well shedding the high-cost conference coordinator model and going back to a grass roots structure was the most important step. But at the same time JACC will have to address the high cost of running conferences and the drop in membership and delegates.

It should be noted that Sacramento conferences draw more schools –and probably more delegates– than Los Angeles/Burbank-based conferences. This is true because more southern schools are in a position to attend a northern conference than northern schools in a position to attend a southern conference. But it is more than that. There are southern schools who cannot or will not even attend a southern conference. The reasons for that vary, but not least among them is cost. I would argue that holiday timing plays a role these days, too. The problem of scheduling around varied spring breaks, Easter and Passover is a bigger issue today than ever before.

JACC leaders are now considering going back to a campus-based conference, and maybe going back to the 1970s and looking at a more central location, perhaps Fresno or San Luis Obispo.

I don’t have any insights on whether Fresno State or Cal Poly SLO would like to host us –neither has been particularly active with JACC for a long time and don’t often even send representatives to our conferences any more– so I can’t and won’t make a judgment on whether that is a good idea. I suspect it has merit, especially if one or both is interested in hosting us. I have also heard Northridge mentioned as a possibility. I suppose that on paper it is even worth considering Bakersfield. (Channel Islands in Ventura County does not seem viable because it does not even have a formal journalism program.)

Aside from a willing host, a big consideration has to be where people will stay during the conference. That’s where JACC’s proclivity for school-based hotel registrations and need of a high number of double-doubles will come into play. We’ve been to Fresno before and know there are hotel possibilities around Fresno State. But things have changed since we were last in Fresno as an organization. A recent Fresno Bee article explains what could be a problem. Since we were last there many other organizations, especially sports-based organizations have moved statewide activities there. Fresno hotels, especially those close to Fresno State, have a high occupancy rate. At times of the year, the article says, you can’t get a hotel room within 40 miles of Fresno.

And moving to a campus setting might not save as much money as one might think. The hotel is still going to get its share. And the campus facilities might not be as free to the organization as they once were; having a host journalism program helps, though. And food costs at the campus setting when we left Fresno were rivaling the cost of food at hotels. The good news with the drop in conference attendance is that we could once again find a spot on campus to all sit down for an awards banquet. And looking into a meal voucher system for breakfasts –if not included by hotels– and lunches with campus vendors that Wil Sims introduced has great potential for saving money. (At hotels we have to guarantee a certain number of meals and pay for them whether students attend them or not; with a voucher system we end up paying only for meals consumed at contracted vendors).

Meal costs make up the largest portion of running the conference. But eliminating them completely is not the answer, at least at hotels. At hotels JACC gets free or nearly free meeting space to run its conferences because the hotels can make their money from selling us room nights or selling us meals. Eliminate meals or sell fewer room nights and the hotel simply quotes a higher per-night room rate. (If JACC schools put one or two students to a room rather than loading them up with four and five students they would use more overall room nights –one room x one night = one room night– the cost of the rooms and meals might actually go down a bit. But they’d still be paying as much or more because they have shifted the cost to more rooms.)

Here are some other ideas:


In the 1980s JACC ran up some high financial reserves with low membership rates. Of course, it was taking advantage of high interest rates, too. In fact, it was able to start a $3,000-a-year scholarship program taking money only from interest earned each year on its reserves.

As interest rates dropped, it kept up the large scholarship program, even if it mean dipping into the $30,000-plus reserves’ principle. This was another morally appropriate but financially unsustainable decision. Who doesn’t want to honor the outstanding students of JACC with scholarships?

This might have worked had JACC not also sustained high losses to that principle from arguably poor financial management of some its conferences –we don’t know for sure because more than once we put the conference chair in charge of the checking accounts; they both spent the money and struggled with timely accountability. In one three-year span with one of the early coordinators the large reserve disappeared. I was on the board at the time and still cannot explain where that money went.

Through the years JACC has discovered that it needs professional financial accounting. We just are not prepared to do that ourselves. Today JACC has that help through the California News Publishers Association. As it has learned, though, it still needs one of its members to serve as a liaison between our accountant and the organization. I am glad to see that it appointed one at this last convention.

The board over the years has a pattern of making morally appropriate but financially unsustainable decisions. One has been trying to hold down the cost of conferences registrations in the face of rising costs. Regular small increases would be more sustainable than periodic big jumps. Of course, that does not eliminate the need to regularly assess costs and look for efficient ways to control them.

But just how did JACC manage with low membership fees for so many years? The secret was designating a percentage of the conference income for operational costs. It used to regularly designate $1-$2 per delegate fee (probably translates to $5-7 today) strictly for running the organization. It came off the top and was untouchable for other conference expenses. At one point another assessment of $1-$2 helped raise money for the scholarships; the number of delegates and money raised by that fee and earned interest determined how much could be given in scholarships each year.

The logic behind such a large membership fee is that college administrators will approve it without question. We lost some struggling programs as members as a result. Today few non-member colleges give that as a reason not to join. Still, I think there is merit to rethinking the per-delegate override, perhaps both at regional conferences and the state conference. To do so, though, we should look at cutting expenses over adding it to the current fees.

And as much as I hate to suggest it, JACC should identify specific sources of income to pay for its scholarship program and pay out only what it earns from these sources.

I don’t think JACC will see much savings from a move to a campus setting, but culturally, it might be a good move to consider a middle-of-the state location. It might see an uptick of attendance by those schools who cannot or will not travel the length of the state.

And, of course, JACC has to win back lost members. JACC is an outstanding organization that provides great value both to students and teachers, especially newer teachers.  I know some of those not participating are having needs met by Associated Collegiate Press conferences, but as good as they are, they are not JACC. And JACC is stronger with those lost members. (I still hear cost of participation as a reason for attending JACC conferences, but there are schools in the state who spend big bucks to go to national conventions or East Coast-based ACP regional conferences. Cost is not the issue when they are willing to spend money to go to them. JACC has to co-opt some of the best of those conferences –aside from the out-of-state travel appeal– and draw those schools back. There are other issues involved that I am not bringing up here; JACC leaders know the reasons and have win back trust one lost member at a time. Hashing it out here would not be productive.


How does JACC make conferences more sustainable? If I had the magic solution I would have offered it longer before now. But I have some ideas to consider.

In recent years JACC leaders have trimmed some costs considered extravagant. That’s good PR, but probably did not save all that much money in the long run. The organization is contest heavy and insists on those contests being reality-based. I cannot argue with that. But it means you pick up costs for things like buses to take reporters and photographers to off-site events. That is definitely one area where the organization can save money with a campus-based conference. And the reality-based events are arguably better than the theatrically based events we used to provide (though there are great stories about those, too; one involving a situation that COULD have resulted in people getting killed).

I still judge at annual Southern California high school journalism writing contests and cringe at the manufactured news events they throw together. Students rise to the occasion, but it is not real. For instance, I judged a sports competition this year that was a five-year-old documentary about an Olympian who participated in the Winter Olympics a week later. Students were instructed to treat the documentary as though the participants were giving a live press conference. The students did an outstanding job with their stories –other than the upcoming games were not a part of the story– but is that what we want to teach young reporters?

As technology in the field has grown, JACC has added more technology-based contests. It has been wise, though, in curbing proliferation of contests by subtracting contests along the way as well. Still, I don’t think JACC has given full consideration to use of technology to deliver what some of the conference offers.

It might consider using technology to deliver conference-style workshops throughout the year and not just at conferences. It might consider a small “technology commuter” rate to its conferences to deliver parts of the conferences to those schools who cannot afford the full conference experience. A technology-delivered workshop or awards banquet is not as appealing as a live event, but well-planned experiences could be made appealing. (With emphasis on well-planned.) At the very least, the additional costs incurred to record and deliver technologically based workshops might be recouped from these special fees and more students would be served.

When I was an adviser in the organization one of the things I hated most about the annual convention was that my students who attend invariably came back excited with lots of new ideas … and then had only about a month to implement them before the end of the school year.

I often fantasized about what might have been had the statewide conference been in the fall semester and the regionals in the spring. They would have the rest of the school year –certainly more than a month– to implement their new ideas and build off the momentum of the conference. Regionals, then, would serve as booster shots. And scheduling of a fall statewide conference would avoid the staggering spring breaks, Easter and Passover.

I know there is a strong feeling among advisers that the end-of-the-year state conference is a reward for a year’s good work. I accept that premise, but encourage JACC to this think about really shaking things up with a switch like that. Planning a statewide conference in mid-October/early November would allow major conference planning to take place over summer months when its volunteer planners are less busy with running their own programs.

And, finally, I think JACC should look back to its past and at least consider combining its conference with another organization. The two organizations could cooperate and eliminate duplication. A higher attendance base would again amortize expenses.

The logical organization team up with would be the California College Media Association, the successor to the defunct California Intercollegiate Association mentioned above. That organization currently allows community colleges into its membership, but community college participation is limited.

Right now CCMA combines its conferences with the Associated Collegiate Press western region conferences … when that conference is scheduled in California, which is at least half time time, maybe three-fourths. When ACP is out of state, CCMA puts together an awards banquet with perhaps a workshop or two.

Among other benefits, it would once again bring the university instructors into the same room with the community college instructors. That’s got to be a good outcome.

And I’ll bet students will love it. Talking to JACC students who have moved on to the university level over the years I have discovered that they really miss the JACC experience after they have transferred. The ACP regional conferences are good, and certainly less expensive than JACC, but they offer so much less. A JACC/CCMA conference would make a dent in the ACP conference … not that it is a contest between ACP and JACC. If JACC were to switch its state conference to fall, there might even be a combined JACC/ACP/CCMA conference in the spring.

There is still the drinking issue that would have to be dealt with. It might take some creative thinking to deal with it. Or it MIGHT become moot if a combined conference became an individually attended conference rather than a school delegation attended conference.

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You will notice that I have said little about regional conferences above and haven’t even touched the history or value of the faculty conference, which was started in 1979. My thoughts on the history and value of the faculty conference are too emotional to be folded into this blog entry, so it will probably be my next topic. I’ll toss in a bit about the regionals as well.

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This story took place before I became involved with JACC, so it is told second-hand. But some of those there have confirmed it.

The conference was held in Yosemite in one of its tent-cabin campgrounds. Advisers then, as advisers do today, tended to leave students alone in the evenings of the conference and congregated among themselves to talk about teaching … and probably to imbibe.

That year however, the adviser from one school could not attend the conference and the college sent a dean of students as a substitute. He did not feel comfortable leaving students on their own and enlisted De Anza’s Warren Mack to patrol the campground at night on his own to make sure nothing untoward was happening.

As he was passing one of the tent cabins he heard some amorous nosies emanating from inside. Now, if you have ever been to one of those campgrounds you know that the tent-cabins do not have locks on the doors. So Mack burst into the cabin shouting, “Alright you two, where are you from?”

The man looked up and replied, in a distinct accent, “We are from Sweden. We are on our honeymoon.”