Powerhouse Journalism Programs

April 17, 2006

Had a bit of insomnia the other night. Not sure why. Maybe it was a culmination of inactivity from a week of spring break where I tried to “relax.” Maybe my mind was racing from all the last minute work put into income tax forms. Or maybe it was simply that weird tasting spaghetti sauce my wife made for dinner.

Whatever it was, I found myself lying awake in the middle of the night contemplating a statement made at the recent JACC convention. In the middle of our contentious discussion on how many entries to allow in the mail-in competition Los Medanos’ Cindy McGrath commented on a study she made some years ago when we dropped from three mail-in entries per school to two. She said that during the period that followed, more schools, especially “some of the non-powerhouse schools,” won more awards.

That got me thinking about a question I’ve actually pondered for years. What constitutes a powerhouse school in JACC? Oh, sure, when the word is used certain schools come to mind, schools that tend to win a lot of awards. But there are some strong programs that will always be powerhouse programs in my mind but who don’t appear to win “a lot” of awards. And there are some schools that win a lot of awards who don’t leap to my mind first when I consider the word powerhouse.

What’s the definition? My students won 22 awards at the recent convention. Fifteen of them were honorable mentions, so we were not really in the running for a Pacesetter award. But does that constitute a powerhouse? I think we’re high profile and pretty good, but I wouldn’t consider us a powerhouse. Others might. Two years ago I came to the conclusion I’d probably seen my last general excellence for print as an adviser. But then my students proved me wrong. They’ve won two in a row (three counting regionals).

I took a look at the database of awards and tried to find some definitions. Fifty-one schools won awards, either mail-in or on-the-spot, at the convention. The low was one and the high was 34 awards. The average was 9.9 per school. The average school won 19.5 pacesetter awards with the high being 85.

But beyond pacesetter, what constitutes a powerhouse? I looked at the schools who either won the top 15 number of awards or the top 15 in pacesetter points (16 schools). Okay, Cerritos made it into both of those categories (6th in number of awards, but 12th in points; we need more first-through-fourth awards).

It was interesting then to look at the characteristics of those schools. Thirteen were GE winners. But as is the case about every other year, one of the top award winners was not a Pacesetter school because it did not earn the requisite GE. Most of the top schools won both mail-in and on-the-spot awards, but one Pacesetter did it all with mail-in awards.

Of the top 16, twelve have online editions and six have magazines, though awards won in categories aimed at those groups do not count toward Pacesetter.

Of the top 16 all have fulltime advisers, clearly an advantage and I think at all 15 schools journalism is all the instructor teaches (no English, for example), though one coaches basketball, one owns a newspaper and one writes plays on the side. I’m sure others have other major interests.

The group is dominated by larger schools, but there are a couple of small schools in the group. Most of the advisers have several years of experience advising, but one includes a teacher only his second year of fulltime experience. Most of the advisers I think are hands-off instructors, but I know of at least two where advisers routinely edit or review copy before print. Some have really strong photojournalism programs and many either have more than one instructor heavily involved in the program and/or have lab aides.

Some might be labeled as affluent schools, but clearly some at the top of the list would not be. Three of the schools were from northern California and the rest from southern California. Two were from the San Joaquin Valley.

Whatever definition we use, can we predict characteristics of powerhouses? Are some schools destined to be powerhouses because of their demographics? Because of their advisers? Because of their neighborhoods?

I didn’t want to get too obsessive over this, so I didn’t look to see, but I suspect that the top 15 award-winning schools win for writing, editing, design and photography, not just for one type of activity. That pretty much goes with the GE awards.

As I said, I’ve thought about this question for years and have not come to any good definitions of what constitutes powerhouse, much less devined which characteristics lead to powerhouse-ism. Perhaps there are some schools that will continue to struggle because of lack of school support, but I suspect that the seeds to powerhouse-ism exist at most schools. I don’t accept that awards won is the definition, but I do accept that awards won is one indicator.

I personally believe that strength of program comes in the infrastructure, where experienced students help teach newer students.


One comment

  1. Just had to share this comment from Laney’s Burt Dragin:

    I was surprised to hear about your insomnia and the rumination about “powerhouse schools.” I was surprised because it never occurred to me that you slept. Or tried.

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