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The Jewel of JACC: the State Conference

March 30, 2018

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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.

– – – – –

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.

– – – – – –

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.

 

HOW CAN JACC BECOME SUSTAINABLE?

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:

FINANCES

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.

CONFERENCES

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.

– – – –

OTHER CONFERENCES

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.

– – – –

NOW, FOR THAT YOSEMITE STORY I PROMISED

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.”

 

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