School’s Out

A lost generation of journalists

A journalist walks across the Modesto Junior College campus in the mid-1990s and peeks in the newspaper office, where dedicated students ankle-deep in gluey paper strips are laying out eight broadsheet pages, scissors and pencils in hands. Though their backgrounds vary, they have each discovered in the task of producing a newspaper the purpose they need to keep coming to school each day. Along the way, they’re developing a sharper focus on the world outside Modesto—and the hidden world inside Modesto, too.

Cut to the fall of 2011. The newsroom is now a tutoring center. The Pirates’ Log, which MJC students had published continuously since 1926, is no more. The last online edition is a stale cyber-ghost. The student radio station is silent. The state-of-the-art TV department has been taken over by the administration and used to make marketing videos.

I was that journalist, hired in 1996 to teach students the essentials of journalism. For fifteen years I tried to train them to ask deeper questions; to seek answers; to value teamwork, tenacity, and technique; and above all to lift their gaze from the flat, hazy terrain of California’s Central Valley. Then, last spring, faced with a potential $8 million budget shortfall, the college eliminated the journalism, radio, film, and television programs, along with all student media, without so much as a backward glance of regret.

This scenario tells you everything you need to know about a community which, in its isolation from any real sense of the new-media renaissance, fell victim to the banal contempt for journalism so prevalent in mainstream America today. In a region where corporate media outlets have shrunk to the point that most residents simply ignore them, college administrators made a facile case that student media were a luxury they couldn’t afford. They must have realized what was at stake: the proven value of journalism studies in promoting media literacy, civic engagement, and awareness of the wider world. They just didn’t think it was worth fighting for.

When you drive over the coastal Range that defines the western wall of the Central Valley, the radio diversity of the San Francisco region is immediately cut off. You are left with, essentially, Clear Channel’s corporate rock music, many Christian stations, and Mexican radio on the lower end of the dial. NPR has some affiliates out of Sacramento, but it might as well be Al Jazeera given how few people listen to it.

Both progressives and conservatives criticize Modesto’s one newspaper, the Bee, for opposite reasons, and its readership has dwindled like that of most American newspapers. The region’s few independent online publishing ventures have pushed music, lifestyle, and entertainment content, not compelling news or intelligent discussion of current events.

And yet. The popularity of MJC media classes swelled in the years before the cuts. Though lacking exposure to quality models of media, whether print, broadcast, or online, students still flocked to these familiar formats. And those who stayed to join the newspaper staff eventually discovered that the practice of daily journalism, on a college campus or in the real world, is nothing less than a commitment to find, share, and protect the truth in the interest of democracy. That’s an ennobling validation for a Central Valley kid.

So you can imagine how they felt when the newly hired president of the college, Gaither Loewenstein, proposed taking it all away. Journalism as we knew it was obsolete, he argued, nowhere near as relevant to today’s world as computer graphics and video games. “In light of resource limitations,” he wrote, “MJC must focus on maintaining its strength in the core disciplines of art, music, and theatre, which will provide students with the creative skill sets they need to apply their talents in the age of new media. In the absence of actual talent and fundamental training in these disciplines, the entertainment and information industries must be reduced to sophisticated mechanisms for delivering mediocre content.”

Loewenstein’s argument stunned media students and faculty all over the state. This was not an analysis of why much contemporary media is mediocre and how students should be trained in order to improve it. It was a baseless assertion that what today’s media professionals were producing didn’t require any training specific to the field. Maybe the news media didn’t need to exist at all, he seemed to say. Entertainment had taken over, and would suffice.

Students reacted to this news with tears and rage—and, for the rest of the semester, they went for broke in the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

“How dare you tell us that our hard work is ‘mediocre’ . . . and how dare you cut our voices short because you don’t wish for us to speak,” wrote Dani Porter, a Log columnist and journalism major.

Dawn Burns, also a journalism major, called Loewenstein’s proposal “demeaning and offensive.” “I know I have talent. It may be raw and it may not be up to the standard of someone on The New York Times, but that is what I am here for!”

In March 2011, more than a thousand people packed the college auditorium to argue against the cuts. But a frightened board of trustees, worried about the bottom line, rubber-stamped the Loewenstein decree. There were other cuts, too. Journalism was nothing special.

Less than a month after the de- mise of media education in Modesto, I walked into the offices of The Huffington Post in New York and saw some 250 young writers, editors, and technicians working. I had begun a new career as an editor on the site’s OfftheBus 2012 platform for citizen journalism. Everyone can and should do journalism of some sort, is the mantra. It’s not only a First Amendment right, but a First Amendment responsibility.

Back in Modesto, some media students are trying to carry on—as they should. Sidelined by academia, they’ve formed a club called Underground Media. Three holdouts from the former Log staff are talking about publishing online or as a smartphone app. I suggested a name for the new “newspaper”: The Skeleton Crew. But they haven’t published anything yet. One young writer told me that he was struggling with his story; that he didn’t know whom to question, or what, exactly, to ask.

I worry about their loss of career training. I question whether this generation will be able to perform the vital functions of a free press. But I also worry about whether people in places remote from the vibrant centers of the new media even know that media careers are still possible. Or that journalists, alongside citizens of all kinds, are reinventing the media and refusing to disappear, buoyed by the possibilities of the Internet and the climactic crises of our times.

Update 04/03/12: A former Modesto Junior College film student named Curtis Medina has produced an eight-part documentary series about the MJC situation, called The Crisis Begins. Watch the series here.

This piece is part of CJR’s Nov/Dec 2011 roundtable discussion of the future of news in Modesto, California, and places like it. For more on the topic, click here.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Laura Paull is editor for citizen journalism and a contributing writer for The Huffington Post. She lives in San Francisco.