Town, gown, beach, mountain, newspaper: An imaginary partnership between UCSC and the Santa Cruz Sentinel

What happens when thousands of undergraduates looking for a good time seasonally invade a small California town with its ethos firmly planted in 1968 and its economy floating unabated in the real estate bubble of 2004-2007? Find out on the next episode of “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.”

I kid. I kid because I (still) love Santa Cruz from afar, having lived there for six years or so, and having worked in the news business full time for the first time at the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

But we’re not here to reminisce about my days on the Central Coast of California — except for the part where we’ll do just that — we’re here for the…

Carnival of Journalism

Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way, shall we?

David Cohn recently re-animated the Carnival of Journalism from its long slumber, and the first topic of conversation is the following:

The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community: One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with?

Conveniently for me, that’s open-ended enough that I feel free to use my imagination. I’m genuinely interested in how a university’s journalism department (if applicable) and/or student news organization (sometimes more likely, independent or not) and a local news organization (I’ll stick to a newspaper in this exercise, since that’s what I know best) can build a successful collaborative news product/process around important local issues.

(Was that enough parentheticals? If you’re new around here, just wait until I get going with the emdashes.)

If you’ve been paying remarkably close attention to this blog, you might be waving this post at me, where I said I would use San Jose State — where I went to graduate school, worked on the student newspaper, and learned more about the intimate inner workings of a university journalism department than most students should — and the Mercury News in this exploration.

Well, yeah, I said that, but thinking about it for a few more minutes, decided that it might be easier — and less offensive to some friends of mine — to imagine, speculate, and generalize about UC Santa Cruz’s journalism program rather than the Merc, while writing with a minuscule but somewhat more authoritative voice about the Sentinel, where I will no doubt offend a few people if I do this right at all.

Enough with the housekeeping. Let’s get to the content.

Town

To set the stage, as I did a bit more snarkily in the intro at the top of this post, Santa Cruz is weird.

In a very traditional, Californian sense.

Let me give you a few examples of real issues that were heavily debated while I lived there (some of these lively discussions rage on today.) I’m not trying to demean these issues — they are real, and in most cases, I have a point of view on them myself.

  • A ballot measure to officially make police enforcement of marijuana possession laws their lowest priority.
  • The university’s long-term growth plans, as they related to the amazing redwood forest it was plunked down in back in the 1960s when it opened with a much smaller student body.
  • Panhandling, dogwalking, unchecked coffee shop reproduction, and other plagues of the main street of downtown Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue, which any local over the age of 40 will tell you used to be closed to car traffic within 30 seconds of its mention.

Plus, aside from the actual City of Santa Cruz (pop. 56,124), there’s the much larger Santa Cruz County (pop. 253,157), which includes a multitude of towns as diverse as Watsonville (with its large Mexican-American population) and tiny Felton (with its many trees).

Gown

Like most college towns (generalization alert), for better or worse, Santa Cruz is overrun with thousands of undergraduates from September through June.

And believe it or not, none of them are journalism majors or minors, because at the moment there is no such thing at UCSC. Nevertheless, when I first encountered newsstands around campus, I found them to be stocked with a few different student publications, including a somewhat straightforward independent weekly and a less regularly appearing comedy paper.

By the way, UCSC, like the rest of Santa Cruz has plenty of its own divisive issues. I imagine this has only been exacerbated by budget cuts.

And, oh, it also has a really interesting graduate-level Science Writing program that has produced some pretty fantastic journalists who, indeed, continue to write about science. More on that in a moment.

Beach

Did I mention the tourists? The Boardwalk? (If you’ve seen Lost Boys, you’ve seen the Boardwalk.) Did I mention that the Boardwalk and thus, the beach most popular with the tourists is directly adjacent to the only truly “bad” neighborhood within the city limits (depending on how you feel about Pacific Avenue)? Not sure the tourists know that. Or that they need to, depending on where their GPS takes them when they leave the Boardwalk parking lot.

Anyway, there’s tourism, and it’s a big deal. Surfing, too. Next heading…

Mountain

Alright, so this is something I didn’t really learn until we launched a commenting system on the Sentinel’s website, but the population of the towns in the mountains (well, call them foothills if you have high standards) between Santa Cruz and San Jose is substantially more conservative than the population of the city. Or at least the vocal commenters were. Anyway, it’s something to be dealt with if you’re reporting in the county.

Newspaper

Have I made this town seem complicated enough?

Enter the Santa Cruz Sentinel, circa 2007.

Without getting too deep into the sordid details of the Sentinel’s ownership, or layoffs, or how its editorial bent (I’d call it center-right) diverged from the town’s politics (left of left), let’s just say the Sentinel was exactly as complicated as most newspapers of similar vintage, circulation, and situation.

My friends at the Sentinel were great at reporting on crime, local personalities, local sports, and a few other things, which is what you’d expect in a town of Santa Cruz’s size.

Unfortunately, that was never really enough for its readers — or its potential readers.

Let’s get to the proposal, shall we?

Finally, now that we’ve introduced all the players, let’s use our imaginations.

But first, one more bit of context, viewed once again through the lens of “stuff I remember but wasn’t personally involved in, really.”

How did the Sentinel and the UC Santa Cruz Science Writing program work together?

Well, there were interns. Grad student science writing interns. And here’s where I think we slipped up: They were assigned (or helped out with) regular newspaper beats. They wrote obits, they covered events, they learned how a daily newspaper functioned, and the news organization got an extra body or two to throw at a wide range of places and people.

I suppose that went alright, but what if:

The Sentinel and UC Santa Cruz had put the science writing skills of those students to use, directly, and produced a weekly science page, probably running it instead of stale wire copy on a weekly “technology” page which was almost insultingly redundant in a highly connected Silicon Valley-adjacent community.

OK, let’s see if I can present that idea again without a clause that trails off into some bitter memory of wasted efforts…

The Sentinel and UC Santa Cruz should have been producing science content with their science writing resources, not squeezing science writers into the mold of a daily newspaper intern.

A Short List of the Possibilities:

  • A weekly Science page with local content, stories about local researchers, local companies, local innovation.
  • Local technology companies as advertisers. Plantronics or Seagate, for example. Or a Science and Technology jobs page sponsored by local companies, and even startups.
  • Do the same with a niche website — we built these in WordPress and Joomla for local entertainment and surfing — and give UCSC science writing students access to blog there — to use the joint Science site as a group blog for ideas, inspiration, and insights into the science community around the university and the town.
  • How about an e-mail newsletter version with a subscription model: a dollar a month, or five bucks per year, and you get the best of the science section, plus other
  • Use the revenue from these new products to pay the interns, perhaps in some sort of interesting combination of an hourly, per-story, and page view model. (I honestly don’t remember if they were paid, or just received credit, or a combination of both.)

What do you think?

Actually, I’ll pose that question to some folks at the Sentinel, and to some friends who went through the Science Writing program, and invite them to respond here.

We’ll see who shows up.

UPDATE:

Here’s who showed up: Former Sentinel Executive Editor Tom Honig. See Tom’s comment, below, for confirmation that not only am I on the right track, but I’m proposing things that have been tried before. No surprise, I guess. I do specialize in overstating the obvious.

From Tom’s comment:

“It might surprise you to know that shortly thereafter, the Sentinel did launch a science section. Peggy Townsend was its lead editor, and we actually used the science students a great deal for that section. It had an open cover and a couple of pages inside. We mixed up the content between staff-written, student-written and wire stories. My recollection is that it was a fascinating section.”

4 Replies to “Town, gown, beach, mountain, newspaper: An imaginary partnership between UCSC and the Santa Cruz Sentinel”

  1. ,Here’s a little historical (and I hope journalistic) perspective.

    The Sentinel and the science writers first hooked up in 1985. John Wilkes was the director of the program, and I was city editor. He came to me and asked whether I’d be willing to take one of his students for a two-week freebie internship from one of his students. There were three issues to overcome:
    1. We paid for interns and I didn’t have a budget for it. (oh my, how times have changed)
    2. I had a requirement that interns do at least six weeks “so they could understand the pace of a newsroom.”
    3. Wilkes was concerned that any more than two weeks would remove the student from the classroom, which, after all, was the reason they were enrolled.

    That really started the current policy of less-than-formal internships at the newspaper.

    The payoff for the Sentinel was obvious. The payoff for the students was huge — they stopped just writing for the teacher and each other. Instead, they wrote for the public.

    Now, I’ll try to address issues as they came up, most of which continue to this day. I already mentioned one — that students are in a program, and may not have sufficient time to do a full internship. There were some bigger issues. Many of the students have backgrounds in science, but not in any sort of media. My joke at the time was: “Ask them what time it is and they’ll tell you how a clock works.” Originally, Wilkes really wanted that characteristic beaten out of them, so he asked me if I would have them do the basics: obits, rewrites, cop stories. That was done as a strategy to help the student. It was only after they learned how to write a 10-inch story in under eight hours that we’d move on to other, deeper kinds of stories.

    The arrangement worked wonderfully, for the most part. At the beginning, Wilkes in particular vetted the students to ensure that they were capable of writing at a high level. (My crabby, old-timer side says that in those days writing quality at most daily papers was higher, and that we expected a level of sophistication that the science students sometimes didn’t have.)

    However. More than a few of the students were stunningly good. In fact, we hired four or five of them fulltime after their year had ended. Dick Emanuel, Roberta Friedman, Lisa Davis and Greg Mock are those who come to mind. All became excellent journalists. Later, Genevieve Bookwalter, another science student, was hired, but not directly from the program.

    What really made the relationship sweet was that two of us from the newspaper, copy editor John McNicholas and I, both taught the newswriting course. Later, Don Miller, now editor, did the same. Again, our marching orders from Wilkes were to teach them newswriting (although I gave them science-oriented assignments because I, like you, thought that the Sentinel could profit from their expertise).

    It might surprise you to know that shortly thereafter, the Sentinel did launch a science section. Peggy Townsend was its lead editor, and we actually used the science students a great deal for that section. It had an open cover and a couple of pages inside. We mixed up the content between staff-written, student-written and wire stories. My recollection is that it was a fascinating section.

    Alas, changing economics and newshole cuts took the section away after two years or so. (I might add, too, that no advertisers seemed interested in the section.)

    Before I go too much further, I should bring up another issue. The skills, talents and mind-set of the students differed hugely. Some just went to work. Others arrogantly felt that they were smarter than everyone else, causing some distress among the staff. (Yes, there are always managerial issues). One intern threatened suicide. Another tried to drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz and ended up in Modesto. Just because they were Science Communication students didn’t mean that they were all competent.

    As time went by, the internship program had become a part of the Sentinel. Instead of a formal internship program, overworked city editors just turned to these writers as just regular old interns who could fill the paper. And, as editors became more rushed and more interested in just filling the space, the science writers just became like the regular old interns. That’s not peculiar to the Sentinel, either, because in time the students also interned at other regional dailies.

    An observation: there’s a defensiveness among daily journalists that didn’t quite fit with the science interns. Newsies resented being looked-down upon, and some of the interns felt like they were slumming. More importantly, if you give science interns better assignments than the staffers, the resentment builds. Also, some of the science interns weren’t quite as accomplished as they thought they were: they didn’t understand that news is about details, and some of them were “done” with detail work and that’s why they left the world of science. That was an interesting aspect of it that I couldn’t have predicted.

    Bottom line: science writing students are like any other group — some are great, most are average, some are awful. You can’t just swat ’em on the ass and say: “Go get ’em, killer.”

    Now, to the present:

    I think your post makes quite a bit of sense, because times have really changed. The local tech situation is far different, obviously, from 1985 or 1995. Writing the above paragraphs was little more than a trip of nostalgia, because reading habits have changed, technology has changed and Santa Cruz has changed.

    I work at NextSpace (a kind of shared-work environment where small businesses or individuals work cooperatively and competitively. I like being around younger people who are looking at work and careers and information differently. And no publication in Santa Cruz is serving their needs. They don’t read the Sentinel. But they don’t read the weeklies, or even out-of-town papers. Yet it’s funny — whenever one of them is covered in print, they love it. (Vanity lives on, right?) I wonder whether your idea, done with consistency, could change their reading patterns.

    I think it’s worth a shot. But, there are a couple of things that argue against success. Right now, they’re information needs seem to be filled by Facebook and other social media. Even when there’s an article in the Sentinel of interest, most of them read it in Facebook posts.They still don’t buy the damn paper.
    This is a problem that the SJ Mercury News has had for years. Even back when they covered tech well, how did they cover it? Do you write for the techies or do you write for the general population. (Sports sections have the same issue — are they writing for sports fans or for the general public? But I think tech is even more that way.)

    Also, there’s the issue of Santa Cruz itself. I hang out at NextSpace, and I’m also on the board of the Chamber of Commerce. These are two groups who are alien to each other. It’s not that they don’t like each other — it’s that they speak different languages. The young techies are equally entrepreneurial as the Chamber folks, but they’d never be caught dead at a Chamber meeting.

    So, I question the economic viability of producing a science section that would appeal to both groups. That’s really the Santa Cruz story right now — and it’s a tough one for any publication to address. In thinking back to your time at the Sentinel, this is probably the conversation we should have had.

    But hey — who has time? Therein is your answer. It’s hard to be creative when the amount of work is overwhelming and no one gets paid very much.

    Again, though, I do think your idea is viable and worth a try. But I’d bet that there’s little time in the newsroom to sit down and discuss it.

    Thanks, Ryan, for letting me go on and on. Hope some of these thoughts are helpful.

    Tom Honig

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