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… 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.


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).


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.”

The Carnival of Journalism Revival Traveling Medicine Show

A couple years back, a sprawling cadre of journalism bloggers (myself included) participated — at least, for a few months — in a blog carnival.

Now without getting into the sordid details of what makes a blog carnival, and [INSERT CRACK ABOUT HOW NOBODY BLOGS ANYMORE BECAUSE YOU ALL HAVE THE TWITTERS AND WHATNOTS], it was a relatively pleasurable experience. A topic, a deadline, and the shared experience of a bunch of people writing about the same thing at the same time.

Superfluous Creative Commons stock photo of the 2009 Alameda County Fair, by WHardcastle.

And it’s back, thanks to Digidave’s revival:

One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education… 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?

Big question!

I’m planning to attack it from a completely hypothetical angle, outlining what a proposal for a San Jose State University School of Journalism & Mass Communications partnership with the Mercury News might look like, although my knowledge of both institutions tails off violently after 2007 or so.

We’ll see. The deadline is in 10 days, so I have a few minutes to gather some thoughts, or even (shocking as it may be) new information.

My advice to journalism students

I’ve been through most of this before, either in blog posts or in person, whenever I get the chance to talk with journalism students, but it’s worth repeating. A few tweets this week seem to have proved that, so I’m putting this updated compendium of my advice together for posterity.

My advice to journalism students.

My advice to journalism students starts with this:


That doesn’t mean you have to blog about journalism, or build a rabid political audience, or chronicle every step the Googles and Twitters and Apples of the world take.

It just means that you maintain a Web site where you write on a somewhat regular basis.

And by “maintain,” I mean you have the opportunity to learn as much as you’d like to learn about basic formatting for the Web. HTML, CSS, and if you’re a step more curious or industrious, blog software that mirrors (or exceeds) the functionality you’ll find in the content management systems at most professional news organizations.

That’s how I got started in this business. In fact, to be more precise, I think the first bits of code I touched had to do with making the title of my first Blogspot-hosted blog bigger, and changing its font and colors.

From there I switched to a hosted WordPress blog, learned a lot more about HTML and CSS, then decided I wanted to do more, bought my own domain and hosting (shouldn’t cost more than $10/month) and taught myself much, much more about making WordPress and similar content management systems dance.

But that digital specialty, (I can make your newspaper’s blogs look and act professional, and I can train your reporters to be better bloggers), as valuable as it was in 2006, wasn’t the only thing I learned as a journalism student.

Become an expert at one analog craft and one digital craft

An analog craft. Yes. Not knitting. Which is cool, but not what I mean, exactly.

When I say “analog,” what I mean is a core reporting skill. Those things journalism professors and newspaper editors talk about whenever the conversation about “what j-school students should learn these days, anyway” comes up. It’s very easy for me to say “well, of course you’re going to pick these core skills up along the way, right?”

But let’s get more specific.

I highly recommend that you specialize in an analog journalism craft.

Maybe one of these:

  • Copy Editing
  • Enterprise Reporting
  • Photography
  • Photo Editing
  • Media Law

There are others, of course. But this is a short list of things you can pick up in school. I picked up a lot of copy editing, and some practice at what I’m ambitiously calling enterprise reporting, which I later cemented with an internship at a major metro paper.

The point: The Web is awesome, and we’ll get to those digital crafts in a moment, but you want to have more than one tool in the box. So, I recommend two diverse skills. Will Sullivan once called these “Peace Out” skills, because it makes it much easier to move from job to job as necessary, throwing up two fingers as you walk out the door.

Learn a Web craft

A long time ago in Web years, I wrote about a trinity of recommended Web skills for journalism students: multimedia, data, and community management. Learn any one, and you can get a job tomorrow.

That’s still pretty much true, but I’m encouraging you to pair that digital skill with an analog skill.

Great at video editing? Be great at photo editing for print, too.

Great at slinging XML into Flash maps? Be great at enterprise reporting, too.

Great at HTML/CSS? Be great at print page design, too.

Great at community management? Study up on media law so you can know when to cite Section 230 in the corporate lawyer’s office when the moment comes. (And it will.)

And vice versa.

Get the idea? Don’t be one-dimensional. You probably aren’t.

On the first day of film school at NYU…

…one department head or another asked the 140 freshman wanna-be Spielbergs/Godards/Raimis* in the room to raise their hand if they wanted to be a Director.

Many, including me, raised our hands.

The faculty response: “You’ll be lucky if four of you make it.” (I’m paraphrasing. This happened in 1994.)

When I talk to journalism students, I try to impart a little piece of that message.  How many of you think you’re going to be a star reporter at a major metro newspaper?  I ask some variant of that question, and hands are raised.

Hunter Walker is reporting for Gawker on his Columbia J-School orientation.

“Lemann also discussed our job prospects. Although he brought up the possibility that we may find work for a news organization he encouraged us to be open to careers as possibly starving internet entrepreneurs saying: “its a really interesting time to be in on the beginnings of the revolution… it’s a great time to put aside thoughts of worldly things and do something really creative if you have the nerve.” I agree with Lemann that this transitional period could lead to great opportunities, but I know firsthand that you need capital along with cojones to start your own business ventures.”

That’s something that approaches the right idea.

What the NYU orientation hand-raising exercise did for me was to focus my attention on learning a craft and a set of skills rather than being an auteur.

So, journalism students about to start school for the semester:  Are you trying to be an auteur, or an entrepreneur?

*I was a wanna-be Godard, and there weren’t many of those left at the end of four years.

Chat live with me today at Poynter about teaching social media in journalism school

I’ll be doing the Poynter live chat thing at 1pm EDT today over there.

Please, show up, ask some questions, share some success stories, and add to the conversation.

[UPDATE: Wow, that was awesome. Thanks to everyone who showed up, and to Ellyn, Mallary, and everyone else at Poynter for hosting and inviting me. The above link will take you to the archived replay of the chat – check it out.]

The question at hand:  What Are Practical Ways to Teach Social Media Skills in Journalism School?

I have a few ideas, and I’m going to focus on some story assignment and niche coverage ideas based on what I wrote recently about my Five Keys to Authenticity for journalists getting into social media, but I’d really love to hear what you have to say, especially if you have a success (or failure) story to share.

Check it out and join the conversation, or read through the archive if you can’t make it today at 1 eastern.

I’m going to put together a few links for reference here using an open teaching social media tag in Publish2:

Why train programmers as journalists?

Over at IdeaLab, Rich Gordon shares his exit interview with Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, the first two programmers to earn a Master’s degree through Medill’s Knight News Challenge-funded scholarship.

Because it’s fucking important.

Thanks to the News Challenge, I’ve had the chance to meet Brian and Ryan and hang out with them a bit. Frankly, they’re excellent at what they do, and they have the ideals to match. So, who will have the vision to hire these guys? A major metro in Chicago? (And should they take a job at a major metro?) Non-profits digging through public data like the Sunlight Foundation? (Gordon reports that Boyer has a temporary gig at ProPublica for starters.)

Gordon asked the two graduates the important question that other programmers/coders/developers should consider:

“Why should someone with solid programming skills consider a master’s degree in journalism?

Mark: Because journalism needs them. There are so many tech-capable people in journalism, but few who have logged the time to understand computer science and software development. A person who does not want to just write code for whoever pays them, and actually come up with and execute interesting software projects, the journalism experience will help you. This program got me out of my element and gave me first hand experience that will help me relate to others in the field when i’m not elbow deep in code.

Boyer: Because it’s fucking important. Cable television and the Web disrupted the business models of the big, important journalism organizations: newspapers. Now, the importance of a daily paper is debatable, but that democracy requires journalism to function is not. And so, for the sake of democracy itself, it is imperative that more nerds join the fight to save the news. We need to invent new business models, reinvent the newspaper, and create new forms of media. Plus, an all-expense-paid trip to graduate school in sunny Chicago, Illinois, is also a very nice way to weather a recession. And the smart, passionate classmates make for some pretty good parties and great conversation.”

I’m psyched to follow where these two land, and what the next group of programmer/journalist grad students builds.

Think you’ve got the chops to help save journalism?  Apply.

[I posted pieces of this as a shared Google Reader item last night when I saw Rich’s post. You can see all my shared stuff and notes about it over on FriendFeed if that’s what you’re into.]

Spartans, you rock my world

I spotted a tweet today from Steve Sloan that reminded me there was some sort of awesome road trip going on, wherein San Jose State student journalists are on their way to the inauguration by way of the South, reporting on landmark events in the civil rights movement.

Their reports are being run on CNN — I spotted them on the office screen this afternoon.

Diana Diroy (who seems to be taking a break from making soulful images and words in the Far East) has a behind the scenes piece of the students in action up on her blog.  She says:

“Its been a crazy, busy, emotional trip…. Students are blogging, photographing, and producing video/multi-media packages for CNN, KTVU, etc…”

Check it out.

Daniel Sato, another Spartan, has details up about the trip, a link to the blog, and notes on where you can donate to help with the students’ expenses.

Suzanne Yada recommends you grow a pair

From Suzanne Yada’s resolutions for journalism students in 2009, this bullet point:

“Grow some cojones.
Let me level with you. The world doesn’t need more music reviewers or opinion spouters. The world needs more people willing to ask tough questions. The first step to reversing journalism’s tarnished image is to have the guts to dig for information the public can’t easily find themselves, and be an advocate of unbiased, straightforward truth.”

A damn fine idea.  Knowing the classrooms and newsrooms she’s working in, it makes even more sense.

Bonus link: The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University is hiring a “Database Journalism Professor.”