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.”