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Pikes Peak Community College reboots student newspaper, journalism program

Education Guide

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Journalism students work on articles. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Journalism students work on articles.

When Jenna Benson returned to Pikes Peak Community College 10 years after graduating, this time to teach Introduction to Mass Media, she made a disappointing discovery. The student newspaper was gone.

When the late Professor Janet Rohan, who led the school's journalism department for nearly 20 years, retired in 2006, The Pikes Peak News also disappeared. Rohan's retirement "coincided with the digital age," says English Professor Deidre Schoolcraft, dooming PPCC's publication to the same fate as many newspapers across the country.

"We didn't have that many [people studying] journalism ... so nobody really wanted to work very hard to keep it going," Schoolcraft says. But then came what Schoolcraft calls a "perfect storm" — a positive one.

Warren Epstein, who'd spent 23 years at the Gazette, was hired as PPCC's executive director of marketing and communication in 2016. Benson had arrived a year earlier with a master's degree in communication and experience as a freelance journalist. At the same time, Schoolcraft, an English instructor with the school since 1997 who had worked years ago at newspapers (including freelancing for the Independent), was pushing for a renewed focus on journalistic education.

"I was in a position where I was kind of saying, 'Well, we need to bring back a paper,'" Schoolcraft recalls. "'We need to revive journalism.'"

Schoolcraft and Benson, with advice from Epstein and support from college leadership, rebooted the newspaper class in fall 2017 and began The Paper. Media News and Reporting students now dive in head first, learning how to conduct interviews, connecting with sources and writing articles relevant to their peers.

The three-credit course isn't easy, Benson says. Students must turn in a minimum of seven major stories on top of additional projects. "The three of us [Schoolcraft, Benson and Epstein] are sort of doers, so it just made sense for us to have a class where they were actually doing journalism instead of learning about doing journalism," Schoolcraft says.

It's an experience that Schoolcraft says is unique, even for schools with journalism degree programs — which PPCC, like most community colleges, doesn't offer. The school does, however, now offer journalism as an emphasis for English majors, with four journalism courses offered on campus, three courses online, and an internship available. And Benson says interest in the class is growing and it's "definitely a possibility" that PPCC could add a certificate program in the future.

Although most of Schoolcraft and Benson's students have taken less than two years of journalism classes, several have already found success writing for local publications. Case in point: Jake Altinger. The 28-year-old Army veteran spent last summer interning and freelancing with the Indy, including writing a cover story on hemp.

Leslie James, 21, is in her second semester of the newspaper class. Now enrolled in Intermediate Newswriting and Editing, she gets to help edit other students' writing while reporting on stories that interest her. In the meantime, she landed an internship at the Gazette and now freelances for the paper.

James says she's working on some personal side projects about "hidden gems" of Colorado's outdoors, and dreams of one day reporting for a publication like National Geographic.

But not all of those taking the newspaper class are interested in reporting as a career. In Epstein's view, that's a plus.

Deidre Schoolcraft and Jenna Benson. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Deidre Schoolcraft and Jenna Benson.

"We know there's not a whole lot more opportunities for jobs in journalism today than there were five, 10 years ago," he says. "But what we believe is that the skills necessary to become a journalist are more important now than ever. Being able to comb through information and being able to determine what is real and what isn't real, how do we verify information, how do you know what is true, is essential now."

The research and communication skills that students gain in journalism classes are well-suited to careers in public relations and the corporate world, he adds.

On the other hand, nontraditional students, who make up a large portion of PPCC's enrollment — in fall 2017, 40 percent of students were older than 24 — have a unique advantage: "These are sometimes people who've been around the block a long time, they come back to get new careers, so that means their experience in life also makes them richer candidates for journalism," Epstein says.

Despite a renewed recognition in some political circles of journalism's importance, students hoping to find jobs as reporters face an uphill battle. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2026, there will be 4,500 fewer jobs for reporters and correspondents — a decline of 9 percent from 2016. The change reflects a loss of advertising revenue for newspapers, radio and TV stations.

Neither is pay particularly promising: The median salary for reporters and correspondents was $39,000 in May 2017.

Slowly but surely, though, public opinion of mass media in America is on the rise, according to Gallup poll data from this year. Forty-five percent of Americans trust the media to report "fully, accurately and fairly," up from 2016's all-time low of 32 percent.

That's a far cry from the '70s, when trust in the media hovered near 70 percent. But there's a glimmer of hope: Eight out of 10 people "believe the news media are critical or very important to our democracy," according to a 2017 survey by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Letting students participate in the news-gathering process can help address this disconnect, Epstein says.

"In some of the beginning journalism classes we have people going in who have this sense that most mainstream media is part of this fake news thing," he says. "But it's interesting, once they start learning about the basic practices and procedures that go along with journalism and verification of information and how journalists are generally trained in America ... they [gain] more of a respect for the idea of the profession."

Leslie James enjoys travel reporting. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Leslie James enjoys travel reporting.

Students are also recognizing a need to diversify their skill sets to position themselves well in a budget-strapped age where journalists are expected to wear a number of hats. Kelcey Westmoreland, 28, decided to enroll in PPCC's newspaper class after interning at the college's radio station and taking TV production classes.

"I like talking about sports, I like talking about pop culture — I can pretty much talk about anything," Westmoreland says. "So like, I could be a columnist and still talk on the radio and stuff like that, so it's kind of just like adding another layer for what I want to do ultimately."

Though many of PPCC's newspaper students are in their mid- to late-20s with work experience, some, like 18-year-old Re'nesia Mills and 19-year-old Evelin Rivera, come straight from high school, and are already planning to transfer to a four-year university to study journalism after getting an associate degree.

Mills says she "fell in love with journalism" after taking Benson's mass media class. She's planning to transfer to the University of Tampa someday. But she admits the newspaper class is no piece of cake: "I thought journalism would be easier — just writing, you know — but it's definitely a lot more than that, and it's been like a full-time job."

Rivera, who wants to study at the University of Colorado at Boulder before becoming a broadcast journalist, agrees. "I felt like we were being thrown into the fire ... but it was a great learning experience," she says. "It's been a lot of fun so far."

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