The news was not good: C.K. McClatchy High School students learned that their newspaper would shut down after about eight decades because of funding problems.
Students sprang into action. They lobbied Principal Peter Lambert to find money to keep The Prospector publishing. They collected more than 500 signatures. They organized an advocacy group to save the newspaper.
At the Land Park campus named after one of most influential editors of The Sacramento Bee, their efforts appear to have succeeded.
Decades ago, student-run newspapers were a fixture on high school campuses, providing a rare opportunity for students to have a voice. Students were inspired after The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage and “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 movie that galvanized interest in investigative journalism. TV shows popular among teenagers placed main characters on the high school newspaper, giving them a platform to challenge authority figures.
In California, the recession brought deep cuts to education, and some schools saw journalism classes as expendable compared to core offerings. Demands on students already jammed with college prep classes in science, technology, engineering and math played a role. And in a generation that grew up with the internet and smartphones, fewer students have signed up for newspaper classes.
In the Sacramento region, some of the most active student newspaper programs remain in affluent suburbs such as Davis and Granite Bay. But that isn’t always the case; high-achieving Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks eliminated its program about three years ago. At the end, only four students showed up, according to the school’s former journalism adviser.
McClatchy students say they are determined to keep their newspaper alive. About 20 students work on The Prospector before the school day begins.
Weeks ago, McClatchy senior Quinn Alfaro, 18, helped organize a student group to preserve the paper. More than 40 students have attended meetings to explore permanent newspaper funding, he said.
“The student newspaper is a huge part of our school’s identity,” Alfaro said. “We are named after (an early editor) of The Bee. It’s part of who we are as students.”
Editor-in-chief Maya Navarrete, 17, said students produced several papers last year but had relatively few writers.
“This year we want to get out as many as we can,” said Navarrete, a senior. “We have motivated writers. We’re getting out (an edition) with a Halloween theme at the end of the month, and then (editions) every other month, hopefully,” she said.
After the staff spent weeks in limbo, Lambert vowed Tuesday he would keep The Prospector publishing. The question, he said, is whether at least 20 students will take a for-credit class before or after the regular school day vs. publishing the paper through a club. A class that would count toward college admissions would require at least 35 students to sign up.
“As long as people stay committed and it works, I’m willing to go either way,” he said.
Karl Grubaugh, journalism adviser and teacher at Granite Bay High School, said one challenge is finding advisers with staying power.
“The typical pattern for a school that has a newspaper and wants to keep it is to hire an English teacher passionate about Shakespeare or passionate about literature,” Grubaugh said. “The high school makes teaching journalism a condition of the job.”
“They want the job. And they take the job and limp along on the journalism front for a couple of years,” he said. When they reach permanent status, he suggested, “the first thing they wash their hands of the newspaper.”
Grubaugh has been a teacher and journalism adviser at Granite Bay for nearly two decades. He said students get a thrill out of their first bylines. “These bright kids have writing chops. And when they realize they have a potential audience of hundreds or even thousands, it’s huge.”
At Kennedy High School, Principal David Van Natten said he wanted to support high school journalism and reintroduced the newspaper when he became principal in 2015. He was able to do it, he said, because he has a teacher committed to running the program.
“Once they started publishing last year, that got kids interested,” Van Natten said. “When they saw the product, it became a little easier to recruit. Other students were able to see the possibilities.”
At Davis Senior High School, teacher and journalism adviser Kelly Wilkerson has been on the job since 2004. Students publish their print edition, The HUB, once a month. She said it can be difficult for new teachers to become advisers.
“It’s a unique position,” she said. “You’re an employee of the school but student journalists sometimes have an adversarial role, serving as a watchdog and giving voice to the voiceless. Sometimes for a new teacher, that’s an uncomfortable position to be in.
“When I look at top (high school journalism) programs in the country, they’re often some of the most high achieving schools. I personally think that’s because at schools like Davis High and Granite Bay ... administrators aren’t afraid of what journalists will find. I think in some more troubled schools, administrators can’t seize newspapers, but they can get rid of the programs altogether.”