After 95 Years, an Uncertain Future

A community college newspaper, which served as a pipeline to media jobs for students, struggles amid a pandemic and enrollment declines.

October 26, 2021
 
The Ranger
The Ranger’s once-busy newsroom has lost students over the years.

San Antonio College housed a bustling student newsroom of about a dozen editors and more than 20 reporters in spring 2018, when Sergio Medina started as a student journalist at The Ranger, the campus newspaper. The Associated Collegiate Press named the 95-year-old publication one of the top 100 student newspapers in the country this year.

Medina, now the editor of the paper -- one of just two editors left -- and 10 student photographers are keeping the community college’s paper afloat.

The Ranger went from being a thriving print and online newspaper to a beleaguered online-only publication over a relatively short period. Battered by reduced staffing, budget cuts and reporting limitations imposed by the pandemic, it now plans to pause publishing at the end of the semester. The move was precipitated by dwindling enrollments in the college's journalism-photography program and the retirement of all three of its full-time faculty members in December. While college administrators say the pause is temporary, the student journalists are not so sure.

Administrators have promised to maintain and revitalize the online newspaper and journalism course offerings once they figure out how to address the enrollment and personnel losses, but the timeline for those plans remains unclear. Students and community members worry about the future of the publication that serves as a stepping-stone to media careers for low-income and first-generation college students.

Robert Vela, president of the college, said he has no intention of ending the paper or the journalism program. He sees the pause as a transition moment and an opportunity to “revamp and revisit and reimagine” the college’s journalism offerings as the program struggles to attract students during the pandemic.

The Ranger has an “amazing track record,” Vela said. “But I think now my responsibility as a college president is to be sure we ensure its vibrancy for the next 100 years. We’re going to have to take some very calculated, intentional efforts to ensure we prepare our students for the 21st century, for the ever-changing field of journalism and how we ensure our students that are graduating from these programs are able to transfer to great university programs and ultimately land some amazing jobs with the skill sets they need to be successful in the field.”

Students are unsure what will happen next. When Medina heard about the faculty retirements, he wrote an article for The Ranger about the paper’s inability to continue without enough faculty and students.

Medina, who has taken classes at the college for four years, stressed the value of community college newspapers as a professional development tool for minority students like him, who disproportionately attend two-year institutions.

“It’s important that they have these kind of programs,” he said. Community colleges are “more accessible, more affordable, especially to people of color living in a city like San Antonio. It provides an enriching experience that many students wouldn’t be able to experience unless they went to a four-year university.”

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Rocky Garza Jr., the managing editor of The Ranger and a first-generation student, said he’s landed freelance writing gigs through his work at the paper. He said seeing his parents excitedly “freak out” over his byline is “so rewarding.” He wants future journalism students to experience that same feeling.

“It’s a pride thing for me and for my family, just representing my last name,” he said. “My family act like I’m a celebrity even though I’m not. It just feels cool and rewarding to have my parents proud of me.”

The San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists recently called on administrators of the Alamo Colleges District, which includes San Antonio College, to “hear the pleas from current and former students” and to develop a plan for The Ranger’s future.

“While there are other journalism programs operating in the city, losing The Ranger is a huge loss because it has long provided a pathway for students of color and those with little financial means to enter the industry,” the statement said.

Vela said he plans to fill one or two of the vacant faculty positions, either with new hires or instructors in the radio-television-broadcasting program. He also wants to make sure the program is training students to use the latest technology and platforms used by professional journalists to draw more students to the program.

Some of the college’s journalism classes require students to write for The Ranger as a part of their coursework, but the number of students majoring in journalism has fallen across the Alamo Colleges District for several years. This fall, only 61 students at the five San Antonio-area colleges declared journalism as the major they plan to pursue when they transfer to a four-year college or university, compared to 86 students in fall 2020 and 111 students in fall 2019.

The overall number of students at San Antonio College also continues to fall, as do enrollment rates at community colleges across the country. San Antonio College had a head count of 17,981 students as of Oct. 14, down from 19,281 in fall 2020 and 19,499 in fall 2019.

Marianne Odom, a professor and coordinator of the journalism program, said journalism students are facing the same challenges as other community college students in the wake of the pandemic.

“The nature of community college students in many instances is they have very complicated lives,” said Odom. “They’re working, they may have children, they have responsibilities. And so, for some of them, it was very difficult for them to manage all of that.”

Medina agreed the pandemic was a “nail in the coffin” for the vibrancy of the paper. The newspaper used to publish half a dozen stories per week when he started working there three years ago. He himself strived to publish three or four stories per month. But new students couldn’t cover in-person events, conduct live interviews or experience the comradery and mentorship of working alongside each other in the newsroom after the pandemic was declared.

“Speaking from personal experience, you start feeling discouraged about what you’re doing, and in a way, kind of alienated,” he said. “For someone who’s starting out, it’s just extra challenging.”

Student newspapers across the country experienced similar challenges during the pandemic. Staff morale fell and finances plummeted due to budget cuts and the loss of advertising dollars at a time when many of the papers were already struggling to maintain their independence and financial health. A survey last year of college media outlets by the Association of College Media found that about 58 percent of respondents reduced the number of newspaper copies printed during the 2019-20 academic year, and 42 percent permanently reduced the frequency of their print publications. An August 2020 report and strategy guide by the Student Press Law Center warned of future budget cuts and shrinking advertising revenues and recommended student newspaper leaders prepare to operate with fewer student staff members and faculty advisers.

Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the pandemic fundamentally changed student journalism. Some universities used the pandemic and budget cuts “as a pretext to eliminate programs or newspapers that might have been a thorn in their sides,” she said. Many print newspapers moved online, which forced them to adopt new financial models and find new modes of advertising.

Meanwhile, she believes the role of student journalists has never been more important.

 “During the pandemic, they were the source of reporting on what was happening at their schools, around prevalence of COVID, about changes in policies,” she said. “They were the source for creating community when everybody was dispersed or back at home and learning virtually.”

Odom said the pandemic also played a role in her decision to retire, which she would have done earlier if she wasn’t still working on a commemorative history book about The Ranger’s 95 years of student journalism that she expects to finish this term.

“I definitely think the pandemic contributed to our lower enrollments and making our jobs more difficult,” she said.

The Ranger’s problems began long before the pandemic, however. The newspaper went fully online in fall 2019 because it couldn’t afford printing costs and stipends for its editors. The budget allocated to the paper by the college had been dropping for years. The paper has a $7,000 budget this fiscal year compared to $22,000 in fiscal 2020. (Note: This sentence was updated to reflect that The Ranger had a $22,000 budget in fiscal year 2020, not the calendar year.) The budget six years ago was $59,000.

Odom said budget declines and enrollment declines go hand in hand.

Vela said the newspaper will continue, but he first wants to take some time for an “assessment” of student journalism at the college, which will require a “pause” until the summer or fall to assemble advisers, backfill faculty positions and come up with recommended changes for the program.

“There’s an academic process for a reason, to be sure that we’re being very thoughtful and methodical” about “what this new form of the newspaper will look like going forward,” he said. “I just want to give it a good-faith effort … and that might take a little time. We’re about to celebrate a hundred years. We’ve got to think about the next hundred years.”

Garza said he understands the college can’t reinvent the student newspaper “overnight,” but he’s frustrated there isn’t a more clear, concrete plan to ensure the longevity of the paper.

Administrators say, “‘Well, we have plans,’” he said. “What are the plans?”

Garza still remembers turning in his first story and receiving his first draft back covered in edits. It felt like “a slap across the face” and he “wanted to cry,” but he “worked at it and worked at it,” he said. The instructors saw “the best in me, the potential in me.”

He hopes the college revives the newspaper, despite its recent travails, because otherwise, “I feel for those students who aren’t going to be getting that same opportunity.”

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