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Student Newspaper's News: It's Among Best in U.S.

Santa Ana College's El Don earns a Crown award, given to just 14 schools nationwide.

February 17, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Some Mondays feel like forever in the newsroom of El Don, Santa Ana College's funky twice-monthly student newspaper.

There are stories to complete and pages to lay out. Photos to be taken and editorial meetings to attend. Sometimes, the only thing that seems to hold it all together is the sheer will of the staff.

"At any other school paper," said Editor Anthony Mendoza, 23, "I don't think I'd have people staying with me until 4 a.m. to finish. Here it's a pride issue; we don't leave until we're done."

Like other newspapers, this one isn't always appreciated -- or even seen -- by its intended audience, the 40,674 students at the community college it serves. Unlike most, however, it has found admirers elsewhere: in academia, where college papers are evaluated and judged.

Recently, El Don won a Crown award, given by the Scholastic Press Assn. at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism to just 14 U.S. college newspapers. El Don was the only California winner, and the only one published by a community college.

"There are some go-getters out there," Edmund J. Sullivan, the association's director, said of the scrappy 80-year-old paper whose name is a Spanish title for a wealthy landowner. The newspaper beat hefty and well-financed competitors at the University of Texas, Northwest Missouri State University and Michigan State, to name a few. "They have a very good program, and they strive to be distinctive," Sullivan said.

The judging -- by a panel of journalists previously unfamiliar with the papers they rated -- was based on design, presentation, content, writing, coverage and photography. "Think about going up to a large newsstand," Sullivan explained. "What attracts you, what keeps your attention and how does a publication really work? It's a very holistic approach -- it's got to work well as a newspaper."

El Don does, he said, despite being run on an annual budget of $17,000 -- $1,000 less than in 1971. Many attribute that accomplishment to Charles Little, the journalism professor who has advised the paper for nearly two decades.

"We're a family and a team," he said of the 25-plus student journalists -- about 70% of them minorities -- who, over the years, have ranged in age from 18 to 65. "Our mantra is that hard work pays off. I think they like being a [community] college in Santa Ana competing with the biggies -- they don't want to be intimidated by anybody."

That attitude is reflected in the stories they produce. Recent favorites, Little says, include an expose on a campus employee later convicted of embezzling college funds, a piece on a football player arrested on suspicion of molesting his younger sister, stories on an illegal $1 student fee that had to be refunded, and a series on Title IX violations related to women's athletics.

"It's a large campus and extremely diverse," Little said. "I don't think that any story should be off-limits: News is news, and sometimes this is the only paper a student reads."

John Crandall, 20, a staff writer, put it another way. "It's kind of like football," he said of his journalistic efforts. "It's really hard, and while you're going through it you wonder why, but in the end it's fun."

Sometimes, apparently, more so for the product's creators than its intended audience. "One of the things with college papers," Columbia's Sullivan acknowledged, "is that they're not always that well-received on their campuses."

Editor Martinez decries the lack of response his efforts get. "We don't get much feedback anymore," he said.

Conversations with students revealed some unfamiliarity with the paper. "I've never seen it; is it on the Internet?" asked 19-year-old engineering major Hong Truong.

Business major Evelyn Rivera, 20, who said she had seen the front page, pronounced: "It's boring and not something you'd ever need to know. El Don sounds like a burrito or something."

None of which seems to matter much to the students putting out the paper or to the journalists judging it in New York. "Anything that reminds their readers and alumni that other people believe [college journalists] are doing a professional job helps boost their morale and validate" their efforts, Sullivan said.

Back in the cramped El Don classroom, another deadline awaits. Why worry about it?

Because, said staffer Chris Guerra, 19, "we rule. We have to hold up our standards -- we'll be here [for hours]. I do it because I love writing and journalism; there aren't many people who do."

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