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ON THE MEDIA

Cal State Dominguez Hills loses its newspaper, for now

A victim of state budget cuts, the paper at the commuter campus could be revived in the future, but for now it doesn't even have a presence online. It's a loss for the students.

August 28, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Cal State Dominguez Hills is the underdog university in Carson best known for not being best known.

Joy Masha is the school's earnest student body president, intent on instilling campus pride.

To that end, the student leader typed up her first "President's Corner" column for the campus newspaper and submitted it a few days ago, looking forward to delivering many future essays to the campus community.

The problem: No one had told Masha that the Bulletin had been thrown on the state of California's ever-growing budget scrap heap. Dominguez Hills administrators shuttered the student newspaper to save $76,000, making it the only general education Cal State campus (the Maritime Academy has no paper) without a regular outlet for student journalism.

With classes jammed to overflowing, instructors facing furloughs a couple of days a month and library hours reduced around the state university system, it's hard to make the case for the resurrection of a little paper produced by roughly a dozen students.

But I'm going to argue for the Dominguez Bulletin anyway. The decline of dead-tree communication notwithstanding, the Bulletin has given striving students something more urgent than "Beowulf" to write about; it has trained young journalists how to work on deadline and provided a rallying point for a school that needs one.

It's not clear how seriously administrators considered compromises that would have allowed the Bulletin to survive, perhaps as an Internet-only publication.

"It's just kind of sad," said Masha, 23. "I just wish the university would have done a little more in seeking funding. Or maybe it's time for our newspaper to go online, before it's eliminated."

Dominguez Hills had to absorb about $16.1 million in Cal State's most recent financial contraction. A campus spokeswoman told me that student fee increases (a 20% hike systemwide puts charges for undergraduates at $4,026 a year) and teacher pay reductions (via two days off a month) closed much of the gap.

Next on the chopping block, spokeswoman Brenda Knepper told me, were classes that had low enrollment or that students didn't need to graduate. The elective journalism class taught by Cathy Risling fit into both of those categories, Knepper said.

The university stands to save $76,000 by eliminating the paper -- a figure that includes printing costs, Risling's part-time salary and pay for two other part-timers -- one a journalist in residence and another who laid out the paper.

University President Mildred Garcia was too busy in meetings to talk to me about the paper's demise, Knepper said.

But the spokeswoman said the school views the loss of the paper as "a temporary situation."

"We are looking for ways to bring the class back, and the newspaper back, in the spring," she said.

That's all right, though it seems some alternatives could have been considered before the start of school (most students return Monday) and before the lights went out at the Bulletin.

Wouldn't it have made more sense to move the paper online right now, possibly reducing the paid staff to one? By my calculation, that would cost $25,000 a year or less, while preserving the campus' principal communication channel.

"I will work with the department and do everything I can to try to get a news outlet back on campus," said Risling, a former newspaper journalist who edits books when she isn't teaching at Dominguez Hills. "This isn't about my job, even though I do love my job and love my students. I just wholeheartedly believe a university should have a newspaper."

The Bulletin is not the Harvard Crimson. It doesn't tout a list of graduates who have gone on to big-time journalism. But it has taught young people -- some of whom grew up in non-English-speaking homes -- to think critically and write clearly on deadline. And it has provided an identity and a purpose for student journalists.

Rafael Guerrero grew up in South Los Angeles. His mom worked at a produce market. His dad was a cook at a Sizzler. He graduated last spring from Dominguez Hills, the first in his family with a college degree.

Now he's working as an intern in the sports department of the Orange County Register, hoping -- despite the challenging times in the news business -- to find a full-time job covering sports.

"There would have been no way to follow my dream if I didn't have my clips and my experience from the Bulletin," Guerrero said this week. "It would have been so much harder without that outlet to get the hands-on experience."

In last spring's final edition of the Bulletin, readers learned about the impending threat of cutbacks, including the possible loss of a student tutoring program. They read about the campus' preparations for the swine flu and about workshops on how to prepare a resume.

At a commuter school fighting to build a sense of community, the Bulletin, which came out every two weeks during the school year, deployed plenty of ink on its winners. When the men's soccer team won the NCAA Division II men's soccer title last year, the campus paper had detailed coverage, including a first-person journal from one of the players.

If you've read the paper closely in recent years, you'd know that the school does have name graduates, like Karen Bass, the speaker of the California Assembly. And it's home to L.A.'s pro soccer mecca, the Home Depot Center.

James Suldanik, a professor of communications about to begin his 30th year at the school, called the newspaper "the foundation for campus communication" and said its demise will be "a huge loss."

Administration officials sound sincere about bringing the Bulletin back in short order. I'll take them at their word.

But, lest anyone forget, we've got that pledge marked down right here, in black and white.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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