When Esther Wojcicki arrived to lead Palo Alto High School's journalism program in 1984, she was put in a corner room in the Tower Building with 19 students, one typewriter and a person hired at a dollar an hour to work the Justowriter, a now-ancient machine that automatically justified text.
Ten times a year, they put out a single publication: student newspaper The Campanile, founded in 1918. The newspaper was six to eight pages long, more than enough for the laborious process it took to put together cutting and pasting stories onto a board using hot wax.
"It was like horse and buggy," Wojcicki said.
Fast forward to the surreal future of 2014, when 224 students and four advisers run The Campanile plus five niche magazines, a news website, daily broadcast segment and yearbook out of a multi-million-dollar Media Arts Center equipped with close to 200 brand new Apple computers (with all the latest editing and production software), soundproof interview booths, a dark room, audio recording studio and a broadcast TV studio that most professional news stations would envy. There are bicycle Fitdesks sprinkled throughout, flexible classroom furniture that can be adjusted to student and teacher preferences, a ticker above the entrance that streams campus news, and LCD television screens on which InFocus, Paly's broadcast program, plays next to CNN. A second-floor mezzanine looks down onto an atrium that doubles as a work space and an event space, equipped with a massive projector screen.
The enormously popular Paly journalism program, along with a few English classes, is as of this year housed in this two-story, state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, which is hosting its grand opening this week.
"It's kind of like going from the slums into the palace," said Wojcicki, whom students affectionately refer to as "The Woj."
"It's the only one of its type, really, in the nation for a high school. Everybody says this looks like a college, and it does."
Such a facility seems an appropriate home for an award-winning program long known for engendering serious journalism, from breaking news to bold investigative pieces. In 1996, a Campanile writer broke the story of the Palo Alto school board's closed-session promotion of Associate Superintendent Pat Einfalt. Sports magazine The Viking won the National Scholastic Press Association's 2008 Student Journalist Impact Award for its coverage of hazing in high school athletics.
Last year, feature magazine Verde's reporting on the school's alleged "rape culture" received national media attention, bringing local light to a national problem many are unwilling to discuss openly. The first issue of Verde this year features Kariel Young, a 16-year-old Paly junior who was left paralyzed from the chest down after an accident seven years ago.
In this year's inaugural issue of glossy C Magazine, a new arts and entertainment publication, a cover story on ex-political prisoners in Burma (interviewed by the editor-in-chief this past summer) is sandwiched between a spread of the top eight fashion trends on campus and a feature on a vegan cheese shop in Fairfax.
And despite their less-than-ideal facilities in the past, Paly students are no strangers to innovative technology -- this is Palo Alto, after all. Last fall, Paly Voice students experimented with drone journalism, using a $300 Phantom drone to capture aerial video footage of the unfurling of the American flag on the school's football field. (Journalism teacher and adviser Paul Kandell speculates they were the first high school journalism program to do so.) This year, they're playing around with 20 sets of iOgrapher, an iPad mini dock to which a microphone, 37mm lens, light and other filming accessories can be attached -- meaning high-quality video reporting can be done from pretty much anywhere.
Kandell, whom Wojcicki hired in the late 1990s to run Verde and create a website for the program, said part of what sets Paly's journalism program apart is that it provides "a sense of audience and a sense of ownership and not just a minor sense of audience and ownership. You really own it; you really have a real audience and you really have the time to do together what you want to do. Those things add up to why students are so passionate about what they do here."
With The Campanile printing 10 times a year, Verde five, Viking seven, fine-arts magazine Proof twice, C Magazine nine, the Paly Voice running online 24/7 and InFocus broadcasting daily, the Media Arts Center is a hub of journalistic activity.
On a recent Tuesday morning, a group of about 15 students in the upstairs broadcast studio prepped for InFocus, which students and teachers can livestream online at 10 a.m. every weekday. Executive producers managed the show from a control room while students manned cameras and two reporters practiced the news of the day (parking permit lottery, college visits, senior portraits, the PSATs) before going live. The five-minute broadcast switched from the two main hosts to a sports reporter, a weatherman and then back. Adviser Paul Hoeprich, a filmmaker and reporter who joined the program this year, hovered in the control room, providing support and pointers when necessary.
Downstairs, Verde staff gathered in Kandell's classroom to critique the most recent issue of the magazine. An editor led the class, as they do for all of the student-run publications, as classmates offered candid input on design elements, layout, captions and use of images.
Students say that one thing that draws them to the journalism program -- and keeps them there -- is the student-run model. Editors plan and lead the classes; the advisers take a backseat but provide support and supervision.
"It involves a lot of outside work for us because we have to figure out the lesson plans and put together presentations, but it's really great for both staff and editors because ... you feel more comfortable when you're being led by students, and it feels more like a real-life company where everyone is on the same page working together," said Verde editor-in-chief and senior Tira Oskou. "For the editors, I've become a lot more confident and sure of myself having to go up in front of the class and lead them through things."
That can be challenging, too. New C Magazine editors Maggie Zheng and Olivia Vort, chosen by the student staff, said it was difficult to strike the right balance between authority and flexibility for the first production cycle this fall.
"When it came time for us to become leaders, it was really hard to exercise power without trying to be a tyrant, especially when you are the same age as everyone. We ended up being too lenient," said Zheng, who joined C Magazine her sophomore year and is now a senior. "This second production, we're going to try to be more strict and give then concrete guidelines."
But the chance to lead a classroom and publication and the challenge in doing so -- is a defining hallmark of the program Wojcicki created.
"It's a student-directed, student-driven program. We really support student rights and First Amendment rights," said Wojcicki, who demonstrated for free speech during her undergraduate years at U.C. Berkeley and has been honored countless times for her teaching. "Paul and I are both really passionate about that. At many schools, students don't have those rights."
Paly students, after taking a beginning journalism course with Kandell or Wojcicki, can also choose from what the two advisers speculate is the nation's largest number of high school publications.
To accommodate The Campanile's rapidly growing popularity, Wojcicki founded InFocus in 1998. Next came Verde in 1999 and the Paly Voice in 2003. Wojcicki continues to advise The Campanile's 50 students this year as well as arts-and-entertainment C Magazine, which at 20 students (all female) and being in its second year is Paly's smallest and youngest publication.
There's also Agora, a foreign affairs magazine that now only runs online; Proof, a biannual fine-arts magazine; and a radio club.
"I'm an athlete so I really wanted to write about sports, but I thought that (with) Verde, since it's more of feature-writing magazine, I would have the opportunity to write about many different topics that I hadn't been exposed to before," said junior Siddharth Srinivasan, a Verde news editor who joined the magazine as a second-semester sophomore. "I found that particularly appealing."
Junior Griffin Carlson, one of InFocus' three executive producers, said it's the adviser-teachers who make the program what it is.
"If you could choose one thing that sets Paly apart from other journalism programs, it's the amount of resources we have -- both physical resources, the equipment and this building, but also resources in terms of the advisers and teachers," he said.
The Paly program has yielded a long list of alumni successful in the news world a rich tradition that Kandell said inspires his students. There's John Markoff, a science and technology journalist who has written for The New York Times since 1988. Noah Sneider, a 2009 graduate who co-founded The Viking, has spent this year on the front lines covering the crisis in Ukraine for the Times and Al Jazeera. Since 2011, Gady Epstein has served as The Economist's China correspondent (and before that was Forbes' Beijing bureau chief). Other graduates have made names for themselves at Businessweek, Mother Jones, The Guardian and Associated Press.
"(Students) are excited to be a part of the program, and they are inspired by their predecessors," Kandell said. "They always want to do as well or better. They seem to want to do justice to the tradition that has been developed doing great work, which is pretty exciting."
Kandell also pointed to a Sept. 8 New Republic article, "Women Don't Stick With the Sciences. Here's Why," written by a former Verde editor Rotem Ben-Shachar, who works in biology -- not journalism.
"I like to say that it's not really important to me that they go into journalism, but it is important to me that they come out with all the skills that great journalism work can inspire," he said.
This gets to the crux of the Media Arts Center. Behind all the eye-popping bells and whistles is a hope that it fuels a 21st-century educational model that puts journalism at the forefront.
"I think that kids need technology education, for one, and journalism is the perfect vehicle," Wojcicki said. "You're using technology in a way to actually communicate with the world and improve the world. Journalism is a way to teach kids to write and to think and to gather information and sift through it and figure out what's most important. If we can train all the kids in the country to do that, we are going to be 100 percent ahead."
Wojcicki said giving students the trust and respect to put together a publication with a real audience and a real impact also engages otherwise academically disconnected students.
"The reason the program is so popular is because it's a step into the real world," she said. "It's giving kids a glimpse into what is coming and teaching them skills that you need in the real world, like how to write a memo, how to get to the point right away -- and they don't get that in English (classes)."
"Journalism has always and continues to provide an environment," Kandell said, "to teach students the skills that educators and the public say they want from our schools: great writing, great thinking, building great citizens (who) value education, critical thinking. "It doesn't matter what list of buzzwords or what you pull out of the Common Core (State Standards) -- journalism does it," he said. "It always has."