Journalism students hone their skills in state-of-the-art facility

Palo Alto High School's new Media Arts Center provides new home for journalism

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."

Related content:

School-district bond, dreams of students and faculty brought new Media Arts Center to life

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Posted by Clay
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 17, 2014 at 10:51 am

I am incredibly pleased to see Paly students in such terrific digs and am sure they will become leaders in the media as a result -- not because of new furniture and equipment but because of the leadership of forward-thinking teachers and administrators who made this possible. This is how you prepare students who can now communicate with others in Liberia just as easily as they can talk to neighbors in Los Altos. I don't have any connection to the school, but I'm very pleased to see my tax dollars spent in such a meaningful way.

1 person likes this
Posted by Former Gunn Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 17, 2014 at 11:58 am

What a great resource for Paly! But what a shame it cannot be used by the kids at Gunn. The 2 schools have such different facilities that is makes the opportunities for kids to find a passion very different. Since your high school is assigned based on where you live, let's hope you picked the side of town that fits the needs of your kids. At one time the district tried to keep facilities equal between the two schools, but no more. Now PALY has this new media center, the new theater coming and huge athletic complex in the works. So much for equality.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2014 at 1:48 pm

I would agree about the advantage of the Media Center.

Both schools just built 2-story classroom facilities - I believe Gunn's is a higher capacity, but that doesn't really matter.

Gunn also added a new world languages classroom set up...Paly did not...maybe that's the difference? I don't know.

Gunn has had Spangenberg for decades. Paly has not had a large capacity theater - ever. Now both schools will have large theaters. Plus Spangenberg is getting renovated and adding new performing arts classrooms. Spangenberg will still be the larger facility - seating for 950. The new Paly theater will be about 550. So while the Paly theater will be newer (and no doubt new bells and whistles) - Gunn still has the larger facility and capability to host larger events.

I agree that the new Paly gym set up will be newer/fresher - only because both gyms will be demolished and built new. Where Gunn will have one new gym and one refurbished/remodeled gym. But the square footage will be approximately the same. Gunn has the nicer pool set up with shaded seating, ample indoor storage, a bathroom at the pool, coaches' office at the pool and a classroom on the pool deck. Paly's pool has a small office/storage space and two sheds, no office, no classroom, no bathrooms. My personal opinion is that the Gunn football stadium is much nicer than Paly's new football stadium. Love that the bleachers are built into a berm and that there is a walk behind the top row of the stands...beautiful setting.

I guess a good a question to ask - is there a possibility for students to take a class at one site while still remaining a student at their home site? Obviously there are many logistical barriers (e.g., commuting). But why not have a journalism class that both sets of students may attend?

BTW - both schools share the income from the Stanford football parking that takes place at the Paly campus.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 17, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Cubberley will have plenty of catching up to do.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2014 at 2:24 pm

FYI The new gymn at Gunn high school does not have an airconditioner or windows that open so in the Summer it is hot, the Fall it is still warm / uncomfortable.

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Crescent Park Dad is a registered user.

I would bet that they don't turn on the AC in the summer when school is not in session --- unless someone else will pay for it!

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm

As someone who majored in theatre in college and did a lot of theatre in high school, I can guarantee you that the access to Spangenberg for theatre kids is LIGHT YEARS beyond what the Paly kids have EVER had. Spangenberg is a real theatre with a fly-loft and an orchestra pit, and NOTHING compares to that when you are training kids to do real theatre. So the "equality" complaint just does not hold water. Each school has different strengths, different facilities, etc. It's not a matter of Paly always getting better than Gunn.

2 people like this
Posted by Former Resident of PA
a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2014 at 6:43 pm

So they've got all the technology in the world and they're learning to write -- swell. The latter is the job of the English department. Except for one of Woj's last comments, nowhere in this article does anyone talk about real journalistic requirements -- research, reporting, critical thinking, questioning authority. It's bad enough that with daily newspapers dying, there are fewer venues for the next Woodward & Bernstein. But it's also sad that Paly seems to be focusing more on the technology than training real journalists.

Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School

on Oct 17, 2014 at 8:39 pm

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Like this comment
Posted by village foooool
a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Elementary, my dear Parennnt.
Do share, please.

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Posted by Paly '81
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 19, 2014 at 2:09 am

Correct, "Former Resident of PA" - the PAUSD English departments are still mediocre. Back in the day, PAUSD English departments were exceptional. Now, most teachers are too lazy to comment on and grade papers that they resort to peer grading. Isn't is an unspoken requirement that English teachers use their own time to correct papers as part of their job? Writing skills are perhaps the most important skill to learn in life.

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Posted by Just saying
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 19, 2014 at 5:30 am

I'm not understanding how concerns about lack of parity have morphed into a pi$$ing match over Spangenberg. (For the record, for music, Spangenberg was difficult and even after the renovated sound system, the sound was terrible. ) whatever. Two wrongs don't make a ...write... Aright?

My original posts werent even censored, they were simply removed. Quite an irony when it's about a JOURnALISM resource.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 19, 2014 at 11:13 am

Spangenberg - just pointing out to the folks that Gunn had something for 50 years that Paly has never had...those complaining about the Media Center don't seem to recognize that

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