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Originally published May 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 14, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Student newspapers dying at state's community colleges

Students at Tacoma Community College wanting to know more about increased campus security, staffing cutbacks or the English instructor arrested...

Seattle Times education reporter

Students at Tacoma Community College wanting to know more about increased campus security, staffing cutbacks or the English instructor arrested at an anti-war rally won't find it on the printed page.

The student newspaper The Challenge ceased print publication last year after nearly four decades, while the new online version has struggled to attract readers.

The Challenge is one of several student papers across the state that recently have ceased publication or are in danger of disappearing — a trend raising alarm among professional journalists and educators.

"We are concerned about what appears to be a weakening of commitment to their student newspapers on the part of several Washington community colleges," Alex Johnson, education chairman of the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote in a recent letter to the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington.

He added, "robust student newspapers are good things and should be preserved and safeguarded."

But the trend doesn't appear to have spread to four-year universities; rather, it may be particular to community colleges.

Instructors cite multiple factors: declining enrollments due to strong work-force hiring; a lack of commitment from administrators and students; journalism programs that are small and struggling; and increased publishing costs. Instructors say it's a challenge to train and engage busy students who typically graduate after just two years.

"Let's face it: Today's young kids don't read newspapers," said John Knowlton, who heads the journalism program at Green River Community College in Auburn. "Community colleges need an online publication that has features like streaming video, podcasts and instant feedback."

Knowlton, who is also president of the Pacific Northwest Association of Journalism Educators, said he soon hopes to add those types of features to the online version of The Current.

At Tacoma Community College, journalism instructor Dave Holman said that because of a budget crunch and low enrollment, the journalism program will be eliminated at the end of this quarter. An online version of the mass-media class will remain.

Holman said that will make it harder for students to produce even the biweekly online version of The Challenge. It generally takes 10 to 15 committed students to produce a quality product, he said, and many of those traditionally have come from the journalism program.

He said many on campus mourn the loss of the printed newspaper — although some prefer the online version.

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"The people who miss it are the older faculty and staff who like to pick up a newspaper, thumb through it and read it at lunch," he said.

Community colleges from Longview to Wenatchee have been facing similar predicaments.

At Wenatchee Valley College, The Knight Life printed its final edition March 16 after the adviser resigned. The paper doesn't offer an online version.

"We need an adviser for it to start again. The hope is to have it going again for the fall," said Kathi Rivers Shannon, a college spokeswoman. "There's no journalism class scheduled right now for fall 2007. However, that doesn't mean there won't be one."

At North Seattle Community College, the future of The Polaris is under review. The paper, which has been around more than 30 years, recently switched from one edition every two weeks to one edition every three weeks.

"We are not sure what's going to happen," said Heather Stark, faculty adviser for the paper, adding that administrators have expressed interest in continuing to publish. "There's no journalism class as such, so there's nothing feeding the newspaper."

But at the University of Washington, enrollment in the journalism program remains high. More than one-third of prospective students are turned away, said Jerry Baldasty, who chairs the communications department.

He said the struggles of the newspaper industry don't appear to have put off most students, who are trained in a wide variety of platforms and media to better prepare them for a changing environment.

"We have some young people who are pretty resourceful, focused and not deterred," he said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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