Wingspan, the student publication at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, was named the best all-around non-daily newspaper at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 9 conference in April in Albuquerque. NM. The award was the latest in a long list of honors for the student staff at the two-year school.
Staff members and adviser Jake Sherlock attended the conference following the 548-mile van ride from Cheyenne to the University of New Mexico to accept the award and many other Mark of Excellence certificates.
In May, the staff celebrated its outstanding year with an ice cream social on campus.
Wingspan covers routine and controversial news stories on campus, in the city and the state. The coverage - ranging from sexual violence on campus to last fall's gubernatorial election to the college rodeo team - nurtures an award-winning tradition at the monthly newspaper which has a print circulation of 1,000 and digital publications at the school with a full-time equivalent enrollment of 3,236 students.
Sherlock and the students are also part of the membership base for the revived SPJ Wyoming Pro chapter. The SPJ national board voted in April to reinstate the chapter after years of inactivity.
The walls of the computer classroom adjacent to Sherlock's office are lined with regional and national contest certificates and plaques and rosters of former students who won awards.
Following is a Q&A with Sherlock and Roz Schliske. who revitalized the student newspaper in 1976 under a new name, Wingspan. (The school mascot is the Golden Eagles.) Schliske retired in 2015.
Describe what it was like succeeding a person who had been the journalism instructor and publication adviser for so long?
Sherlock: I couldn't have asked for an easier transition -- Roz has been wonderful in helping out with any and all questions I've had along the way. I also was lucky to work with J O'Brien for the first 18 months on the job. J is a former Wingspan editor who studied under Roz, then he made his way over to the University of Wyoming, where he became editor of the college paper (the Branding Iron) two years after I had my year as editor. I left the Branding Iron as he was coming in, but then we became colleagues a few years later at the Tribune Eagle. He left the Tribune Eagle for the Wyoming Department of Transportation before joining Roz at LCCC.
How do you recruit students to the staff?
Sherlock: I try to network with organizations like the Wyoming High School Student Press Association and our local high schools. We also do mailings for students who have indicated an interest in our program, I maintain an active social media presence to advertise our program and scholarship dollars, we advertise for students to join us in the paper and on social media, and we participate in campus events like Club Rush.
Schliske: It is odd that on the community college level I didn’t have as much success trying to recruit directly from the high school population. And like Jake I did all the things he outlined. But I was more successful reaching out to older students already on campus who were coming to college for the first time or returning to college (usually after having a terrible experience at a four-year institution for which they were not mature enough at the time). But I also had a lot of recent high school graduates whose parents said they would send their children anywhere for a four-year degree if they would save money by attending LCCC for two years. In the late 70s, I had a lot of veterans, and for some reason in the 1980s and 1990s I had a lot of students who had been injured in the oil fields and coal mines and were on vocational rehabilitation disability. One frustration I experienced as the department’s reputation grew was students didn’t join the Wingspan staff because they didn’t think they were good enough. Lord, go figure.
Because the size of the Wingspan staff varies, what is the smallest and largest number of staffers that you've had?
Sherlock: For me, the biggest was 21 students. The smallest was my first semester, when we had 7.
Schliske: That is probably the same for me. Honestly, a big staff wasn’t always an advantage. I remember attending a convention where editors of big universities were conducting a round-table. The editor of the Harvard Crimson said he had about 100 or so full-time and part-time staff, but then he admitted only about five or six did all the work. I just shot a knowing smile over to my staffers in the conference room with me. Size doesn’t always matter.
Is the recruitment like college sports teams where you're constantly seeking new staffers to replace students who leave after two years?
Sherlock: Definitely. Because of class requirements, the number of students who are with us for the entire two years is pretty low. Most of them don't get to us until their second semester, but once we have them they usually keep coming back.
Schliske: I used to tell the high school teachers how lucky they were to have students for three years. I was thrilled if I had the same student for two semesters. I learned early on a college media adviser must adjust every semester (or even mid-semester) to the “team” you have, not the team you wish you had, or as the University of Texas’ Darrell Royal said, “You dance with who brung you.” Like a sports team, some semesters you have good feature writers and photographers but no sports writers, and then other semesters you have outstanding investigative reporters and no copy editors. An important lesson I learned in my first few years of advising was I thought each year I would make giant leaps for mankind. Instead I settled for making incremental changes, but across a 40-year career I guess they added up.
How many of the current staff are SPJ members?
Sherlock: We have 17 on staff, and we've purchased memberships for 14 of them. The three who didn't get them are students who signed up and stop coming to class after the third or fourth week.
Schliske: A small rant on my part…as a past president of the state pro chapter, I started taking my students to regional and national SPJ conventions even when community college students were not allowed to be members. Often, we would have more students attending than most four-year schools. In 1988, we sponsored the Region 9 conference and had Helen Thomas as our main speaker, and still community college students couldn’t be a member. Imagine how thrilled I was when two-year college students were recognized.
What is Wingspan's business model?
Sherlock: All of our advertising sales are done in print, and that money goes to pay for student travel, staff trainings, special events, food for long work nights, etc. etc. We also collect course fees, which help pay for our commercial printing at the Tribune Eagle and staff salaries for our editors. And, through the LCCC Foundation, we have a number of scholarships that Roz has helped set up over the years that make a difference for our students. Last year, we awarded more than $5,000 in scholarship money to our students.
Schliske: The best thing I ever did that first semester in 1976 was insist the newspaper be part of the journalism department. That meant as part of an academic department the newspaper, and later the TV station, benefitted from equipment upgrades, facilities remodeling, software, etc. Also during my first semester the president of the student government didn’t like an editorial the students had written and came to my office screaming at me. Now remember, two months before I had been running a professional newspaper where I was accustomed to the mayor or the governor screaming at me. It was all I could do to keep from laughing at this kid. That was my reminder that I never wanted our funding to be tied to the whims of a 19-year-old.
What are the challenges you face as the newspaper adviser?
Sherlock: I'd say my biggest challenges are time and workload. I truly believe the secret to our program is that we spend a lot of time with our students, or in academic-speak, we have a high number of contact hours. I've heard stories of Roz keeping students until 4 a.m. on the night they put the paper together, and the alumni who have told me those stories always do so fondly. Roz modeled hard work and dedication, and her students have told me repeatedly that the time she spent with them, pushing them to put for their very best, has made them the success stories they are today. I'm probably not as hardcore as Roz in that the latest I've ever kept a staff is 1 a.m., but I do model that high level of dedication. When I'm on campus, I'm rarely in my office or sitting down. I'm bouncing from one student to the next, answering their questions and offering guidance on their work. I also do a lot of coaching via Slack, Messenger and text message, because again it's important to spend that time with students and push them to produce their best work.
But those high contact hours means that any grading, class prep, academic work, payroll, and other duties that come up have to happen on nights and weekends, or sometimes they get pushed into winter, spring or summer break. So, keeping a good work-life balance is tricky.
Schliske: I plead guilty to the above.
How much editing/rewrite do you do with their copy?
Sherlock: I offer editing suggestions, but I never rewrite. There's a fine line between being an adviser and being an editor. As an adviser, I can only suggest changes to their stories, but ultimately the students have the freedom to publish -- and they have to accept the ramifications of those decisions, good and bad.
Schliske: I agree. Often their biggest mistakes involve their inexperience in how the world works, i.e., what’s a mill levy.
What have been the toughest coverage issues over the years for the staff?
Sherlock: Roz is going to have much better stories than I do, but a few that stick out to me include the time the student government adviser violated the Wyoming Open Meetings Act and LCCC bylaws by holding a closed meeting to discuss student fee funding. She gave our reporter the run-around pretty hard before ultimately admitting she broke the law.
Two years ago, I requested salary data of all employees for a statistical reporting project where we looked to see if we could find evidence of a gender wage gap among LCCC employees. Despite being transparent about the course assignment and partnering with our Institutional Research director to ensure our statistical analysis was solid, the public records officer on campus sent an all-campus email about the request with a note saying she didn't know what Wingspan was going to do with the data. That resulted in a handful of negative emails criticizing me for using public records in a journalism class.
Schliske: I have always thought the campus administration doesn’t need to conduct an employee morale survey every year or so. I could gauge how much anxiety existed on campus by how many news tips came over the transom. Employees knew they could count on Wingspan to cover campus issues fairly. This was especially true during the presidency of a man who caused such turmoil on campus and national negative publicity that he was eventually let go. Ironically, one time the administration did not want the results and comments of a morale survey (of all things!) released publicly, and the students successfully filed an open records request and published the results. And you know what? No one died.
One of the most interesting cases happened in the 1990s when the college administration jumped on the political correctness band wagon and got the trustees to pass a policy that essentially said someone could be punished if he made someone else “feel uncomfortable.” A few weeks later, Wingspan’s editor was sitting in a political science class when the instructor began criticizing the media. Raising her hand, the editor said she was “feeling uncomfortable,” and suddenly the instructor realized how impossible this policy was. The editor visited with the ACLU in Denver, who wrote a letter to the trustees indicating they would file suit unless the trustees rescinded the policy at their meeting. The trustees rescinded, and I think that was a turning point in the students realizing they had more power in campus governance than employees sometimes did.
I don’t know where this story fits, but educational institutions must undergo an accreditation process. Although the process has now changed, years ago the accrediting body sent a team to campus for an on-site visit. That March the visiting team arrived the night before a major snowstorm shut down the campus. The Wingspan staff was flying out in a day or two for a conference in Texas, and we were on deadline to get the paper to the printer before we left. So my husband, Bob, and I drove around town picking up the entire staff in a four-wheel drive vehicle and shuttling them to the college to finish the paper. Obviously, the only people on campus the accreditation team could talk to before they returned home was the newspaper staff. Surely, this is the nightmare of every college administrator.
Do you receive negative feedback or criticism from the administration or faculty or students?
Sherlock: Yes, but not anything unexpected. We'll get criticized if we get a fact wrong, and that's how it should be. We'll get criticized if students are critical of the college in an editorial, but that's also to be expected.
Schliske: While I was at LCCC, I was blessed with the most supportive deans who recognized the importance of a free press. Some of them literally put their bodies between the staff/me and the senior administrators/trustees.
What do Wingspan staffers do after they leave LCCC? What four-year schools do they attend? How many go into journalism?
Sherlock: It's a mixed bag in my experience. Those who transfer go on to four-year school like the University of Wyoming, Black Hills State, Colorado State, Metro State, and this year we have someone going to Lindenwood University in Missouri. Some end up finding jobs around Cheyenne or the region, working in journalism or public relations. We have several alumni working at the Tribune Eagle.
Schliske: Some community college graduates are community-bound so they cannot continue their education and will go into public relations. Some graduates go to weekly newspapers, and I had several become high school journalism teachers. As the state capital, Cheyenne has positions in state government, and numerous nonprofits will employ our students. Sadly, a lot of our graduates want to go to metropolitan areas. Three of our students are working right now in the same building in New York City working for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.
In addition to the four-year schools Jake mentioned, we have had students transfer to the University of Missouri, Hillsdale College in Michigan, San Jose State University, Baylor University, University of Texas at Arlington, University of Nevada at Reno, University of Nevada at Las Vegas, University of New Mexico, Montana State University, University of Arizona, Arizona State University, University of Nebraska, Weber State University. I am sure there are others that I am forgetting.
What do you hope the students gain from working on the Wingspan staff?
Sherlock: Knowledge of the way the world works and critical thinking skills. College is supposed to open your eyes to new ideas and experiences, and I want Wingspan to be that for our students. I want them to understand that life is messy and choices aren't always black or white. I want them to understand that journalism is a noble, proud and necessary profession when it's done.
Schliske: I also wanted students to learn to leave their egos outside the newsroom door. I wanted them to understand they owed everything they were to the point of an editor’s pencil. Every story, every layout can be improved, and criticism (feedback) of their work is not a reflection of their personal self-worth. Showing responsibility and demonstrating dependability are keys to being successful in any workplace. Finally, “doing ethics” means everything in life.
And, how do you explain Wingspan's long-term success?
Sherlock: Roz Schliske. She gets all the credit. I'm just trying to keep the fire burning that she started.
Schliske: I cannot answer this. But I do know there is a certain “sheer force of personality,” for lack of a better term, that can be involved at the beginning. I never liked that, but I understood it was necessary. As any good coach will tell you, the way to ensure success is to create a family. Why do students work so hard? They do it for one another.
Ed Otte is the SPJ Region 9 Coordinator for Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.