Editor’s note: On the rare occasion we at the Heron will deviate from our niche beat, which is downtown development and neighborhood change. This column is such an occasion.
You may have never read The Ranger, San Antonio College’s student newspaper, or cared much about what was going on on campus, but I guarantee you’ve felt the impact of SAC’s journalism and photography department.
For many decades, the faculty and staff there have been the caretakers of a pipeline that often took aspiring reporters and photographers from San Antonio schools, through SAC’s journalism department, to professional newsrooms locally, and elsewhere.
As a consumer of news in San Antonio, you want that pipeline to exist. You want homegrown talent telling the stories of your city. Outsiders’ perspectives are also important to any newsroom, those who see with fresh eyes the uniqueness of the people and places that have become part of the furniture, so to speak, to us locals. But building a newsroom starts with the institutional knowledge of those born and raised here—and, to be fair, of those who have spent a great amount of time here.
And so it saddens me to hear that The Ranger newspaper, and perhaps the journalism department at SAC as we know it, will expire at the end of the year.
On Oct. 5, The Ranger published a story stating it would cease operations in December after 95 years of publishing. In the piece, written by Ranger Editor Sergio Medina, the majority of the journalism and photography department’s faculty, Coordinator Marianne Odom, and instructors Irene Abrego and Dr. Edmund Lo, announced they were retiring at the end of the year, leaving the program’s future in doubt—at least for the spring.
“We’re not really closing down the department,” Odom said in the article. “We are retiring. What happens beyond will be up to the college administration. We’re not doing a spring schedule.”
It’s not just a loss for current students studying journalism at SAC, but a loss for this city. It’s because of the hundreds of budding journalists who passed through The Ranger newsroom on the second floor of the Loftin Student Center that you’ve been better informed over the years. Much of the local news you consume is imprinted with The Ranger’s journalistic values and standards because many of those students have gone on to work as professionals in San Antonio. There are too many to list, but rest assured they imbue the local media landscape, most notably the San Antonio Express-News. And the Heron.
And it’s because of the department’s faculty and staff, and the tough love culture they created over the years, that those students were so well trained to provide that level of reporting.
The program has allowed students to meet professionals—former Ranger staffers, such as Express-News reporters Vincent T. Davis and Laura Garcia, and Spectrum News reporter Jose Arredondo—who give back by talking to students about their own journey and offer career advice. At The Ranger, students also built a portfolio of articles, the experience necessary to land a job.
The standard is set so high that those who transferred from SAC to a four-year institution were often better prepared than their contemporaries.
“They are worlds ahead of most universities juniors,” said Abrego, who, in full disclosure, served as one of the Heron’s original board members.
Simply put, The Ranger has been the best training ground in San Antonio for anyone looking to enter the field of journalism. One could argue, and I will in this column, that it’s been one of the best journalism training grounds in the nation.
Odom and Abrego point to budget cuts and declined student enrollment, combined with a sort of disconnection between the newspaper and the campus during the pandemic, that have led to this moment.
However, there are another factors that can’t be ignored: the roll SAC and the Alamo Colleges District played.
If you haven’t figure it out by now, I was one of those Ranger reporters back in the day.
As a former student, I’ve kept in touch with the faculty and staff over the years. Every time I spoke with Abrego, who’s also a mentor of mine, I’d ask how the department was doing. It’s important here to make the distinction between the department (and the courses it offers) and The Ranger newspaper, the lab setting that allows students to put into practice the things they learned in the classroom.
The pattern of declining enrollment in journalism classes was evident, but Abrego and others also described a feeling that SAC and the district administration might let The Ranger, and its 95-year history, wither away. At least in name. Last year, the college decided to retire the Ranger as SAC’s mascot because of the Texas Rangers’ history of violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. (I argued, at least in my own private circles, that The Ranger as an important player in San Antonio’s journalistic landscape, in nearly 100 years of publishing, had carved its own history and legacy, and so it earned a right to keep the name.)
“It just seemed like, well, I guess we can go ahead and retire then they can have a new publication with a new name,” Abrego said in a recent interview.
But there was another, intangible factor at play.
There was a pattern or feeling of “long-term neglect,” as Abrego described it.
In September 2017, The Ranger told its readers it would scale back its weekly print edition to four pages because of budget cuts at the college. The journalism and photography program was cut by 25 percent that year.
In 2019, due to more budget cuts, declining enrollment, and other factors beyond its control, the department announce The Ranger would be published only online and discontinue the weekly print edition.
“At that point, it was fairly clear that we would get to this point,” Abrego said.
The faculty in those trying times didn’t feel the kind of outpouring of support and appreciation from SAC President Dr. Robert Vela and ACD Chancellor Dr. Mike Flores as they do now, since The Ranger published its article earlier this month, and since nearly every news media outlet in San Antonio has covered the story.
On Friday afternoon, I interviewed Flores and Vela. They said the journalism department will continue in some form, but that it would likely merge with another department, such as the radio and television broadcasting program, and that perhaps journalism could become more of a district-wide offering.
Vela said he first heard about the retirements of Odom, Abrego and Lo about a month before The Ranger published its story on Oct. 5, when the announcements were forwarded up the chain of command to his office.
“So I quickly assembled my dean and my vice presidents and chairs to figure out a way by which we could embed the program in some other related form—like radio, television and film—to keep it afloat until we’re able to decide what we’re going to do and how we’re going to keep it moving forward,” Vela said. Abrego confirmed Vela reached out to the department, but a meeting didn’t happen. Since the story has gained some attention, the faculty, The Ranger staff, and Vela are trying to schedule a meeting this week or next.
A week after The Ranger published its story, Vela and Flores said they talked about replacing two full-time faculty positions as soon as possible, with a third hire to happen down the road. Both Vela and Flores said the journalism department was always going to keep moving forward, and said the outcry by the local journalism community had nothing to do with them outwardly articulating the program’s importance and legacy.
“It’s important that the paper, going forward, remains relevant,” said Vela, who described The Ranger and the department as a “foundational pillar” of SAC.
Flores said there is an appreciation on behalf of the district for The Ranger and everything it has accomplished.
“I think that we should have a century of student journalism at SAC,” Flores said in reference to The Ranger being five years away from the 100-year mark.
I was introduced to the department in 1994. I was a sophomore at Jefferson High School, a staff member at The Declaration student newspaper, when SAC journalism students Elaine Aradillas (who’s now a reporter at People magazine) and Jennifer Rodriguez (who’s now the American Federation of Teachers’ national political campaigns director) paid us a visit. They were recruiting for the Urban Journalism Workshop, a two-week bootcamp for high school students that began in 1985. The workshop introduced high school students to the SAC program and also exposed them to professionals working at the Express-News (and the San Antonio Light when it was still around). This was when the pipeline was the strongest. It ended in 2013 after the Express-News decided to stop funding the program, and SAC (in its defense, the UJW was not one of the college’s original programs, but still …) decided not to foot the bill.
I eventually went to SAC, and simultaneously worked at the Express-News in various news departments as an editorial assistant.
It was the beginning of a lifelong mentorship between me and Abrego, Odom and Chet Hunt (the previous chair), and Ms. Alicia Morse, the department’s long-time secretary, and Tricia Buchhorn, still a Ranger advisor, and W.B. “Dub” Daugherty, the chair before Mr. Hunt, who has since passed. I could go on.
For many journalists in San Antonio, the story is similar.
My fear is that The Ranger’s culture will cease, even if a journalism department continues in some form, as new instructors come in because of the retirement of the aforementioned faculty. There was a system in place, which is why I strongly encourage Vela and Flores and Abrego, Odom and Lo, and others in the conversations to come to create some kind of succession plan.
Last week on Facebook, Buchhorn asked Ranger alum and past supporters to describe the SAC journalism department in two words.
“Standard setting,” I wrote.
There were far better answers: “Career starter.” “Confidence and skills.” “Watch dog.” “Hard love.”
Perhaps also, “San Antonio’s loss?”
It’s up to Flores and Vela to prevent that from happening.
Setting It Straight: An earlier version of this article misspelled the San Antonio College president’s first name. It’s Dr. Robert Vela.
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