Journalism is Alive and Well at Cerritos College, HFPA Grantee

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) began supporting journalism and freedom of the press in 2021. Since then, more than 20 journalistic organizations and institutions have been added to the pool of more than 90 grantees. Among them is the Journalism & Media Studies Department of Cerritos College, a minority-majority campus near Los Angeles whose students are likely to transfer to California state universities. 

With the guidance of Faculty Adviser and Department Chair Christian Brown, the Cerritos journalism students won, for the second year in a row, the Best Community College News Website award at the Spring National College Media Conference. The win was for Talon Marks, a college print/online publication with a circulation of approximately 4,000 which has been in operation since 1956.


Sponsored by Associated Collegiate Press, the California College Media Association and the Journalism Association of Community Colleges, the annual conference took place in San Francisco on March 11, 2023, and gathered more than 750 collegiate journalists, 125 keynote speakers, and offered workshops on various aspects of journalism from media law to multi-media skills. With an HFPA grant of $20,000, Brown was able to attend the conference with 16 of his students, an unprecedented and significant occasion for his class.

“It was awesome to go see new places and meet new people. It was really good that our group was able to bond heavily. Of course [there was] the luring aspect of [the conference] too, all the workshops were really amazing,” said Samuel Chacko, the energetic Talon Marks Editor-in-Chief in a recent Zoom interview with the HFPA along with his young colleagues and Brown.

“It was my first time leaving the city in some years,” Co-Community Editor Sam Carey added. “Seeing everyone in the same place with the same passion that you have… it was a culture shock.”

“I thought I had gotten a very good feel for journalism in my few years of doing it since high school, but from the first workshop that I attended, I was taken aback about by how much I didn’t know,” admitted Managing Editor Lukas Luna-Arellano.

For Alfredo Menjivar, Sports Editor for Talon Marks, attending the conference meant getting more comfortable with sports reporting and corresponding with his peers. Similarly, Christine Nader, Co-Community Editor, realized that journalism is truly what she wanted to do. Music reporting was a particular interest, and being around music journalists and learning from them was very valuable. “I also felt freedom,” she mentioned, “being able to choose whatever I wanted, because I wanted to learn it.”

The students’ enthusiasm was inspirational, and not just for their own sake: they bring new energy to the whole field. For them, journalism is a way to raise community life to public awareness. And, of course, there is no one way of reporting – social media, podcasting, and multi-media all play equal parts.

“Speaking for myself, I typically don’t look to bigger publications for subjects that I’m interested in. I look to smaller, more independent outlets that I personally trust, and I know I’m not alone in that sense,” offered Luna-Arellano. “The true voices of journalism in the future are going to [come from] homegrown, grassroots media reporters.”

For Chacko, journalism can preserve its credibility by adjusting to this new reality. “We need to make sure we diversify social media because social media is really important,” he emphasized. “A lot of people are actually looking to social media to find out their news. At some point, journalism programs will have to focus a lot more on [them] because there is not much credibility in journalism, especially the mainstream news outlets.”

“We have to think of college journalism as a laboratory for the students to learn,” Brown interjected, referring to the fact that publications are losing revenues year over year. “It used to be a place where we could actually make a lot of money off of ads, but at this point, it’s a struggle. It’s something we see in local journalism too, whether it’s radio, television or print, they are all having the same issues.”

Yet, these students are determined to make it work.

“Eventually, journalism is going to be on the rise,” Chacko affirmed. “No AI can do it. There’s always a need for journalists.”

Ultimately, the key to good journalism is not in the format but in the content. “It starts with interesting stories,” he said. But “interesting stories” do not come on their own. They depend on the writer’s approach. Enriching stories with images and multiple elements, for example, can provoke engagement. “I think creativity is really important,” he concluded.

“Getting a look at how media is currently being curated, it’s easy to get lost,” Nader chimed in. “So I feel being a younger eye and having ideas that have been built up for quite a while—that is what journalism needs right now, and it needs different takes. This will garner the attention that publications are craving. We have to expand [our] horizon and not just stick to one thing.”

“What makes what we do work [is that] we are a team of diverse people,” Brown summed it up.  “Different viewpoints strengthen our product. I feel that our secret sauce is that we all have different standpoints in life. When we come together, we see things that other people don’t see.”

“We need some reparative journalism right now,” he added thoughtfully. “Folks know that journalism is being complicit in some of the systemic issues we have in the country, but college journalism must actively try to work against that.”

He went on to reject the idea of objectivity in reporting: “The media has never been objective. The media has always had an algorithm that excluded certain people, didn’t tell certain stories. Journalism has to be honest and transparent, do big ‘J’ journalism, and try to break stories that matter to people. Be a little bit of a ‘how-to’ desk and help the American people and our communities navigate this age. And if we do that right, I feel that people will see a purpose for what we do.”  

For Brown and his students, journalism’s purpose is in no way diminished by the signs of the times. “We are the only industry that is in the Constitution – there shall be no law preventing the freedom of the press. I know people are thinking of dollars and cents, but our role really is to be a watchdog and make sure this democracy protects everybody.”