Read all about it – some last words for the printed word

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EL PASO, Texas — Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to honor the heroes, the visionaries, the martyrs, the teachers, the mentors and the smart-asses that have contributed to the legacy of Print Media here at the University of Texas at El Paso.

In these times of great technological advancement, the souls that lie buried in the ink of the pages that challenged authority, informed the populous and bled perspective will never be forgotten.

In our borderland, the border we face is not only that which divides our twin cities. We also approach an epochal border, moving into a digital age where the blog is the new editorial, craigslist is the new classified ads and RSS feeds are the new paperboys.

(©iStockphoto/Zudin)

On November 2, 2009, former ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson announced the creation of a new degree at UTEP: Multimedia Journalism. As a result, the future of the Electronic Media and Print Media degrees remain in the balance with a good chance of them being phased out. Donaldson, who sports the most-debated coif in UTEP history, said at the press conference, “Never mind training your dog. Newspapers are not going to be delivered in print because it is not cost effective, they cannot compete that way.” This brilliant newsman was right: There is no longer hope for domesticating our dogs!

But putting his words back into context, the papers are dying. Once-great daily newspapers like the Tucson Citizen, the Detroit Free Press, the Albuquerque Tribune, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Cincinnati Post have either gone out of business or have been put up for sale. Furloughs plagued many other papers, the El Paso Times included. The New York Times was even on the brink of bankruptcy in the first quarter of 2009. The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported in April 2010 that the top 25 papers with the greatest circulation had declines in circulation of 10 percent or more within the last six months. This figure was based on statistics from the same time period a year prior.

So, with the demise of the Print Media degree imminent, my contemporaries and I will be the last graduating classes of UTEP to be able to attain that degree.

Being on this border of such a unknown time for the news business, not only are we the last of a dying breed, but we are the first frontiersmen and women of this new era. Since last year, our degree plans have been slightly modified. Now, not only are we writing for publications like our student paper The Prospector and our online magazine Borderzine, but we are now required to take classes like Digital Photography and dabble in other visual aspects of news like video and slideshow production.

These new directions are the sign of an evolving world; a world that our predecessors probably never even saw coming.

The history of Print Media at UTEP may not be as significant to the institution as that of the Colleges of Engineering or Business Administration, but the many who served under the department – those who graduated with the degree and those who have contributed to the school’s own print media – have made great contributions to the university and its legacy.

Mike Martinez, graduating class of 1951, was the Associate Editor of the Prospector and Editor of  the since defunct campus humor magazine, El Burro. Then, UTEP was the Texas College of Mines. During a conversation with his journalism professor, John Middagh, Martinez found it odd that he would be graduating with a journalism degree from a college of mines. On Middagh’s recommendation, Martinez then wrote a piece in El Burro, proposing a name change for the college. A student movement started and the administration took notice. After deliberation and other diplomatic formalities, Texas College of Mines became Texas Western College. Liberal Arts students: you’re welcome.

Then, there is the great Rubén Salazar. A contemporary of Martinez – he even dated one of Martinez’s sisters – he was a writer for the Prospector and El Burro before graduating from then Texas Western College in 1954. He was most known for his work in Los Angeles, California, writing for the Los Angeles Times and serving as news director for television station KMEX. He covered the Chicano community, giving insight to its conditions outside of the media’s typical coverage of crime. While covering the National Chicano Moratorium March, he was killed by a tear gas projectile shot by a member of Los Angeles Police Department. His courageous work in covering the Chicano community made him a martyr of the cause and a legend to journalists everywhere. Among other awards, he was honored by the US Postal Service when they announced that his image would be featured on a first-class postage stamp. He is the only Miner to be bestowed that honor.

Martinez and Salazar both studied under Professor John Middagh, a giant in the history of the Communication Department; so much so, that the highest prize of accomplishment the department bestows on its graduates is called the Hicks-Middagh award after him and broadcast media professor Virgil Hicks, who taught alongside Middagh. Other then being the inspiration and champion of the school’s name change, Professor Middagh was also a World War II veteran, along with Martinez. “He urged us to look beyond the obvious and to focus on more than just facts,” Martinez remembered about his professor. “He taught us how to communicate with feeling.  To get under the skin of the reader with information that was not only well conveyed but amplified the moment, the person, or the issue at hand with greater understanding. He encouraged us to take pride in what we did and to do it honestly and with heart. Just good enough was not an option with John.”

Diana Washington Valdez, a veteran of the local news scene, graduated with a degree in Mass Communication from UTEP and served as reporter and then editor of The Prospector. Currently working with the El Paso Times, she has also written books, most notably The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women, an important work on the subject of violence against women in Ciudad Juarez. She has received many national and international awards for her writing.

More recent Prospector alums include Adriana Gomez Licon, Alex(andra) Hinojosa and John Hall all currently work for the El Paso Times, still serving the people of El Paso. Hall reports on military issue and Gomez Licon reports on international news, including the killings of women in Juarez.

Then there are the brave souls that still instruct journalism students today. They have come to adapt to the changing news environment, using old-school gravitas to swagger through the rising tides of change.

Dr. Thomas Ruggiero and Professor David Smith-Soto are seasoned veterans of the business that, after accomplished careers, now teach at the university. Dr. Ruggiero, who I had for “News Gathering and Investigation,” teaches with a snarl. His vigor towards the integrity and valor of investigative journalism is akin to the heroes of bygone eras of news, when the quality of the reporting, and not the mere subject of the story, was a paper’s selling point. Smith-Soto, who instructs the class I’m writing this piece for, teaches with a style somewhere between Zen master, shaman and griot. He speaks slowly, thinks quickly and paces the Cotton Lab with the stride of a lion.

With this rich history in mind, the Print Media degree and those who have contributed from the classes taught in it have been a transformative part of this institution’s legacy. And with the degree’s eventual demise, it is not merely some tugboat with a hole in it. Rather, I’d go as far as comparing it to the Titanic sinking.

Professors Ruggiero and Smith-Soto may seem like the proverbial captains that, in honor, go down with the ship. But in the ever-evolving news business, their ability to adapt and thrive guarantees that the death of the degree does not mean the death of their teaching careers or the devaluation of their insight. So, I would not compare them to the captains. Rather, they are more akin the string ensemble assembled on the main deck. Ordered to play to absolve panic, the final songs they play do not merely come from orders, but also from the bleeding heart of the artist. The artist that spends a lifetime honing his craft. The heart that beats the pulse. The pulse that informs all journalists to keep a steady hand on the pulse of the word at large, in order to report to the will of the people.

So, in honor of those who have worked for the good and liberty of the people, I salute you.

Vaya con Dios. May your press pass be your entry into Heaven.

Rest in Pieces of Paper.

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1 Comment

  1. Nice, well-written article.

    One note: You forgot two of the biggies that went down in 2009: The Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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