By Shayna Gee
When City College shifted to distance learning a year ago, the journalism department was faced with the challenge of how to immerse students into the world of journalism, one that typically encourages students to be in the field gathering information.
Journalism department Chair Juan Gonzales, who has built a substantial network of professionals, has been inviting guest speakers such as acclaimed journalists Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez and A.C. Thompson to his digital classroom.
Gonzales serves as adviser to The Guardsman and also founded El Tecolote, the longest bilingual newspaper in California serving news and information to the Latino communities in San Francisco since 1970.
Gonzales’ Internet Journalism 35 class was joined by former student Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a producer and reporter at San Francisco’s KQED who has been reporting in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 8 years. Rodriguez talked to students about how he uses social media to report stories, most notably on his Twitter platform which has garnered nearly 20,000 followers.
“I think it’s important that students make professional connections,” Rodriguez said. “In fact, it was a program that Juan hooked me up with, a summer journalism program, that had a guest speaker that led to my first journalism job.”
Rodriguez was a student at City College for six years, two of which he spent as a writer and a multimedia editor for The Guardsman, all while working two jobs.
He transferred to San Francisco State University (SFSU) where he continued his study in journalism and participated in Bay News Rising’s summer program. Guest speakers Tim Redmond and Steve Jones who were the editor and news editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian eventually helped him land a job writing for the Bay Guardian.
Rodriguez credits Gonzales, “I would not have gotten my first journalism job if Juan had not been making connections for all the students.”
City College’s journalism department continues to reel in working professionals as guest lecturers. However, Rodriguez says he’s been speaking to students a lot less during the pandemic, citing the common “Zoom fatigue.”
“It’s been harder to get people’s attention … I’m very energetic, but on Zoom calls, it’s much harder to grab people’s attention,” Rodriguez said.
Before the pandemic, Rodriguez often ran into his old professors at journalism gatherings. A few years ago, he attended a celebratory gathering for the anniversary of El Tecolote when he bumped into one of his old professors from SFSU who then invited him to speak in his class.
“And then because I spoke in his class, I spoke in three other SF State classes … and it just snowballed like the serendipity of life. There’s less opportunity [to interact with students during the pandemic],” Rodriguez said.
Despite the pandemic, Gonzales has consistently invited guest speakers like Rodriguez. Other local guests have included Victor Tence of KALW, Saul Sugarman of San Francisco’s Examiner, and Ryan Singel of Wired (formerly) now founder of Contextly. Gonzales paves a path for students to hear from new voices and engage with professional journalists working jobs they may want to do someday.
Most recently, Gonzales brought on guest lecturer A.C. Thompson in his Investigative Reporting class (JOUR 36). Thompson spent a decade working on alternative weeklies in San Francisco and about 15 years as an investigative reporter for ProPublica and a correspondent for PBS Frontline.
“To me, investigative journalism is that excavation of buried history, it’s the archaeology of now, it is telling the stories that do not want to be told, it is communicating truth that people do not want to hear. The best investigative stories always have some sort of impact component, that the journalism creates material change in the real world,” Thompson said.
He carried on a personal and fruitful conversation with students about his career and gave advice on covering stressful topics and “tips and tricks” for developing stories and starting conversations.
“So much of it is practice, you know, so much of it is just doing it and making calls and visiting people and knocking on their doors, and doing it over and over again,” Thompson said.
“Because what I would do when I was younger — and like I said I didn’t go to college, I barely got out of high school — I would look at the story. I’d be like, ‘oh, wow, that’s an amazing story.’ And I would just be dazzled by it,” Thompson reflected on his youth.
Thompson noted that private investigator Ed Oasa taught him that journalism and investigation are very identical as well as how to communicate with people.
Thompson lends his perspective to students on dissecting stories by asking critical questions. “I would say, oh, how did they do that story? What was the reporting line? What kind of how did they write the story? And what other stories is this like?”