For more than a decade, San Francisco State University students in Professor of Journalism Jon Funabiki’s Community Media class have written for the Mission-based newspaper El Tecolote — a bilingual publication founded in 1970 by a former San Francisco State instructor. After the city issued a stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, these student reporters became vital to the newspaper and the community it serves.
The students have written about COVID-19 testing in the hard-hit Mission District, the rise of pandemic-related hate crimes and the unique challenges vulnerable communities face due to the spread of the virus.
“We would not have been able to publish the kind of content we’ve been producing without them,” said El Tecolote Editor Alexis Terrazas, an SF State alumnus (’11) and former student of Funabiki’s. The community looks to El Tecolote for resources, he says, and students rose to the occasion in spite of the many challenges they faced this semester.
After SF State classes moved online this spring, Funabiki’s students scattered across the state, and in one case to Spain. In-person reporting was off the table. Some students had to scrap stories they’d been working on for El Tecolote; others adapted theirs to fit social distancing constraints. Students didn’t let the disruption stop them, Funabiki says. “You have to rise to the challenge,” he said. “Just because the situation gets difficult you can’t give up.”
In a few cases, students broke journalistic convention by inserting themselves into their stories. One international student penned a first-person account about being in a foreign country far from family and then traveling back home to Spain. Another student, Noor Baig, tapped her own social network as sources for her reporting about how the Muslim community celebrated Ramadan during the pandemic. Students typically maintain two degrees of separation from the people they interview.
“This was such a historic moment that everyone’s experience was important,” Baig said. “It was becoming more important to record as many voices as possible as opposed to finding someone I’ve never talked to.”
Another Gator journalist-in-training, Joseph Christoph High, said the pandemic sometimes made reporting easier. He wrote about the struggles of a single mother of two school-aged children. He found the woman on an online parenting forum, and she was eager to help with his article, he says. “She was excited to talk to me, because she hadn’t talked to a new person in a long time,” he explained.
For High, the pandemic highlighted the need for El Tecolote. “The theme of our class is hidden communities,” he said. “Underrepresented communities are obviously getting hit harder by coronavirus.”
And serving underrepresented groups is what drove former SF State instructor Juan Gonzales to start El Tecolote 50 years ago. He launched the paper as a project in his La Raza Studies journalism class. His goal was to not only diversify newsrooms by creating a launchpad for Latinx journalists but also to cover news that mainstream outlets overlooked. The paper is now the longest-running Spanish bilingual newspaper in the state.
In the six years that Terrazas has been at the helm of El Tecolote, he’s seen a number of talented students cut their journalistic teeth at the paper. “This is a real pipeline for extraordinary journalists,” he says. “I’m really proud to be not just a product of State, but that our paper gets the chance to serve as this training ground for these students to truly show what they can do.”
— Jamie Oppenheim