It started in 1950, when William Randolph Hearst was still in charge of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper. He wanted his sports section to be the paper of record for prep sports in Southern California. Hearst beckoned his track and field writer, journeyman journalist Ralph Alexander, and asked him to assemble a band of high school writers who would cover their school’s sports in exchange for meal money and a byline in the Examiner or the Los Angeles Herald Express, the afternoon Hearst paper in town.
Alexander did not have to be encouraged. He and his wife, Millie, had a strong affinity for helping kids. They had adopted Kathleen when she was a toddler to give her a better chance at success in life, and Ralph frequently mentored high school writers.
Thus began the Scholastic Sports Association.
Most of the boys covered football, baseball, basketball and track at their local high schools and phoned the results in to a core group who gathered at SSA headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, clacking away on old Smith Corona typewriters and wearing ancient head sets. The kids in the field got a byline in the paper. The boys with the drive working in Los Angeles got four dimes (for meal money) and an education in life and journalism that was incomparable. Working under the curmudgeonly glare of Alexander, the sportswriters learned how to write compelling stories on deadline.
They also earned a slot, in 1951, at the first-ever high school journalism workshop at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo – not far from Hearst’s beloved San Simeon. There the boys learned the academics of sportswriting, photography, layout and other aspects of journalism under the tutelage of Alexander and several other key members of the Hearst journalism family.
It was supposed to be a one-shot deal. But Alexander knew a good thing for his “kids” and encouraged Hearst to sponsor a second workshop in 1952. And a third in `53. And a fourth. And a fifth. A sixth …
The old SSA, which invited only boys and concentrated on sportswriting, changed into the Interscholastic Press Association in 1962 after longtime Herald sports editor George T. Davis died.
Actually, it cannot be said that the SSA was entirely a boys-only organization. John Peck, who served as SSA Executive Editor in 1958, recalls one female member in the earliest days. She was Frances Elizabeth Brown, a student journalist at Franklin High in Los Angeles. Peck said that Frances attended one of the early Cal Poly workshops, perhaps in 1957.
The IPA invited girls to attend the workshop for the first time in 1965 and changed its curriculum to include all aspects of journalism.
Alexander changed the group’s title again – to the California Scholastic Press Association – in 1968 when he retired from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and took upon himself (with Millie) the sponsorship of the group.
Without any financial backing at all, Alexander kept the workshop running because he considered it was too good an opportunity for high school journalists to let go. Without the CSPA workshop, there would have been no outside encouragement of high school kids who were considering a career in journalism.
Ralph and Millie Alexander died of cancer within a few months of one another in 1981. On his deathbed in Long Beach, Alexander summoned nine former workshop students and other friends of high school journalism and asked that they work to continue the CSPA workshop at Cal Poly.
Because most got the inspiration for their careers during their two weeks at Cal Poly, the nine said they would try. Ralph Alexander passed away the next day, but his legacy continues today.
The nine adults he anointed managed to produce the workshop in 1982. And the group has produced a CSPA journalism workshop at Cal Poly every year since. Typewriters, once dutifully carried to the classroom every day, were replaced by computers in the 1990s, but students are still instructed in the basics of reporting and all aspects of journalism.
In 2001, the group staged its 50th anniversary journalism workshop in San Luis Obispo. There was a party and all prior graduates were invited to attend. The workshop has adapted to 21st-century journalism with an extensive online curriculum.
Some of the best and brightest in journalism, entertainment, the law, and other fields have gone through through the workshop. Throw in a few authors, some politicians, and some television personalities. They all got their starts when they were 16 and away from home for the first time in their lives – at journalism camp.
- Narda Zachino, deputy managing editor, San Francisco Chronicle
- Steve Harvey, former columnist, Los Angeles Times
- Scott Ostler, columnist, San Francisco Chronicle
- Bill Rempel, national reporter, Los Angeles Times
- Marc Stein, NBA reporter, ESPN
- Chris Carlson, Associated Press photographer
- Cam Inman, sportswriter, Bay Area News Group
- Gary Stein, editor, Portland Oregonian
- Pete Hecht, reporter, Sacramento Bee
- Tim Ferguson, assistant editor and West Coast Bureau chief, Forbes Magazine
- Larry Welborn, courts reporter, Orange County Register
- Janet Eastman, former Lifestyle editor, Los Angeles Times
- Todd Harmonson, Senior Editor, Orange County Register
- Rich Hammond, sportswriter, Orange County Register
- Randy Sparage, sports anchor, Fox Sports Net
- Ken Daley, columnist, Dallas Morning News
- Laura Castaneda, Associated Press reporter
- Nicole Vargas, former reporter/multimedia producer, San Diego Union-Tribune
- Oanh Ha, reporter, San Jose Mercury News
- Kim Minugh, reporter, Sacramento Bee
- Jessica Davis, editor, Patch.com
That’s just a partial list. Some of our “kids” are making their marks in journalism schools across the country. We have recent CSPA grads at Harvard, Berkeley, Northwestern, Columbia, USC, Pepperdine and many others.
And most remember those two weeks in the summer of their high school years when they learned the ropes of journalism from some volunteer writers and photographers at the Cal Poly journalism workshop in San Luis Obispo.
It’s an incredible organization.