It started in 1950, when William Randolph Hearst still ran the Los Angeles Examiner.
Hearst wanted the Examiner to be the paper of record for prep sports in Southern California. So he beckoned his track and field writer, 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 Herald Express, the afternoon paper.
Thus began the Scholastic Sports Association.
At first, most of the boys covered football, baseball, basketball and track at their local high schools and phoned in the results to the Scholastic Sports Association headquarters in downtown L.A., where a core group of boys clacked away on old Smith Corona typewriters and wore ancient headsets, working under Alexander’s curmudgeonly glare.
The kids in the field got a byline. The boys working in Los Angeles got four dimes for meal money and an education in journalism that was incomparable.
They also earned a slot at the first-ever high school journalism workshop at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, not far from Hearst’s beloved San Simeon. During the summer of 1951, the boys learned sportswriting, photography, layout and other journalism skills under the tutelage of Alexander and other members of the Hearst company.
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. And a fourth. And a fifth…
Every summer since 1951, the organization has held a high school journalism workshop at Cal Poly. It is the finest, longest-running, most unique high school summer journalism program in the country.
Women were admitted to the workshop in 1965, and the group was renamed the California Scholastic Press Association in 1968.
Without any financial backing, Alexander kept the workshop running because he considered it too important to let go. Without the CSPA, he knew, there was no outside encouragement for high school kids considering a career in journalism.
Ralph and his wife, Millie, 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 them to continue the CSPA.
Most got the inspiration for their careers during their two weeks at Cal Poly, and they said they would try. Ralph Alexander passed away the next day, but his legacy continues.
The nine adults he anointed managed to produce the workshop in 1982, and every year since. Typewriters, once dutifully carried to the classroom every day, were replaced by computers in the 1990s and an extensive online curriculum in the 2000s, but students are still instructed in the basics of reporting and all aspects of journalism, which have remained the same for decades.
Some of the best and brightest in journalism, entertainment, the law, and other fields have gone 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 at journalism camp.
Some of our “kids” are making their marks in journalism schools across the country. We have recent CSPA graduates at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Northwestern, Columbia, USC, Pepperdine and many others.
Three of them have recently been honored as National High School Journalist of the Year: Julia Poe in 2015, Kellen Browning in 2016, and Meghan Bobrowsky in 2017.
No matter our gradutes’ career paths, they fondly remember those two weeks at Cal Poly, where they met peers with similar interests, and learned the ropes of journalism from pros in the industry. It’s an incredible organization.