The Smoke Signal of Mission San Jose High School received a Gold Crown Award for the Digital News published in the 2020-21 school year from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA). According to the CSPA, 13 member schools received this “Top Down review of overall excellence.” The distinction also included two other Bay Area high schools: The Harker School and Palo Alto High School. The 2020-21 Editors-in-Chief, Yusuf Rasheed and Sabrina Wu, under the guidance of Adviser Sandra Cohen, led a staff of 33 journalists through the all-virtual school year.
“The Crown Awards honor top student publications chosen from CSPA’s members. Crowns are selected for overall excellence in a head-to-head comparison. Student publishing in news, magazine, yearbook or digital (online) formats are all-eligible. During Crown consideration, publications are judged on their excellence as shown by their design, photography, concept, coverage and writing. A total of 817 publications were eligible for judging” (CSPA site).
Established in 1925, the CSPA is owned and operated by Columbia University. The Association unites student journalists and advisors worldwide and confers awards to newspapers based on the review of a panel of judges. All member organizations, including the Smoke Signal, are eligible for judging.
The Smoke Signal was established in 1964 as a student-run newspaper on the MSJ campus. The paper currently has a staff of 64 students enrolled in the Journalism elective and a mission of “representing the voices of the Mission San Jose High School community and serving the public by providing accurate, meaningful, and engaging information presented through print and digital mediums.” Every four weeks, nine times a year, the Smoke Signal publishes a 20-page issue offered for free to students at MSJ. Since 2001, the paper has received 12 Awards from the CSPA.
MSJ operated entirely online for the 2020-21 school year. To adapt to this format, the Smoke Signal transitioned to publishing online. However, the transition didn’t come without challenges: “The overall transition of a physical newspaper to an online newspaper was the biggest obstacle, and it had a lot of its own sub-problems,” Rasheed told the Smoke Signal. Similar to many classes, communication was often a point of confusion. “It can be difficult to reach people online. Lines of communication were really important,” Wu said. However, online printing also offered some advantages. “When everything is online, you’re pretty flexible with when you can post stories. So that in some ways made it a lot easier.”
The staff also worked to maintain a sense of community with each other since much of the work they did was asynchronous. “We had to think of some really creative ways for us to stay connected via Zoom, through icebreakers, [and] through Hangouts consistently,” Rasheed said.
Overall, the strongest feeling experienced was one of pride. “I think it’s something that’s really special. Just being able to have an external organization like the CSPA, which is very prestigious, say that you are good by their objective standards,” Wu said.