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Journalism professor makes big impact

Citrus College professor Meg O’Neil may not live in Claremont, but she helps shape the city’s news every day. Three of the COURIER’s five editorial staff members went through her journalism program.

Editor Kathryn Dunn and reporter Sarah Torribio were on the Citrus College Clarion staff in the early ‘90s. COURIER page designer and calendar editor Jenelle Rensch honed her skills from 2006 to 2008 on the Clarion staff and through the now-defunct student magazine Logos.

“You learned there are strict rules about good journalism, like using multiple sources, writing a good lead, where to include information—and you learned to get it right,” Ms. Dunn said.

Eryn O’Neal was on the Clarion staff from 2004 to 2006, serving two terms as editor-in-chief, and is now pursuing a doctorate in criminology and criminal justice at Arizona University. Her scholarly interests include intimate partner sexual assault (IPSA) and she has had her research published in numerous peer-reviewed journals. She gives Ms. O’Neil, who would return her story drafts bleeding with red-ink corrections, much of the credit for her success.

“Meg single-handedly taught me the importance of the written word and its power to facilitate discussion and change. She also taught me how to write,” Ms. O’Neal said.

Ms. Rensch likewise benefited from Ms. O’Neil’s mentorship. “Because Meg had such high standards, I was always surprised she believed in me,” she said. “It made me think maybe she was on to something.”

What Ms. O’Neil has been onto, from day one, is a fierce love of newswriting and reporting.

“I think journalism is a force for good, or can be a force for good,” she said. “The interplay of reporting news is essential to an informed voter base and therefore a democratic society.”

Ms. O’Neil came by her love of journalism honestly. Her grandfather was a German immigrant who published German-language newspapers across the United States. Still, Ms. O’Neil didn’t set out to be a journalism teacher.

She was an Air Force “brat” whose father was a B-17 navigator during World War II. She lived in Guam and Germany growing up as well as on various military bases across the United States. She attended St. Mary’s College, majoring in French, and after graduating began teaching French at a Catholic girls high school.

Ms. O’Neil’s husband Rob earned a journalism degree from Syracuse University and began teaching journalism, first at Valley College and then at Harbor College. In 1987, he came to LA Pierce College, where he still teaches. Ms. O’Neil had begun teaching at the community college level as well, starting as an English instructor at Glendale College. She decided to take Mr. O’Neil’s newswriting class and later worked on the staff of The Harbor Tide.

“We always joke that she slept with her teacher, but we were already married,” Mr. O’Neil said.

She was hired by Citrus and in the spring of 1990, she took over advising the Clarion. In 1998, she was named Community College Journalism Professor of the Year by the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Tim Lynch was the newspaper’s previous adviser, juggling his guidance with a job at the LA Times. Now associate vice president of communications and public affairs at Cal State University Stanislaus, Mr. Lynch calls Ms. O’Neil “a great keeper of the flame.” 

“There are so many students in this program who Meg has mentored and mothered, and who have gone onto careers in communication,” he said. “She’s been that confidante or role model and a fan. But she is someone who can speak with candor about students, too. She’ll call them out, which is important.”

Chris Urso, a staff photographer with the Tampa Tribune, vividly recalls being called out. He came to Ms. O’Neil’s classes and the Clarion staff as a young man with a baby daughter and plenty of personal stress, and almost lost his focus. “At one point, Meg told me, ‘You’re never going to make it in photojournalism.’”

It was the kick in the pants he needed. Today, Mr. Urso uses techniques and concepts he learned at Citrus every day. “One thing Meg always told me is photojournalism is about people doing things,” he said.

Stacie Galang, a senior editor at the Ventura Star, says Ms. O’Neil’s strictness is an invaluable precursor to a tough industry.

“I tell people that this business isn’t for wimps, whether it’s the pay, the work or the hours we put in,” she said. “It ain’t easy, but it’s interesting.”

Ms. O’Neil is anything but a wimp. A perfectionist or a workaholic, depending on how you look at it, she commutes to Glendora from her home in La Canada-Flintridge six days a week, heading out as soon as The Daily News, New York Times and Los Angeles Times are dropped on her driveway. She is one of the first people to arrive on campus and among the last to leave.

Once in her office, she pores through the papers, which she uses to inform students about current events and news coverage norms, trends and conundrums. She totes a cart, laden with assignments and newspapers, around campus and regularly provides snacks for starving students who spend long hours in her newsroom.

Citrus College is the number-one destination among Claremont High School graduates, so students on Claremont High School’s Wolfpack newspaper may well find themselves working on the Clarion. Though she is stepping back her hours a bit, if they are lucky, they will have Ms. O’Neil as a journalism teacher.

Along with an associate’s degree in journalism, Citrus students can now obtain an Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) in journalism. Earning an ADT ensures that students will be admitted to a Cal State University with junior status and be given priority admission to the local CSU, which is Cal Poly Pomona. Motivated students can also leave Citrus armed with clips and awards, which are not just confidence-boosters but helpful in nabbing a job.

From the start, Ms. O’Neil has encouraged her students to enter their work in contests offered by the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. She has boldly taken delegations of Citrus students to JACC conferences held at Cal State Fullerton, in downtown Los Angeles and, for many years, at Fresno State.

“I know she really instills in her students a love of journalism, because they win awards all the time,” Sue Keith, who represents Claremont and portions of Pomona and La Verne on the Citrus Community College Board of Trustees, said.

Ms. Keith, who reads the Clarion religiously, is a bit of a newspaper junkie herself, having worked for both her high school and college papers

“If you’re going to have a journalism program, it’s really important to have a publication,” she said. “Having a newspaper they can work on really gives students the opportunity to build their skills.”

It takes some courage.

Student journalists are “among the few students who share their homework with the entire community,” according to Mr. Lynch.

“People judge the quality of the adviser by the quality of the paper, and that’s wholly unfair,” he said. “You often work the hardest and are the most effective with students who are producing a weak newspaper, because you are working your tail off to know that what they produce is accurate and of some quality, and that they’re growing as students.”

Ms. O’Neil believes her students should be triple-threats, able to write, lay out pages and shoot photos. Along with nuts-and-bolts journalism instruction, teambuilding is one of Ms. O’Neil’s talents. She has coaxed myriad alums from her classroom to the newsroom and from the newsroom into the world of journalism.

“She will look at someone and identify their strength in her classroom, and then she will bring that talent in and cultivate it,” said Ada Guerrin, who is creative director for the entertainment news site The Wrap.

Cherise Rudy is an example. For the past 17 years, she has worked for ABC, most of them as a producer for the network’s affiliate news service, NewsOne. When Ms. Rudy enrolled in Ms. O’Neil’s COMM 101 class, she was struck by her enthusiasm. The next semester, she joined the Clarion staff.

“Though it was more than 20 years ago, I have the clearest picture of Meg driving into the staff parking lot in her Vanagon, out of sorts from dropping her four kids off at school and pregnant with her fifth,” she said. “She’d whisk into the newsroom and, without hesitation, switch gears and get into news mode.”

Ms. Rudy went on to study broadcast journalism at Cal State Fullerton and interned with KABC News before landing a job with ABC. She says Ms. O’Neil is why she took a chance on journalism.

“The rules of journalism were taken seriously, but she never failed to take a minute to talk to each of us and learn more about our hopes and dreams, encouraging us in her lilting voice,” Ms. Rudy said.

Ms. Guerin is another Clarion success story. Before coming to The Wrap, she worked for The Hollywood Reporter for 14 years. Never one to sugar-coat things, she said Ms. O’Neil’s exacting ways and adamant demeanor initially rubbed her the wrong way.

“Meg intimidated me, and I thought she was an asshole,” Ms. Guerin said. “She was tough. But what I identified with in Meg is that female strength, that strength that allows you to be a mother or a fighter. That’s what made me think about becoming an editor.”

Even students who didn’t pursue journalism remember Ms. O’Neil fondly, including Michael James, who was a Clarion and Logos staffer in the early ‘90s.

“Her sense of fairness and ability to be circumspect is of her essence. In her world, right truly is might and the political melts away in favor of meritocracy,” he said. “The values I learned from Meg, taught primarily by example, inform me daily. Those two years with her taught me how to be a human. I can now share Meg’s values with my children.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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