Past deadline

Local journalism legend Mikki Bolliger steps aside

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 8/16/2007

Mikki Bolliger hasn’t seen it all, but she sure has seen a lot, having been a veteran journalist before taking over as the adviser to Pasadena City College’s Courier weekly newspaper 34 years ago.

Now Bolliger has apparently seen enough and is retiring, mainly to let someone else take the reins of that award-winning college newspaper and guide budding reporters in steering the paper in newer, online directions, such as podcasting and streaming video.

After 1,032 issues, Bolliger says it’s time for someone who is already familiar with those technologies to bring the students up to speed. And that person is Warren Swil, a South African-American who works as an editor with the Pasadena Star-News and has taught journalism classes at PCC for six years.

Bolliger started out in 1963 as a photographer covering the Baldwin Hills dam failure, one of the first spot news stories to appear on television, and wrote for a number of papers before beginning at PCC — the Long Beach Press Telegram, the Hollywood Citizen News, the Van Nuys News and Green Sheet (now the LA Daily News), and the Valley edition of the LA Times — before going to work as a public relations teacher at LA Valley College in Van Nuys. There she encouraged anyone interested in PR to spend some time on a newspaper staff in order to understand the functions of both professions.

Although Bolliger resisted the teaching job as long as she could, “as soon as I heard a student say ‘Now I got it,’ I was hooked. I knew I had more to offer.”

But she also understands that some things cannot be taught. “College newspapers weed out a lot of journalist wannabes that can write a decent story but aren’t willing to do the extra hours of research and interviewing it takes to write that story that will make a difference in people’s lives,” Bolliger said.

Over the course of her career, Bolliger has seen many students and stories come and go — from political extremism on campus to claims of excessive force by police. Also since she took the helm at the Courier, recognized by the Journalism Association of Community Colleges as one of the top college newspapers in the state, Bollinger has seen newsrooms transform from a bunch of people smoking cigarettes and pounding on typewriters to physically fit and well-educated young men and women plying the Internet.

“She has this renowned, unstructured, laissez-faire teaching style that’s extraordinarily one of a kind,” said Titania Kumeh, a former Bolliger student and former contributor to both the Courier and the Pasadena Weekly.

“Everyone could tell that Mrs. B loved being the adviser and she loved her students,” said Stacy Wang, the Courier’s editor in chief for the 2007-08 school year. “She would stay late with us every week to make sure we put out a great paper and expected nothing less than the best from each of us.” 

Bolliger thinks community college is a good option for young journalists.

“I’m a little biased because I think the two-year schools do a much better job of preparing students for jobs in journalism,” said Bolliger.

The Courier was the first college paper to go online, back before doing so was necessary for a print newspaper’s survival. The newspaper industry, if you haven’t noticed, is at a dramatic and very uncertain crossroads. People have become used to instantaneous and free news at the convenient click of a button. And a few years of soul searching hasn’t seemed to produce any meaningful or long-term answers in the world of print journalism.

Bolliger is optimistic about the transition from print to online media.

“People will always want and need the information that journalists provide,” Bolliger said. “There are still going to be wonderful stories of people to be told and corrupt politicians to cover. The difference is that in the 21st century, it’s not all about the print edition. I think it will continue to be a wonderful profession with a lot more opportunities. And I don’t think the print editions of the paper are going anywhere.”

Swil, Bolliger’s replacement, has big plans to move the paper forward by focusing attention on the paper’s Web edition and getting the students updated on the rapid changes occurring in the newspaper industry.

“We’re going to be doing what every newspaper in the world is doing, focusing on electronic delivery of the news. It is vital that students learn about these changes that are happening in their industry,” Swil said.

As for her post-retirement plans, Bolliger plans to keep writing and freelancing for publications, and wants to do some traveling. She’s helping her daughter plan her wedding and wants to drive across the United States, having just purchased a new hybrid car, to visit relatives on the East Coast.

Reflecting on what she’s proud of and what she could have done better in terms of her tenure as the Courier adviser, Bolliger said, “I am particularly proud that the Courier is a well-respected newspaper. It regularly wins statewide recognition for general excellence and has done so consistently for the last 30-plus years.  I know a lot of colleges where the faculty and administration do not take the campus newspaper seriously. I’m proud that that is not the case at PCC. People not only read the paper, they pay attention to what the paper has to say, which means the students are doing a really good job.

“As for what I could do better,” she said, “you know, I haven’t had the time to give that much thought. As the months go by and I see how my replacement is doing, I’ll probably say, ‘Why didn’t I think to do that!’”