A holiday cover from December 1934. Photo by Jessica Jen.
The history of Hilltop News began decades ago in 1935, only seven years after Atascadero High School was established in 1921. Hilltop News contacted former Hilltop advisor Lon Allan for information about Hilltop’s history compared to how the school newspaper functions today.
Allan taught at AHS from 1966 to 1972. Since then he has watched Hilltop grow from a single broadsheet to a fully-fledged 12- to 16-page insert in the Atascadero News. Allan’s dedication to the newspaper was so deep that he would spend hours with his wife typing every story on a standard typewriter and printing pictures in the darkroom. He even wrote some articles himself when students did not submit enough stories.
Allan advised Hilltop News for six years, claiming he was a “much better speech teacher than a journalism teacher. But after working 35 years as editor of the Atascadero News, I think I would be a much better journalism teacher now.” Ms. Harrison, the Hilltop News advisor for the past 22 years worked for Allan in the mid-1990’s as a reporter and photographer, and shares the expertise she learned from Allan with her Hilltop News students each year.
Allan’s legacy is part of Hilltop’s long history. Atascadero High itself began as Margarita Black Union High School in 1921. According to Allan, the school’s first graduating class consisted of five girls whose classes were off campus since the physical school site was still incomplete. (There was still a yearbook in 1921, titled the Santa Lucia, although a newspaper first appeared in 1934.) In 1922, there were 19 seniors graduating from the newly-built high school. The story behind the school colors came from a poem in the 1923 yearbook in which students debated between colors, eventually settling for “flame and gray” to be original.
In the 1934 yearbook, there is the first mention of a weekly paper at AHS, but an actual journalism class appears starting with the 1942 yearbook. Yet Hilltop News itself has its first mention in 1945, when the yearbook staff wrote, “This year for the first time in our history there are two journalism classes.” The following year, Hilltop staff members had a photo in the yearbook. Hilltop News in the 1940’s consisted of three, then five girls who distributed newsletters during the school year.
The Hilltop News of today has expanded in size and function. Issues are printed and distributed by Atascadero News, yet remains a student newspaper. The partnership between Hilltop News and Atascadero News is a very long one. Hilltop News is one of the only student publications that is as a regular part of a community paper. That provides student journalists a very rare opportunity to get their work actually published in the historical record, and for their readers to include the entire community, not just a school audience.
“The most important function of the student newspaper is to let your readers know about upcoming events and the people who work to make them happen,” said Allan. “Another function is to provide an outlet for student opinions on any number of subjects.” He recounted an incident where one of his students wrote an editorial about the double standard regarding smoking: coaches smoked in the gym office, but punished students who were caught smoking. “The coaches were angry, but the superintendent said that writing the editorial was the student's right,” Allan said. California protects student free speech in school publications, meaning that it is illegal for school administrators to censor student speech unless it contains profanity or incites a school disruption or violence.
Print journalism’s prominence has declined due to the rising popularity of online media, yet Allan believes in the future of printed newspapers. “I think print journalism works hard to be honest and unbiased. [As for TV news,] they have so much time to fill, they use almost everything,” Allan said. “Wouldn't you love it if when you were short of copy you could just run an old story! With our President's attack on the free press, it is important that we continue to print.” Allan also emphasized the importance of accuracy and printing corrections when a mistake is made.
Now, Allan dedicates much of his time to the Atascadero Historical Society, where he was a former historian and president for 10 years. He continues to act as a docent every month. Allan did have some thoughts to share about how Hilltop is taking on the responsibilities of a school newspaper. Students today discuss subjects that Allan’s students never did, such as drug usage and bullying. “I think you student journalists do a better job now than a half century ago. I admire the maturity which your writers bring to the newspaper,” he said. “I'm proud that print journalists are digging for information so much on the national level. I'm proud to be a print journalist.”