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Tech Celebs Join Esther Wojcicki as New Media Center Opens at Palo Alto High

Influential Paly High gets a new hub for its seven publications -- and a Woj check.

Nellie Bowles

Esther Wojcicki, matriarch of the influential techie Wojcicki clan and beloved teacher at Palo Alto High School, celebrated the opening of the school’s new journalism hub, called the Media Arts Center, on Friday.

Well, not just Friday night. The opening weekend parties continued through Sunday: A party for parents, music, an art show by former student James Franco. The festivities were a celebration of the building — a multimillion-dollar 24,000-square-foot media center for the school’s seven (and growing) student publications. They also honored Wojcicki, who started there as a teacher in 1984 and has built a powerful journalism program, with 600 students enrolled each year.

Palo Alto High, called “Paly,” is a symbolic institution in the Valley, with many graduates going into tech, and also a long tradition of graduating artists and reporters of note: The singer Joan Baez is an alum, as are New York Times reporter John Markoff and Re/code’s own Liz Gannes.

 Media Arts Center
Media Arts Center
Nellie Bowles

I asked Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was standing next to co-founder Larry Page, what brought him out for the event. “My mother-in-law,” Brin said wryly. Ah, yes, he’s married to Wojcicki’s daughter, Anne. Esther Wojcicki’s three daughters — Susan (CEO of YouTube), Anne (co-founder of 23andMe) and Janet (assistant professor of pediatrics at UCSF) — are some of the most powerful people in the Valley.

And just about all their friends turned out. Investor Ron Conway was there. Arianna Huffington spoke. New sports murals painted this week by James Franco were all around the Media Center. Students set out rosemary almonds and chocolate cookies on tables for guests.

Funding for the project came partly from private donors, but largely from the state — the school, against all tight-state-budget odds, won a $2.7 million Career Technical Education grant, which was dedicated to building out Wojcicki’s vision. The journalism students said they were thrilled with all the new gadgets in the media arts center: A studio for their daily newscast, a space big enough for their own events, laptop bicycles. But mostly they were excited to have a space to work together.

Media Arts Center bathroom
Media Arts Center bathroom

“Before we were in, like, the English building, and all spread out — there wasn’t a hub,” said 17-year-old Jack Brook, co-editor-in-chief of Verde, which he said people call the “controversial” publication on campus. “There’s a lot of investment in the STEM field because it’s Silicon Valley, but this shows Paly invests in the arts.”

And their storytelling approach will be quite novel. Will they tell all their stories through Snapchats, which I hear the teens like? Yes, they will.

“When breaking news comes out, we’re going to do like a MyStory,” said Emma Chiu, the 17-year-old managing editor of Paly Voice, an online news publication. “We already use Storify and livestream events. We evolve with the times.”

Wojcicki, whom the students call “Woj,” thanked everyone for coming: “Last year, we had inconsistent air conditioning and 80 students who sat on countertops and the floor. I got in this building, and I couldn’t believe it.”

“Journalism causes students to build their skills, have opinions,” said Susan Wojcicki. “It’s a good example of how you can enable them to have more of a voice.”

Peter King, a student at Palo Alto High, in the new studio
Peter King, a student at Palo Alto High, in the new studio

“They can do real, legitimate journalism on a local level,” Brin said. “And watch out, they work for free,” he said, implying that I should worry about these highly trained Snapchatting and livestreaming reporters. Probably right.

Wojcicki, who has blond bangs and a wide smile and is in her 60s (she declined to give an exact number lest people worry that she might retire), ran around the audience making sure her students asked questions of the speakers onstage. And, nervously at first, they did.

Afterward, I found some students hanging out on the stage. Journalism, they said, was a central part of Paly High campus culture, in the way another school might rally around football. They said that “Woj” guides their work without them even realizing it, until at the very end, when she does an official “Woj check” before the papers go to press.

They seem to build their student journalism culture around “The Woj.”

For sweatshirts representing the student newspaper, The Campanile, the high schoolers wanted to print the phrase “Woj Your Back.” And on the back of their sweatpants, “Woj It.” For their T-shirts, they wanted a picture of their teacher’s face.

Which Wojcicki had nothing to do with. But she did of course have to “Woj check” the gear, and — the students all laughed when they told me — she approved.

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