Turning Pages: High School Journalism in Transition

Turning Pages: High School Journalism in Transition

Turning Pages: High School Journalism in Transition

With high school newspapers disappearing, the future of journalism is at risk.


Jamilah King

September 15, 2008

Edgar Mendez’s MySpace page is prefaced with a warning to any potential cyber-friends: “I send a lot of bulletins.” Like many of his peers, the 17-year-old high school senior spends hours each week on the social networking site to keep in touch with his friends and check on the work of his favorite graffiti crews around San Francisco. But unlike most regular users, he sends out at least twenty bulletins each week.

“Mostly it’s pictures or random links,” he says. “Sometimes I post interesting information, but most of the time it’s not news.”

Mendez learned the critical distinction between interesting information and the kind of news that affects people’s lives at the Bay Area Multicultural Media Academy (BAMMA). The free, two-week summer journalism workshop trains aspiring young reporters like Mendez.

Cristina Azocar is director of the Center for Integration and Improvement in Journalism (CIIJ), the center that houses BAMMA. “When I started six years ago,” she says, “only six [public high] schools had newspapers. Now it’s down to only one.”

For Azocar, such paltry numbers are a warning sign. “If you don’t have a media that pays attention to you, then you’re not going to pay attention to it.” From an educator’s perspective, Azocar sees beyond the immediacy of the summer workshops to the future of journalism at large.

“Our goal is to advocate on behalf of the importance of journalism in high school, but it’s also to advocate on behalf of journalism in a democratic society,” she says. “Without journalism we don’t have an informed citizenry, and that’s really the only way you can have a democratic society.”

Where Did the Papers Go?

Journalism education is on the decline throughout the state of California. According to a 2003 San Francisco Chronicle article, while the number of public school students is on the rise, the number of students enrolled in journalism courses has declined.

Esther Wojcicki, an educator and high school journalism teacher based in Palo Alto, California, points the finger at flawed education policies. “The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) sounded good on paper in 2002,” Wojcicki recently wrote on The Huffington Post, “but in the past five years it has caused many journalism programs in high schools across the country to fold.”

“Journalism ends up being an enrichment class,” explains Paul Kandell, a journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School. “It’s listed as an elective, not a core English course that’s used to rate schools.”

Kandell oversees one of the most expansive high school journalism programs in the state–a program that flourished under the auspices of Esther Wojcicki.

Each semester, his staff of 200 student journalists at The Paly Voice publishes a print newspaper, two print magazines, an online magazine, a radio show and a television program. During school hours, Kendall teaches beginning and advanced journalism in addition to magazine writing. The school’s privileged, suburban campus is located just a few miles from Stanford University.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad journalism classes out there,” he says. “But if teachers are properly trained, students can get a lot out of them.”

That sentiment is bolstered by statistics. Earlier this year, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) published a study (PDF) showing that students who work on high school newspapers and yearbooks score higher on the ACT in addition to receiving better grades in high school and as college freshman.

“High school journalists are held to the same standards as journalists from the New York Times,” says Steve O’Donoghue, a teacher and director of the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative. “They learn accountability, and that’s crucial.”

O’Donoghue’s organization created a model curriculum that was used at Palo Alto High School.

Building Betters Journos

Mendez is an unconventional writer. During his first two years at his high school, International Studies Academy (ISA), he wrote graffiti. His tags lined the school’s walls until he was caught and ordered to paint over them.

“It was such an adrenaline rush to know that you could get caught at any moment,” he recalls with excitement. “You had to be quick.”

Not long afterward, on the same walls he once tagged, Mendez spotted a flier for BAMMA. His school didn’t have a newspaper, and he was never exposed to how the words and graphics of some of his favorite magazines, like Rolling Stone, Nylon, Teen Vogue and Spanish language publications, were made.

For the first two weeks of summer, Mendez, along with nine other high school students from across the Bay Area, participated in BAMMA. They lived in dorms at San Francisco State University, spending their days and evenings going out into the streets of San Francisco to interview the public. They experimented in a variety of formats, each taking turns in print, photography, web design and layout.

Stories (PDF) ranged from local athletes preparing for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics to the sights and sounds at City Hall in the hours immediately following the controversial ruling to legalize same-sex marriage. While his school still doesn’t offer a newspaper, he’s inspired by his work with BAMMA.

“I’m going to take a photography seminar at my school this year,” Mendez says.

The declaration may seem modest, but given the fact that his school was on the brink of closure less than five years ago, it’s an exciting opportunity. The small school had long suffered from under-enrollment and district budget cuts.

“We had dedicated teachers, students and administrators who came together and really fought for more funding,” says Mendez’s English teacher Robert Kowollik, who has been at the school for 10 years.

The school now offers seminars in photography, international film studies, choir and dance. This fall also marks the first time the school will offer a journalism seminar.

“We believe in the power of relationships, as corny as that sounds,” says Principal Bill Sanderson. “If you build with the community, hopefully the money will follow.”

New Media Modes

As Mendez experienced first-hand during his training at BAMMA, new media technologies are changing the face of journalism. They’re also creating new ways for communities to represent themselves.

“Journalists of color have been trying to break into the mainstream for years and are always met with the same institutional barriers,” Azocar says. “[New media] is a great way for people who are fed up to unplug from the commercial system, and create our own news.”

In addition to her post at CIIJ, Azocar also serves as president of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA). She sees a direct link between BAMMA’s work and the struggle to make mainstream professional journalism more inclusive and accountable to its audiences.

While at CIIJ, Azocar helped develop a program known as the “Four R’s for Journalism Education.” The program’s four tenets are recruitment, retention, revitalization and research. It is a long-term strategic vision to amplify the access, voice and opportunity of journalists of color with the goal of helping journalists envision news that is fair, balanced and inclusive.

The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund has also recognized the need for training young journalists. Last summer, the fund supported 25 high school journalism workshops across the country.

“We know the media will be looking for online skills that our students have intuitively,” says Deputy Director Linda Shockley. “In addition to writing and reporting, we teach our students how to create blogs and podcasts.”

While journalism education is on the decline in high schools and traditional journalism becomes less popular, neither educators nor senior journalists see the profession as irrelevant.

“A lot of older journalists are afraid about the future, but I’m optimistic,” Azocar says. “Every year the kids are awesome and bring great story ideas.”

Inspired by a community-based class assignment given by one of his English professors, Mendez wrote his BAMMA feature story on why he loved to live in his much-maligned Tenderloin district. The program was exactly what he needed.

“I loved getting out in the community and interviewing people face to face,” he says. “Even with pictures, something I thought I was already pretty good at, I learned that there’s so much more to capturing a moment.”

Jamilah King is the associate editor of WireTap and a proud graduate of International Studies Academy.

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