High School Journalism
Unless you live in the midwest, high school newspapers generally aren’t that well-respected. It’s not because they don’t have good content, or because nobody is interested in running it, it’s just because for the most part, you’re local news can be found online.
I’ve been part of my high school newspaper for over three years, and since I don’t live in the Midwest, I can tell you first hand that the struggle is real. What’s the point of being on-staff if no one cares to read your work?
But – yes, while it definitely sucks when you catch someone tossing your paper in the garbage (not even the recycling bin for Christ’s sake) – what you end up leaving a newsroom with is far more valuable than your readership count.
Let’s start with why I entered journalism.
My middle school social studies teacher was by far my favorite teacher of all time. She taught me to question, to be aware, to stay informed, to take notes. She prepared me for high school the way every middle school teacher should aspire. It always stunned me that she was not only a Cornell graduate, but an accomplished lawyer, and she chose my backward school district to come teach in (and not even high school, middle school). It meant a lot to me when she took the time to advise me on which high school to enroll in, and how I should begin to prep for college. So when she told me that before I took any other elective, I should take journalism and public speaking, that is exactly what I did. And I trusted her reasoning on it. Of the two most important skills I would need in life, the ability to write and speak effectively, impact-fully and argumentatively was essential.
Fast forward two years, and I’m on the newspaper staff. At this point I’m a pretty decent news, feature and opinion writer (I hate sports writing to this day. Unless it’s soccer, I’ll probably never be good at it). I suck at interviewing, though as a newbie on the staff, I’m more diligent about preparing for them and hitting all my deadlines (veteran staff are less likely to do any work at all). I haven’t yet mastered “the second sentence” (our newspaper advisor always wanted to know how we could expand a story idea into an actually story…). I’m fascinated by the effort and skill of some of the staff members. One of our senior staff, Allison, was the Editor-in-Chief, News editor and Integrity editor. She went to the University of Pennsylvania (the Ivy, not to be confused with PennSate). Many of our editors remained at school for hours to ensure the paper was done.
But why? When the first issue of the year came out, hardly anyone read it.
When I asked Ms. UPenn prodigy and my mentor, Allison, she laughed and told me that it was our job. That’s what I signed up for when I chose my classes.
The day after that paper came out, my Algebra II teacher approached me and told me I did a fantastic job covering the Net Neutrality issue (I made front page that issue, whoopee!). He was glad that the staff was outlining topics that related to the school community, and he was excited to see what else I would write.
Lesson #1: A high school journalist writes to inform the people who don’t even read. Get used to it.
There are a few like my Algebra teacher willing to take the time to pick up what you’ve put down, but honestly – not that many. And that’s okay, because it’s your job to get them interested. It’s your job as a writer to make those people stop when they see a headline and say: “What’s this all about?”
So for starters, journalism is a challenge.
Then, of course, we have to discuss what it means for you, the journalist. Does it really make you a better writer?
Yes. Yes. Absolutely.
Journalism allows you to write in many different capacities. News is more structured, while feature can be more design-oriented and opinion is whatever-you-say-goes. There’s the freedom of expression in the newsroom that you will never get to experience in your english classroom. You also get to choose your medium. Online journalism is slightly different from print journalism. Blogging is a form of journalism too. The opportunities are endless!
Lesson #2: Write when you want, the way you want and how you want. Finding your writing style and voice is one of the most rewarding things a career in journalism (however brief) can offer you.
You also become a school leader. I went to Columbia University’s journalism conference in the spring one year, and was told numerous times how high school journalists were fantastic leaders. This didn’t ring true to me at the time (I was a high school journalist with hardly any leadership qualities to boot) but they soon became apparent. First off, you need to be good at communicating, not in the least because that is the very essence of your job as a writer for the community; it’s also essential to be able to discuss your stories with editors, photographers and peers. Secondly, you have responsibility and lots of autonomy. Your advisors and editors won’t remind you every day to meet your deadlines. That’s up to you. Much of your class-time is going to be unregulated, learn to use it wisely. Last but not least, you begin to form and defend your own opinions. Many decisions must be made and oftentimes argued upon. This can be anything from agreeing on a staff editorial to agreeing on the layout of the front page. Every detail counts, and sometimes the smallest mistakes come back to haunt you.
Editors are obviously very seasoned leaders as well. I’ve been the Integrity Editor and Technology Director for my paper and the most valuable lesson I learned was how to break the bad news. You’ve got to be good at critiquing your peers, and occasionally people who are older and possibly more experienced than you. There’s no easy way of going about it, but it teaches you early on to be comfortable challenging adults and people of power. This skill comes in handy when conducting interviews for an investigative reporting piece. (I took on a piece on the school district budget once. I had to interview my districts’ Business Administrator and let me tell you, she was not happy.)
Lesson #3: Learn to manage yourself and manage others. This is a job. Treat it like one.
The final lesson is perhaps the one my social studies teacher hoped I would connect with the most. In journalism, there’s rarely any such thing as a dead end. Sure, some stories just aren’t that interesting, but the value of the story may not actually be in what happened, but in what you can conclude from that event. You have to force yourself to go out of your way to stay informed about everything. That means reading the news headlines every morning and between classes. It means asking questions at every turn. It means not living under a rock.
Social studies teachers are all about that.
Keeping track of world events is the easy part though. It’s the asking questions part that is more difficult for others, and usually the part that leads you to the student-interest stories that readers enjoy the most.
It is very uncomfortable at first. If you’ve got a senior staff member mentoring you, encouraging you to go up and ask this stranger or that principal a question under their critical and watchful gaze; what if you say the wrong thing? Worse yet, what if they laugh at you, and think you’re taking your job too seriously for high school?
But if you put yourself in this position often enough, you’ll find that it’s rather empowering, and you ought to treat it as such. You know what’s going on, and if you don’t you’re going to find out. There is nowhere for them to hide once you do either (don’t get too cocky though, because sometimes it isn’t good/ethical to publish a piece).
If they laugh at you, their loss. In your next article it will write, “John Smith, the president of the local Key Club chapter, brushed off the question when asked about the possibility of fraud in the recent election, but an investigation by committee members proved that it wasn’t a possibility, it was a reality.”
Lesson #4: The best journalists ask all the questions, and more often than not, they get all the answers (it can be a blessing and a curse). You will be the one that knows something about everything.
For those reasons and more, I’d encourage you to take the leap – in high school or in college – to try journalism at least once. If it doesn’t teach you any of the lessons I listed above, you either aren’t doing it right, or it’s one major you can cross off of your list.