The journalism landscape is changing, and high school newsrooms are grappling with unique challenges. Reporters want to write about the topics that they’re passionate about, but some high schools face censorship from school administrators. Faculty advisers and journalism teachers struggle to attract students as competition rises between elective classes. And young journalists are less motivated to write when they know that no one is reading their work. However, high school journalism is essential in communities that lack other sources of local news, and these journalism programs provide students with opportunities to learn transferable skills within a tight-knit community. After ten weeks of in-depth research, our team has discovered several insights regarding high school journalism and regarding their audience.
Here are the four most important, didn’t-read-the-article-but-you-should-still-know-it key takeaways.
Never tell a high school journalism adviser that their reporters are just kids. After interviewing eight advisers in the Chicagoland area, one thing became abundantly clear: the newspaper is a labor of love for both the adviser and for the students. The advisers’ passion for teaching and pride in their students’ work were apparent, but many of the advisers we spoke to have the same challenges.
One of the primary challenges is distribution of school resources. Maintaining a print publication is costly, and public school funds aren’t always sufficient to produce high-quality issues, depending largely on donations and advertisements. Although print newspapers are more effective at drawing in student readers, there’s a movement of programs digitizing completely. When programs are prioritized by administration, mentioned on official school social media and supported by teachers, they are better off, though these strong partnerships are few and far between. A supportive, close relationship between school administration and the newspaper are essential for success. Without it, newspapers struggle to raise funds (for paper, printing fees, website subscriptions, and expensive creative software) and can face censorship from the district as well.
Although programs are set up in a variety of ways in accordance with districts’ curriculum and graduation requirements, they are often an elective class, and sometimes they are a club along with or in lieu of a class. Some schools have introductory and advanced classes through which students progress and others are restricted to upperclassmen. One problem that schools consequently face is student turnover, having to completely re-teach the operations of a newspaper from scratch each year. There is also competition between electives, which can result in fewer writers, especially when it comes to students on the Advanced Placement (AP) track who have limited elective space.
All of these challenges add to the efforts of hard-working journalism advisers. Many of the advisers that we spoke to took on their role because they were asked to by their school's administration. Consequently, few have formal training in journalism or teaching journalism. Often, they are English teachers and seek additional opportunities to learn about journalism at teacher's conferences or through instructional books. However, every adviser that we spoke to had embraced their new role and took great pride in their publication. A common theme throughout our inquiry was that the newspaper was first and foremost for the students: the advisers wanted the students to take on leadership roles, write what they want to write, and make the publication theirs.
We were stunned by the quality of some of the newspapers we encountered in our research. The passion that these student reporters have for their work is apparent. As part of our research, we interviewed current and graduated high school journalists about their experience. Most students were passionate about what they were doing, self-motivated, and self-taught in many ways. Most had learned the newspaper’s preferred software either on their own or from upperclassmen -- often even the technically challenging Adobe suite. They come up with their own story ideas (with some guidance from their advisers) and play a huge part in the distribution of the paper as well.
We found that whether or not high school newspapers are read depends largely on the student reporter’s encouraging friends and family to read their work. At schools that still prioritize (and can financially support) a print newspaper, reporters can physically hand out copies to high school classrooms and bring copies home to their families. For the growing number of high school newspapers that post solely on their website, it is much more difficult for student reporters to know that their material is reaching their audience, though some reporters choose to share links to their stories on social media. For example, some students will post on their personal social media accounts, usually an Instagram story, to encourage followers to see their articles on the newspaper’s website. Most school newspapers, however, lack official newspaper accounts or have accounts but rarely post content.
Some of our most interesting findings regard the use of social media by high school journalism programs. The journalism advisers that we spoke to were split on their paper’s use of social media -- some advisers place great import on social media as a means to reach their audience, others have not considered social media as a tool at all. Regardless, the onus is on the students when it comes to promoting their stories. Even at newspapers with robust social media accounts, journalism advisers learn more from their students than students learn from their advisers. Our team found social media to be the most interesting opportunity area for high school journalism programs to make a greater impact. Right now, it seems that social media is under utilized by journalism programs, but these newspapers are staffed with social media whizes already.
After interviewing journalism advisers and student journalists, we were missing one more important piece of the high school journalism puzzle: the audience. How do high schoolers hear about news? Which apps are in and which are out? What is TikTok and why are kids renegade-ing? To answer these questions and learn more about Gen Z’s engagement with news online and in-person, we surveyed 49 high school students from the Chicagoland area. We asked about their phone usage, social media habits, and news consumption.