HSJ Headline News
News Business Lags at High Schools, Too
New York Times
April 27, 2010
This has been a bad month for statistics about newspapers. Monday brought new misery-by-the-numbers: Circulation figures showed a drop of 8.7 percent in weekday newspaper sales for the six months that ended March 31, compared with the same stretch of 2008 and 2009.
That followed a report from an assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College who spent two years analyzing the decline of high school newspapers. The professor, Jessica Siegel, found that only 50 percent of public high schools in the city had student newspapers or journalism programs. She said that the comparable nationwide figure, according to another study completed while she was doing hers, was 74 percent.
How alarming is it that only half the high schools have student papers?
“Very,” Ms. Siegel said. “When I was a high school teacher from 1978 to 1988, there were newspapers all over, at every school. That went along with a school having a basketball team or a dance program. Now they’re struggling for a variety of reasons: the pressure of high-stakes tests, the retirement of experienced teachers, the fact that so many teachers now are just learning how to teach — oftentimes those people have energy and want to start something like a newspaper but don’t have the skills.”
Yes, there is some self-interest in doing a newspaper article (or a blog post on a newspaper Web site) about all this.
The Brooklyn College study does not say it quite this way, but people who attend high schools with well-nourished newspapers might just grow up to be newspaper readers, a not insignificant concern after those other statistics. The study does make the point that if there is to be a next generation in journalism, high school newspapers can be a seedbed: many reporters and editors got hooked when they joined their high school papers.
Ms. Siegel’s report has a catchy but ominous title: “We’re Not Dead Yet: The Fall — and Potential Rise — of High School Newspapers in New York City’s Schools.” The survey, completed with help from undergraduates at Brooklyn College and Baruch College, covered 263 high schools, 60 percent of the public high schools in the city. Of the schools that answered her questions, only 132 had newspapers or journalism programs.
The borough-by-borough breakdown? High schools in the Bronx had the lowest rate of schools with student papers, 32 percent. Queens had the most, with 86 percent. Ms. Siegel found that 45 percent of Brooklyn high schools had papers. In Manhattan, the number was 58 percent; on Staten Island, 83 percent.
Ms. Siegel said that school papers did more than just put ink on paper. “Journalism is a way of seeing the world and, for adolescents, a way to step back from their own experience and analyze what’s going on and put it in a larger context,” she said. “In the best papers, the ones that deal with issues outside of the football team or the basketball team, journalism really is a lens to look at the larger society: cutbacks, how that might affect a school, what teachers might be lost, what after-school programs might be jettisoned.”
“And,” she added, “it creates a culture of literacy, because kids are interested in what people are writing about.”
She said most schools face a familiar-sounding problem in this age of belt-tightening: finding the money to publish. But there are other challenges, which often include finding a teacher to serve as a journalism teacher or student newspaper adviser — a role that can be time-consuming and thankless.
Some teachers do the job without being paid, she said, and some schools cover newspaper expenses in inventive ways. The study says that DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx has managed to continue its newspaper with contributions from graduates. The study also says that the P-TA pays for the newspaper at Baruch College High School.
Ms. Siegel started the New York City High School Journalism Program at Brooklyn College several years ago. Last year the program started the Web site www.NewsStandNYC.org to create an online community for high school journalism in the city. Her program at Brooklyn College has received grants from The New York Times Company and financing from the Times Company Foundation and the McCormick Foundation, and a grant from Samuel G. Freedman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who was a staff reporter for The Times from 1981 through 1987 and currently writes the column On Religion. Ms. Siegel was the teacher Mr. Freedman profiled in his first book, “Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School” (Harper & Row, 1990).
Many grown-up journalists look to the Web as the future. But she said that while 44 high schools had set up Web sites for their newspapers, only 19 had posted any material. One pressing need for schools who want to publish the old-fashioned way is computers with layout software like InDesign and Photoshop.
“No matter what platform journalism hits, and we don’t know, you need to have the training young,” she said. “You need to hook kids early on the importance of covering things, the First Amendment, why it’s all important.”
Copyright 2010, New York Times. Reprinted with permission