The Dying State of Private School Journalism

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From the fourth grade on, and now as a high school teacher at my alma mater, I’ve been privileged to belong to the independent school community.

Not only have I experienced firsthand what makes our small but vibrant community special, but I’ve also connected with colleagues and peer institutions to hone my craft — as well as learn more about the values our schools share. Across the board, I’ve found that independent schools pride themselves on offering one-on-one attention, smaller class sizes, and a caring and nurturing environment for students to reach their potential.

Many independent schools also share similar mission statements, which emphasize critical thinking, communication, and creativity. Moreover, the word “leadership” comes up often while scrolling through private school admissions materials — and while I believe that our collective school community upholds many of its core values, as a whole we are deficient at offering and teaching journalism, including newspaper production, essential for fostering those four core values.

What’s more, in the so-called “fake-news” era, with divided politicians unable or unwilling to agree upon a common set of facts, and with President Trump calling the media the “enemy of the people,” more than ever it’s critical for schools to invest in building robust journalism programs. As I write this article, I can almost hear administrators, who say that their schools already teach media literacy through existing curriculum. I maintain that unless students are also creating and disseminating their own news on a frequent basis, meant for public consumption, this is wholly insufficient.

Measuring Lack of Student Media at Independent Schools

Beyond a handful of the nation’s most prestigious and oldest independent schools, I fear that too few independent schools offer journalism programs or foster student publications. Where they do exist, they are likely to be on life support. This is a shame, especially because of journalism’s increasing centrality to everything that private schools hold dear about education, not the least of which is equipping young minds with skills to succeed after graduation.

Several years ago, I spoke with Mark Briggs, a former Ford Fellow of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Poynter Institute, who told me how experience in the newsroom gives students a big advantage in an increasingly competitive job market.

“If you can produce students who command a very diverse set of skills, who can also present themselves and create ideas and get behind them, and even sell those ideas — that’s the entrepreneurial spirit that we need in journalists,” says Briggs, also author of Journalism Next: Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing. “To me, that’s kind of the Holy Grail right now of journalism education.”

I couldn’t agree more, but I would add that while many students know how to create content, too few know how to produce high-quality content, the kind that makes them stand out to not only college admission officers, but also potential employers. We need to teach and encourage students to create and share original, quality content to brand themselves and their abilities in an ocean of increasingly indistinguishable resumes.

Beyond journalism’s capacity to foster an informed citizenry, the discipline might also help students achieve academic success. A comprehensive study sponsored by the American Press Institute found, among other benefits from supporting student voice, that “students with journalism experience in high school did better than non-journalism students in terms of both high school grades and ACT scores.”

The independent school community must take a difficult first step in acknowledging that when it comes to supporting student voice, in which journalism and student media play essential roles, we have serious work to do; 200 institutions claim membership to the Association of Independent Schools in New England, the geographic epicenter of the private school world. Yet Helen Smith, who serves as Executive Director of the New England Scholastic Press Association (NESPA), recently told me that the organization’s membership usually includes fewer than a dozen independent schools, compared to 70 or so public schools.

In New England, as elsewhere around the country, public schools far outnumber private schools, which likely accounts for the disparity in NESPA membership. Still, no math justifies any New England private school’s not paying an annual $50 membership fee, especially if that school wishes to stay true to its mission. In addition to providing a network of other advisers and student publications, NESPA provides consulting services and award recognition.

“I can’t imagine how any school, private or public, can be serious about student voice and not belong to NESPA, the region’s premier scholastic journalism body,” I told Smith.

“In any school, I think an awful lot of what determines the strength of student media depends on what administrators and department heads are ready to encourage,” Smith said.

Her words ring true, and I wish that more private schools had the foresight to encourage student media.

But it’s not just on a local level that support for private school student media falls short. I spoke with the President of the Journalism Education Association (JEA), Sarah Nichols, who oversees the nation’s premier scholastic educational body for student media and advisers. She told me that her organization doesn’t keep track of public versus private school membership, “but comparatively, the private-school number is quite low.”

All of this reveals a simple but brutal truth — unless a private school is working to establish a dynamic journalism program, it’s not doing all that it can to support students or sustain its philosophy. Furthermore, at least in Massachusetts, many schools are about to break the $50,000 tuition ceiling, making any financial excuse for inaction completely unjustifiable.

To learn more about the quality of student media at private schools, I connected with Erica Salkin, a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University (WA), who is writing a book about the subject. She has spent the previous several years reaching out to different kinds of private schools, learning about the strengths and weaknesses of their journalism programs, or if they exist at all. In reviewing her findings, Salkin said she found three chief reasons why administrators decide against taking action.

We Just Don’t Have the Money

“One was we just don’t have the money,” Salkin told me. “’We don’t have the funds. It’d be great, but we don’t have the money.’”

Upon hearing this, I cringed, telling Salkin, “this is a lazy and illegitimate excuse.” I didn’t share these words lightly, and I couldn’t hold back my frustration. I advise The Gator, the multi-award-winning online student newspaper of Brimmer and May School (MA), and here is an exact rundown of the School’s total expenses for student journalism, costs which we control by operating mostly on digital platforms. Not only does doing incur only nominal costs, but it’s also green, which comports with many schools’ philosophies.

A yearly subscription option to WordPress, the industry standard among website-construction software services, is $300, which includes access to live-chat support, for schools with questions about settings or controls. Members also don’t need to worry about updating security patches, which is done for them. This plan also gives them access to several special templates, which they can enhance with additional coding. Last spring, The Gator outsourced programming several design modifications to Codable for a fair price, but I argue that aesthetics should come second to content quality.

There can be bumps in the road for digital media; this fall The Gator was hacked by an unknown entity, resulting in inappropriate and offensive headline changes. My students published a special notice to readers, and WordPress responded quickly by updating security settings on the backend, and urging my editors to take advantage of two-step password authentication. No significant controversy ensued, and the School seemed to appreciate the transparency and quick action.

No other expenditures are essential, although The Gator has purchased memberships to other platforms, all easily embeddable to the site. These include a $63 subscription to SoundCloud Pro to host podcasts, Vimeo Plus for $59.95 to host video, Shorthand for $500 to produce creative layouts, and about $100 worth of credit on Bigstock to feature non-student-taken photographs. Those users who need to limit costs can easily upload video and audio content directly onto their sites.

If you can’t think of anybody at your school with the technological know-how to learn WordPress, I would encourage you to ask for student input. I would bet that tech-savvy, dedicated students could take the lead, as they should with all aspects of scholastic journalism. Regardless of how much help is needed, I’m impressed by SNO Sites, which specializes in helping schools launch and maintain WordPress scholastic journalism sites for $400 a year, plus a one-time set-up fee of $250.

If this is too much money, Nichols reminds me that schools don’t have to pay a dime.

“You do not need to host and build your own website if you can’t,” she says. “Even if you want to have a newspaper or a news magazine that is traditionally laid out like a magazine or a paper, you can just go on and present it online, not actually printed.”

Teachers can also work with students to share quality content on Instagram, SnapChat, and YouTube, Nichols tells me, adding that students are putting themselves out there whether we’re paying for it or not. “We might as well work together for a really educationally sound experience with some training and some resources to do it their way,” she said.

Anecdotally, I’ve also heard from colleagues at peer schools who argue that even with minimal or no publication costs, they wouldn’t be able to find and hire a person to teach and advise student media, without needing that individual to also teach other courses. My reply is that if schools can hire and pay for athletic coaches, as well as help to oversee other auxiliary programming, they can also hire and pay somebody to oversee student media initiatives. It’s all about priorities, and I question any independent school that does not move mountains to support student media.

It’s also worth noting that many new journalism teachers lack experience. Many helpful and affordable resources exist (which I explain later on). All that needs to happen is for schools to place an adult in the room. All the same, students should assume as much of the responsibility as possible. Now, five years into advising The Gator, I’m practically invisible. What readers see online is entirely student produced, even as I stick around if students request help editing, or want my thoughts on ethical considerations.

Curious about how often schools look to hire journalism teachers, I reached out to Carney Sandoe & Associates, the largest teacher-placement organization in the independent school world. According to Director of Communications Julie Landis, in the past decade, 3 or 5 journalism jobs have been listed with the company a year. “In our opinion, a job like that is often not listed externally,” Landis wrote me via an electronic exchange. “Instead, a current English teacher might take on such a role, so we might not see the full picture. It is indeed still quite a small number.”

There is nothing wrong with an existing hire also taking on a journalism position, even if that individual lacks experience in the subject. Even so, when it comes to assessing the priority of student media at independent schools, I’m not comforted by what Landis shared with me; quite the opposite.

It Doesn’t Align with Our Mission

Even if money did pose a legitimate barrier to schools’ launching successful journalism programs, which it does not, I was even more shocked when Salkin told me that several schools she reached out to reported that student media programs don’t align with their missions.

“There are schools that don’t understand the valuable role that student publications can have in student development — in the development of voice, the development of identity, the ability to engage a public, to understand community issues,” Salkin said. “There is so much documented benefit to working on student press that, unless your mission is, ‘We don’t want to teach, and we want them to come out incredibly compliant,’ you cannot claim that you’re living by your mission statement.”

Salkin explained that her surveys of schools were anonymous, making it difficult for her to dig deeper into specific cases. In my anecdotal, less scientific experience, I can’t help but think that too many schools claim mission misalignment as an excuse for fear of being criticized by young journalists. Why else would schools fight against scholastic journalism, which caters so well to student agency while also cultivating an array of highly transferable communication skills?

Such fear is entirely misplaced, especially as independent schools emphasize the importance of community, and I can’t think of any successful community that doesn’t coexist with a thriving press, keeping its leaders honest and accountable.

“Transparency is really key,” Salkin tells me. “I think that people are more open to that now than ever, because they’re seeing other places without transparency. There’s an argument to be made that ‘you don’t trust us, or you don’t think this is how it is, let us show you. Let us put it all out there for you.’”

Even a quick glance at The Gator reveals overwhelmingly positive coverage, an impression that is justly deserved. In fact, earlier this year, the National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA) published Expressing Ourselves, a featured piece about the School’s strong arts program, on a shortlist for Digital-Story-of-the Year. However, student publication should not be a mere arm of the public relations office. My students don’t shy from controversy.

Gabe Bryan ’19 recently won NSPA’s Opinion Story-of-the-Year for Speak Truth to Power Amid Sexual Abuse Claims, an honor akin to a Pulitzer Prize in student journalism. He doesn’t pull any punches: “Something is rotten in America, and the stench is emanating from our political leaders and media elite, who either don’t know how or refuse to treat women with dignity and respect,” his lede reads. “Let’s start at the top.”

The Gator has also featured controversial stories about the immediate community, including a touchier but important piece last spring, Brimmer Not Immune to Vaping Trend. While reporting, students acted responsibly by speaking with administrators, who requested that the online publication neither identify nor provide pseudonyms for sources, worried about harming an individual’s potential prospects for the future. The editors agreed, and the story ran on the front page, where it became the most read article for over a month.

More recently, The Gator ran another critical story, Admin. Unveils Additional Midterm Policy Changes, which highlighted inconsistencies over the last three years. The editors, seeing that the administration felt uneasy about the piece, assured them that the article would be fair, balanced, and thorough. To ensure administrators that this would be the case, the editors even made the decision to share the article with the head of school in advance. It’s important to note that students chose this course of action, and that the School never threatened to censor the piece. In the end, the story appeared without a storm — or at least one that I’m aware of. The students kept the community informed on an issue of major substance, and they felt proud about holding the School’s proverbial feet to the fire.

At times, The Gator is also critical of School policies in its opinion pages. Last spring, Camille Cherney won a local scholastic journalism award for her piece, It’s Time to Rethink Graduating in White. One passage is worthy of quoting in length, as it exemplifies how scholastic journalism has the potential to foster eloquent and passionate writing:

As the end of the academic year quickly approaches, some students and faculty are questioning the strict dress code for graduation.

Since before the merger of the Brimmer School and the May School in 1939, female students have been required to wear white dresses to graduation.

The tradition was instituted long, long ago, and it’s time to examine the relevance of the dress-code. White is traditionally a symbol of virginity, innocence, and goodness. These traits are antiquated in a time when both women and men are defying gender stereotypes.

The color white also symbolizes marriage, implying that female graduates are ready to find a husband. Purity should not be idealized as an essential feminine quality. Instead, the School should encourage individuality and recognize that femininity can be expressed in many different ways.

Moreover, the dress code does not address the concerns of students who do not identify as a woman or a man. Some do not want to express themselves in a purely feminine or a purely masculine way.

It remains to be seen whether this year graduating seniors will be able to wear non-white colors at commencement. But what’s clear is how much Brimmer supports student voice, even thoughtful, civil dissent. Whether because of or despite this reality, our Pre-K — 12 community continues to flourish. In fact, last year we completed a multi-million-dollar addition, featuring a high-tech science classroom, media center, Maker Space, and Innovation Center.

Lack of Student Interest

Brimmer’s impressive improvements to the physical plant have transformed our small school of just under 400 students. It’s worth noting that The Gator wrote an editorial praising those involved in the effort. Equally noteworthy, with an average of only 32 students in each high school grade, journalism is consistently one of the most popular electives and meets three times a week.

Last spring, 27 students in grades 9–12 enrolled in the class, which is dedicated to producing The Gator, making it the second most popular elective in the School, right behind chorus. This fall, to make things more manageable for our student-editors we had no choice but to limit the class size to 18. When it gets down to it, all of this is to say that no matter the size of your school, scholastic journalism should exist, and thrive.

I was dismayed, then, when Nichols told me that a lack of student interest also dissuaded private schools from offering journalism, including the chance to work on a student newspaper. I cringed as she did her best to summarize her findings: “Our students are trying to do so many things that student media is just not on their radar, because they don’t see it as getting them into the elite colleges and universities. They would much rather do rocket club, or they would much rather do debate or student council — the things they feel are the big-money activities that are going to give them more recognition.”

If students don’t consider journalism a “big-money activity,” the independent school world is in deeper trouble than I originally thought. I trust Nichols’s research, but I refuse to believe that students actually feel this way. Nichols agrees, and we both feel that any assertion of a lack of student interest is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nichols puts it best: “’Our students aren’t interested, so we won’t have a newspaper.’ We don’t have a newspaper, so how are students supposed to get interested in it?”

However, even if most students at a given school lack interest in journalism, schools have a responsibility to bring in teachers trained to instruct students in essential disciplines — like math and history. Of course, many students detest math and history, yet schools still require courses in those disciplines. I believe this is necessary and proper, as young people must be exposed to various methods of thinking.

We shouldn’t offer excuses for not having a vibrant culture of student media in our schools. If we know that something with documented benefit to students, like math and history, is required of students, regardless of interest or proficiency, there is no excuse for not making journalism at least an option.

Help is Available

If you don’t know where to start in fostering student media in your school, the best place to look is the JEA. Nichols tells me that her organization wants to be your partner every step of the way. This includes training teachers to become journalism advisers. The organization also offers a mentorship program, as well as an entire sample curriculum for journalism education. As Nichols puts it,

Any truly good administrator is a teacher, and any truly good teacher understands how kids learn, and who doesn’t want a kid to learn? Who doesn’t want a kid to be the decision-maker? Who doesn’t want a kid to have to grapple with these really tough choices, and to get it right and to be held accountable to this huge, huge audience and to a team of people working day in and day out to do good? We want to help you do it right. All you have to do is offer journalism.

I also suggest looking into joining your state scholastic journalism association, which can be found with a quick Google-search. The Columbia Scholastic Press Association, as well as NSPA, in addition to offering terrific educational support, gives annual national awards in virtually every category of scholastic journalism.

Lastly, ask schools with established journalism programs for free advice. Along those lines, don’t be afraid of contacting public schools with award-winning publications. I can’t express how much I’ve learned from more experienced advisers, no matter from what type of school.

Of course, I’m more than happy to help however I can. Ultimately, I aim to spearhead a group of private schools invested in supporting quality student journalism. I envision that this process will play a critical role in helping to guide private schools, which have concerns and questions unlike from those of the public and charter school sectors, in launching successful campaigns in student journalism.

We should not wait to get started. I’m filled with excitement upon considering the untapped potential in our wider community. Let this be the start of something special.