Red Ink

Short on money, time and sometimes interest, high school journalists feel some of the pressures facing their professional counterparts

October 31, 2005|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN REPORTER

At the Bulldog, the student newspaper at Baltimore's Southern High School, articles critical of the administration several years ago led to a censorship dispute and a faculty dismissal. Arundel High's Spectrum nearly folded this year because fewer students were interested in writing for it. And at the Patriot Press of Northern High School in Calvert County, ad sales are a weekly concern.

High school journalists: Welcome to our industry. At a time when the country's professional newspapers are reeling with their own circulation, staffing and ethical problems, perhaps your woes are fitting experiences.

At least you still have your youth and optimism - which you'll need.

"People ask for extra issues," says senior Lauren Nichols, editor-in-chief of the Spectrum, which boldfaces names in each issue. "Everyone likes to see their names in the paper."

On Monday in Gambrills, the Spectrum staff readied its eight-page issue for the printers. As writers and editors jotted down ideas for its next issue on an overhead projector ("Wilma?" "Lack of School Spirit." "Student of the Month."), they also reminded themselves to sell candygrams to help with costs.

It seemed like business as usual on the high school journalism front, except that the award-winning newspaper ("All the news that fits we print!") almost closed this year because not enough students had signed up for the newspaper class.

"I asked the administration, `Can we let the Spectrum die?' Believe me, I didn't want that," says Wanda Trimnal, a journalism teacher and the paper's adviser for 20 years. The school combined the journalism and newspaper classes.

"That saved the paper," says Trimnal.

Just as professional print journalism faces declining public trust, circulation and advertising, scholastic journalism is going through its own challenges these days. Advocates say student newspapers face increased censorship, and the focus on standardized testing mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation arguably has shifted scholastic emphasis - and money - away from activities such as student newspapers.

"I think we're in trouble, actually," says Gary Clites, president of the Maryland/D.C. Scholastic Press Association. Clites teaches journalism at Northern High School in Owings in Calvert County, where he's adviser for the Patriot Press. "With `No Child Left Behind' and its focus on minimal skills, there's no question it's hurting the special, upper-level programs such as journalism."

Still news in school

Still, scholastic journalism - English's stepchild, cushy elective, or career starter? - continues to flourish even in these less than ideal times. Nearly 97 percent of high schools have at least a journalism class for credit, yearbook activities or a TV or radio station, according to a study of high school media. About 85 percent of those schools publish a magazine or newspaper, including 25 newspapers in Baltimore County and five in Baltimore city. An estimated 4 million teenagers write blogs, which, granted, are more often journals than journalism.

"Some kids still want to do journalism on a newspaper," says Edmund Sullivan, director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. "But what we're seeing is a winding down of print journalism to be replaced by a new form. It will be online something."

From blogs and broadcasting to newspapers, there's a whole lot of media going on.

"My kids have such optimism. They really get excited about journalism," says April Askin, faculty adviser for the Bear Press. "Many want to pursue it as a career."

As a newspaper career? That seems so old school. Don't kids know the average newspaper reader is 53, a third of Americans under 40 consider the Internet their main source of news and 45 percent of Americans polled last year said they can't believe what they read in the paper anyway?

"When you are at this stage, everything is rose-colored," Askin says, "and I love that about my students."

Revenue headaches

Already, though, her students face problems similar to those of their professional brethren: The expense of putting out the Bear Press outstrips the paper's revenues. The staff is considering selling subscriptions to parents to offset increasing costs.

At least the paper enjoys high readership, editor Jessica Bauer says.

"I know a lot of kids who read our paper. I don't know if they care about it, but they read it," says Bauer, a senior.

At the Patriot Press, an ad chart posted in Clites' classroom tracked whether staffers had sold their required $500 in sales for the week; several students were lagging.

Published eight times a year, the paper is self-supported, and student journalists are expected to sell ads to cover expenses, including the yearly $7,000 printing cost.

Three years ago, Calvert County denied a request from high school newspaper advisers for $1,000 for each of their papers. "Although I appreciate how this teaches students that journalism is a business," Clites says, "it would be nice to have financial support."

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