It’s impossible to put into words how much I learned as news editor of my college newspaper, The Justice, at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. More than any class I took, my considerable time in the newsroom helped me hone an array of skills: writing, editing, critical thinking, problem-solving, and interviewing, to name a few.
So I was ecstatic when I began advising student publications eight years ago, first as a yearbook adviser, then as a newspaper adviser. From the start, I approached my role the way I believe many students do driver’s education — one learns more on the road (or in this case, out in the field) than inside a classroom.
All that’s required to begin are a few passionate students willing to lay the groundwork and a supportive administration unafraid of transparency. For the past five years, I’ve been blessed with both at Brimmer and May, an independent school in Chestnut Hill, Mass. It turns out my school is an exception: few independent schools, especially in New England, host vibrant, award-winning student publications.
I imagine this dearth is stifling for students, who are thirsty to share their voices in academic environments that purport to champion leadership and expression. It has caused me frustration, too. I’m eager to share my successes and failures with others, and I want to create a collaborative group to offer insight into the unique challenges our schools face such as how to cover controversial stories in tuition-driven climates.
Why a Dearth of Student Publications in Private Schools?
I’m not speaking idly about this loneliness. Helen Smith, executive director of the New England Scholastic Press Association, recently told me that the organization’s membership usually includes fewer than a dozen independent schools, in contrast to 70 or so public schools. It’s worth noting that some 200 institutions belong to the Association of Independent Schools in New England, with many charging $50,000 or more in tuition. NESPA charges only $50 for annual membership, covering educational support, award recognition, and critique services. We don’t need Sherlock Holmes to deduce that it isn’t the membership fee that deters private schools from joining NESPA. The absence of journalism programs is the culprit.
My desire for action prompted me to reach out to Erica Salkin, a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., who is writing a book about the strengths and weaknesses of private school journalism programs and whether they exist at all. I don’t wish to tip all her findings, but one of her conclusions is that many schools don’t believe student publications complement their mission statements.
As Salkin told me, “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.”
Yes, schools teach media literacy through existing curricula, and many support student voice through other means, like political action. I maintain, however, that unless students also frequently disseminate their own news for public consumption, more can and should be done.
Take it from Mark Briggs, a former Ford Fellow of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Poynter Institute, who told me that newsroom experience and generating content 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, 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.”
What My Students Learn from Doing Journalism
I’m under no illusion that most of my student-journalists will pursue a career in the field. That doesn’t bother me. I’m concerned about my budding reporters learning communication skills that support academic success and good citizenship.
Producing quality journalism supports critical thinking in a way that other humanities-based disciplines cannot. When students have firsthand experience producing news, I find they are more likely to question what they read, including the veracity of certain sources and articles, which is critically important in the current culture where misinformation proliferates.
This is true for the journalism students I also teach in history. They tend to be better at writing concisely and persuasively — and making effective use of sources to inform their analysis.
Beyond journalism’s capacity to foster an informed citizenry, the discipline also helps students achieve academic success. One 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.”
My Call to Action
To make my case for student journalism at private schools, I recently spoke at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s spring conference at Columbia University in New York. For my address, “Confronting Private School Struggles with Student Journalism,” I focused on how our respective institutions value an engaged citizenry, leadership, and ethical thinking — ideals most school mission statements share.
“These are healthy values that we should be proud of holding, and I can think of no better way to live up to them than by supporting independent student journalism,” I told the group. “Communities thrive when they are transparent, and censorship is antithetical to who we are and what we stand for.”
I expressed my hopefulness for the future, when many more private schools develop and support student journalism, releasing untold potential. To get there, I invited everyone to help me launch a support group for private schools, eager to tackle challenges we encounter in producing and sharing news.
Readers, I welcome you in this effort. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to help start a group and share ideas about how to convey its needs, purposes, and services to the wider community.