Thursday, February 14, 2008

Online Highschool Newspapers

I do not want to be a newspaper adviser, at least as things are now. Print journalism is dying. It's a noble medium but the internet has surpassed the printing press. As advertisers catch on to this simple fact, expect more and more daily newspapers to go under. It's happening already as major newspapers such as the Washington Post and L.A. times cut staff members. Asking me if I want to be the newspaper adviser is like asking if I'd like to be a deckhand for the Titanic. No thanks, but I've seen the movie and I know how it ends.

I'm no stranger to journalism, at least at the high school and collegiate level. I was the editor in chief of my high school paper and I wrote for my college newspaper as a columnist for 2.5 years before quiting in disgust in regards to editorial direction. As such, I know that journalistic writing is an important skill to teach, but I think the time has come for high school journalism to be a bit more proactive and head to the digital realm. My High School Journalism hosts 660 high school papers online and it's a step in the right direction. Forgive the fact that the site layout for these cookie cutter online papers is about as exciting as standardized testing, because at least they're trying to move into the 21st century. One thing to keep in mind though is that these online papers are not the primary medium. It's a supplement for the printed paper, a handmaiden to the old traditions.

There are a few advantages to publishing online. The most important one for any journalist is timeliness. Newspapers that publish weekly or monthly suffer from the fact that their news is rather old and stale by the time it gets printed. An online high school paper could have students reporting on events as they unfold. Another benefit would be cost. Printing newspapers is expensive. Ink and paper cost so very much. With an online paper you have server costs to worry about, but ad revenue and budgeted money could offset that. As well as low costs and timely news, online papers would also have a broader base of appeal in the community as a whole and for alumni.

I suppose I am somewhat of an advocate for online technology in general, so that bleeds over into online publishing as well. Speaking as something of an outsider/insider in the world of journalism, I believe that in the next five years, the following things need to start happening in the realm of high school journalism:

Teaching New Design Skills
Start teaching website design in conjunction with graphic design. If students can master Indesign and Pagemaker, then they can handle Dreamweaver. Flash and Java can come later, (and often look tacky) so we might as well concentrate on html and the basics. In all honesty, many students are better with these programs than the teachers, so it might be best to let them handle the training.

Journalism Community
I know, there are communities out there already, but high school journalism staffs need to stay connected online. Some sort of directory of high school papers, both online and offline would be great. In smaller communities, schools could pool their resources and have several schools publish on one online paper. Heck, I think that could work well in larger communities too.

Blog It Up.

Professional papers make use of bloggers on staff to contribute commentary and perspective to issues. In a web 2.0 world, blogging makes sense for the high school community. Blogs are a medium with which the average student is familiar. Let's take advantage of that.

Student Editors
Every high school paper has student editors, but not every paper has a system which trains and supports good student editors. With the flexibility of publication that online publishing would bring, student editors will play a very important role in deciding what events are newsworthy and deserve immediate publication and attention. It will also require a larger degree of autonomy, unless the newspaper adviser wants to micro-mange everything. That is a recipe for insanity though.

Goodbye Darkroom
Digital cameras have already more or less taken over for film in many areas. I still prefer film myself. There's just a certain magic that film captures that a memory card does not. However, it's a much faster process of uploading pictures when the camera is digital. In addition to digital film, students should be trained in the uses of photoshop and adobe illustrator. Furthermore, we must discuss with students the ethics of photo alteration. When is it in poor taste and when does it enhance the subject?

Freedom of the Press
This is both the easiest to solve, but the hardest to change. Without freedom of the press, web 2.0 is dead. You might as well shackle high school journalists to the anchor that is print journalism and forget the whole thing if freedom of the press isn't allowed. At the moment, many high school journalists are being dragged to the icy depths since free press isn't guaranteed to all high school journalists. Content and publishing is up to the discretion of the administration at many schools. The internet, especially online news and journalism does not work that way. I'm not saying that there aren't checks from editors, but online journalism requires room to work. Of course, if the administration wants to approve everything a student writes, I'd be happy to have them approve every single article before it goes online, though I'd require my students read it to them over the phone.

Change moves slowly in the educational system. I don't expect any of these changes to happen on a national scale for a while, but they'll happen eventually. I don't mean to pretend that the print paper will completely go extinct, but if we continue to insist to use it in high schools while the professionals abandon the medium, then we'll be training future journalists in obsolete methods. We don't teach fighter pilots how to fly biplanes before they actually fly jets and we shouldn't have students publishing in print papers if their older contemporaries publish online.

1 comment:

Gregory T. Qualtheim said...

This is a really cool idea. Wish we'd had something like that (not that the paper we did have was anything but awesome, Mr. Editor).