Journalism beyond the classroom

Since the release of the 1974 Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism report Captive Voices– which brought to light the issues of censorship and under-representation of minorities in high school papers– organizations have cropped up across the country with aims of correcting these shortcomings while teaching students about the importance of journalism.

In instances where student publications are heavily censored, programs offer opportunities for students to tackle difficult or controversial topics without fear of punishment. In areas where student publications simply don’t exist, media organizations offer a refuge for voices that are not being heard.

And in either case, these programs allow students to reach an audience beyond their high school peers, which in turn, allows them to make an impact on the communities they live in.

The McCormick Foundation helps fund student journalism programs around the country as well as education, civics and human services to advance a free, democratic society.

According to its website, the journalism program supports non-profit organizations and educational institutions and has an annual budget of about $6 million.

“Our challenge going forward is to find the right bridge between after-school programs and in-school programs,” said Clark Bell, program director for journalism.

He said this is important because students can use the skills they learn, such as reading, writing, thinking critically and working on a deadline, in college and later in life.

“We want to link and coordinate these projects so as many people who want to participate in journalism can,” Bell said.

The Youth Editorial Alliance, which is part of the Newspaper Association of America Foundation — the charitable arm of an association of about 2,000 newspapers across the U.S. and Canada — helps professional papers develop programs for high school journalists.

Foundation manager Marina Hendricks said the origins of the Youth Editorial Alliance began in the late 1990s after three journalists who oversaw teen programs at different newspapers wanted to reach out to other journalists.

The NAA adopted the YEA in the early 2000s and has increased the number of participating papers and student journalists. Hendricks said it holds annual contests and conventions across the country.

Sandy Woodcock, the foundation’s director, said the organization has created two sessions for the Poynter Institute’s News University, which offers online training for journalists. One session offers advice and tips for papers that want to start a high school program and the second helps editors come up with story ideas and projects.

Woodcock said she is unsure how many papers associated with NAA have developed programs, especially since so many newsrooms have recently been restructured. However, she said during the program’s height in 2002 there were around 200 programs.

Woodcock said papers with high school programs foster long-term readership, have cross-generational appeal and serve as a training ground for journalists.

“It’s important for media organizations to reach out and tell [students] that they’re an important audience,” she said.

Other professional papers, like the Indianapolis Star, have developed similar organizations that publish student work on a monthly, biweekly or weekly basis on their own.

Lynn Sygiel, director of Y-Press International, a non-profit organization based in Indianapolis, helps students produce work that is then published in the Star or aired on WFYI public radio.

Sygiel said the organization has been around in several different capacities since 1990. However, it didn’t become an independent news bureau until 2004.

In addition to publishing student work in a mainstream paper or airing it on a public radio station, Y-Press International’s website provides an outlet for multimedia pieces students produce.

“There’s really a lot of different opportunities for their work to be showcased,” she said.

The professional staff, which is comprised of a writing coach, radio and special projects director, and two executive directors, helps about 125 students from ages 10 to 18 develop their journalism skills each year.

Sygiel said students work on stories in teams and usually write stories relevant to their region, but they have also worked on national and international pieces.

She said Y-Press students have covered things all over the map from school violence and Internet bullying to the suburban immigrant youth in France — a project that allowed seven students to travel to Paris and learn more about the 2005 and 2007 riots that occurred in the city’s suburbs.

“It opens up their world,” Sygiel said. “Generally when they work for a high school paper they’re looking at their own community. Here they have to know how to analyze material and write for the mainstream media. It’s totally different.”

In cities that have a large urban youth population, such as New York City and Chicago, organizations were founded to give a voice to what many feel is an under-represented population.

Youth Communication, located in New York City, produces two magazines — NYC Teen Magazine and Foster Teen Magazine.

Executive Director Keith Hefner said the organization started in 1980 after the Captive Voices report was released.

He said the report’s findings identified two of the major problems in high school journalism: censorship and a lack of diversity.

“We started an independent city-wide youth magazine to get around all of those things,” he said.

He said Youth Communication’s main goal was to recruit a diverse group of teenagers and have them write about what is important to them. The organization and magazine were successful enough that Youth Communication was able to add a second youth-focused magazine in 1993 that is put together by teenagers in foster care.

Hefner said the writing staff consists of about 80 teenagers per year between the ages of 15 and 20, with five full-time professional employees.

The magazine tries to recruit students who are under-represented in the media and offers internship programs and school credit at partner schools throughout the city.

NYC Teen Magazine, which has a circulation of about 80,000 and is published about six times a year, has written about everything from teen sex and race relations to the economic recession and new technological products available.

“Our goal is to provide information to those who are not served well by the mainstream media,” he said.

Hefner said student writers come to the office to meet in groups to talk about their stories, meet individually with editors to discuss stories and conduct research and interviews.

Hefner said the student press helps train both its writers and its readers to be better, more informed citizens.

“A democratic society relies on an informed populace,” he said. “There is so much information available, and you need to know what is credible and what is not. So if you want to train people to read effectively you should start by having them read things they’re familiar with.”

Similarly, Free Spirit Media, based in Chicago, was created in 2000 after Executive Director Jeff McCarter, working as a broadcast journalist at the time, became discouraged by the lack of diversity in the stories the media was covering.

“I wanted to provide an opportunity for urban youth to make their own media that’s relevant to their lives,” he said.

McCarter said Free Spirit Media gives about 500 high-school-aged students hands-on opportunities to produce broadcast media.

Students put together public service announcements, documentaries and a weekly news show that includes sports, feature and news stories.

They recently completed a documentary called “Hungry for Change,” which discussed “food deserts” — communities that have little access to the foods needed for a healthy diet — around Chicago.

“A story like that resonates with the residents of the community,” he said. “But it also resonates with people who never really thought about the issue before.”

McCarter said he lets his students take on their own stories based on what they’re passionate about, and then provides them with the resources and information sources to complete their assignments.

Free Spirit Media offers three avenues for students to participate. They can take a class during school hours at one of Free Spirit Media’s partner schools, take part in an after-school program at one its partner facilities and the most advanced students can take part in Free Spirit Media Productions, where students produce work for paying clients.

“It’s important for our young people to see themselves not just as students but as citizens and the stories they tell should not just be about what goes on within their school walls,” McCarter said. “It should be about their world, whether local or global, and the issues that are affecting their society.”

Like Hefner, McCarter believes youth journalism helps the students who produce it become better citizens.

“In a nutshell– youth engagement in journalism and media makes a fantastic tool for empowerment and for youth to understand they matter,” he said. “I think media is such a powerful influence in society, and giving them the ability to produce and not just consume, is a great strategy to engage youth as citizens.”

By Chelsea Keenan, SPLC staff writer