This piece was co-published with the Center for Cooperative Media.
Last year, I watched as Elisabeth Bumiller stood at a lectern in a hotel conference room in Washington, D.C., and described to a young audience of college newspaper editors her career path to one of the most influential positions in journalism: Washington bureau chief for The New York Times.
With a hint of nostalgia, she drew a line all the way back beyond her college years, to a starting point decades in the past, when she was a teenage high school journalist at The Walnut Hills Chatterbox in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Other American journalists of note also started their careers in high school: Walter Cronkite served as editor of the Campus Cub at San Jacinto High School in Houston, Texas, before going on to become anchorman at the CBS Evening News and “the most trusted man in America.” Carl Bernstein worked as circulation and exchange manager for the Silver Chips newspaper in Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, before ascending to The Washington Post, where he helped break the Watergate scandal.
The list is undoubtedly longer. Bumiller’s recollections reinforced in my mind the value of exposing teenagers to the process of newsgathering while they’re in high school. In my two decades teaching college journalism, I’ve noticed that many — although by no means all — of the teenagers who choose to major or minor in journalism tell me during informal conversations or during the admissions process that they were led to do so by an experience with journalism they had in high school.
As head of an undergraduate journalism program, it concerns me that while we professional journalists are understandably preoccupied with the changes bedeviling the profession — the collapse of the advertising model, the attacks on our reputation, and, now, the lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic — we have devoted relatively little attention to that turning point in a teenager’s development when she might get her first exposure to newsgathering, propelling her into a journalism future, or at the very least giving her excellent training in news literacy.
Is high school journalism surviving amid the changes that have transformed the profession starting with the rise of the internet? Do students even want to take journalism at high school anymore? And do the mechanisms still exist for them to do so?
These questions seemed worthy of study. So last year I embarked on an analysis of the state of journalism in high schools, limiting the parameters of the study to the state of New Jersey. The Center for Cooperative Media, a grant-funded program based at Montclair State University whose mission is to grow and strengthen journalism, gave me the money to do so.
The process was eye-opening. Never having covered education as a reporter, and having had little exposure to New Jersey’s Department of Education, my first discovery was about my own naïveté. I had thought there would be someone at DOE headquarters whose job it was to manage journalism instruction in the state, set curriculum and oversee high school newspaper advisers. I figured I’d just have to penetrate the bureaucracy, find that person and get some answers.
I was wrong. Journalism education in New Jersey, as in many states, is highly decentralized with the power to set curriculum apportioned at the district level. Unlike math or language arts, journalism is not a required subject. It’s existence in a school largely depends on an administrator or, most often, a committed teacher with the will to make it happen.
I was surprised to learn that the DOE does not keep a list of how many of the 436 public high schools in the state have student newspapers, according to a public records request. Even the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, the New Jersey association for high school advisers, did not know. They simply don’t have the resources to keep track, and high school newspaper advisers tend to come and go.
So, to achieve a meaningful overview of what journalism looked like in the public high schools in the state, I had to take a multifaceted approach: surveying and interviewing high school principals, journalism advisers and educators; filing an open records request of the DOE for a list of all schools that offered journalism classes; and examining online performance reports from all the schools in the state.
My main findings, published in the report, “The Journalism Pipeline: The state of journalism in New Jersey high schools,” boil down to this: Journalism education looks remarkably different from one high school to another. In some schools the curriculum is robust and impressive, linking classroom instruction with hands-on experience at a thriving multi-platform student news organization.
In other schools, journalism education exists, but erratically. Newspaper advising in these schools is often a hardship post, assigned to an untenured teacher who is inexperienced and untrained. 66% of respondents to our survey said the adviser in their school did not have a background in journalism.
And there are some schools where there is no journalism of any kind at all.
A little more than half (55%) of the high schools in New Jersey were not listed as offering journalism classes during the 2017-18 academic year, the most recent year for which statistics are available. This figure does not account for the existence of newspapers that are offered as extracurricular activities, but it’s an indication of how many schools have found a place for journalism instruction in their curriculums.
The good news is that in the schools where some form of journalism education exists, high school educators are not noticing a significant decline in student interest in taking journalism as a result of internet-driven changes at the professional level or public criticism of the press. Three-quarters of 96 high school educators in New Jersey who responded to the survey said student interest had either increased or remained the same.
In addition, a national survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center of nearly 500 K-12 journalism educators found that President Trump’s attacks on the media had actually stimulated teenage interest in journalism.
However, there was some worrying news. Many advisers reported a new, growing threat. The increasing pressure on students to look competitive to colleges by taking Advanced Placement courses is filling up student schedules so that they can’t find time to participate in student journalism, acting as a disincentive because journalism is not offered as an AP class. This finding was also reported by the Education Week survey.
“It’s the rise of the AP obsession,” said Staci Toporek, adviser to The Highlander at Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. “My editor-in-chief can’t take the [journalism] class because she can’t fit it into her schedule. She’s super smart and she wants to take this AP math class but it’s the same time as my class. So she comes in her own time in her study hall.”
Another high school newspaper adviser, William Rawson of Pascack Valley High School, feels “drastic measures” are required and has gone as far as to enroll himself in an online master’s degree in journalism, largely at his own expense, in order to partner with a university that would allow him to offer his high school’s journalism class for college credit.
Keeping journalism available and appealing to teenagers should not be so hard. In New Jersey in 1996, the state laid out a series of Student Learning Standards to provide guidance to local school districts and essentially list the knowledge and skills students should have acquired by the time they graduate from high school.
Journalism falls into the “Life and Careers” category and the guidelines articulate what any journalism instructor knows, that the study and practice of newsgathering correlate with a raft of learning outcomes, including civics, media fluency, leadership, global understanding, teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, ethics, writing and technological prowess.
In the digital age, every teenager should have the opportunity in high school, to experience the journalistic process, learn media literacy, and understand the vital role good journalism plays in a community and in a democracy. With mobile phones in their hands, these are the years when news consumption habits start forming.
The broader community of professional journalists and their organizations should be looking with greater concern at what journalism opportunities — or lack of them — exist in high schools, and find ways to support journalism there with money, policy and training.
Of course, the future Bumillers, Cronkites and Bernsteins of this world could find their way into journalism without getting a taste of its appeal, power and importance in high school — but there are so many reasons to give them that exposure at a young age and increase the odds that they do.
Tara George is Head of Journalism and Television/Digital Media at Montclair State University. She is also adviser to The Montclarion, the independent student news organization there. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.