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A free summer seminar for experienced high school journalism advisers

From the 23 teachers who attended this workshop in July 2019, we have included Solutions Journalism Story Ideas, other Story Ideas for a whole range of topics and Tech Examples of something they learned, many of these for data visualization, plus some resources anyone can use in the future for these topics.

Thoughts about starting a program from scratch

Used to be that if you wanted to start a journalism program in a new school, you had a pretty clear path: Get print issues in the hands of students.

Now, it’s not exactly clear what the right path is. In fact, I’d say that the only given is that each school without a program presents a unique set of circumstances. So, what to do? Still start with print issues? Start online because you can do it for free (or nearly free)? Do some sort of basic instruction before trying to produce something at all?

I’m headed into my second year with a journalism program that I started from scratch. (Well, technically, there was a program, but it died of atrophy a few years ago.) During the Advanced Advising Workshop at the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University in July, I found myself thinking about the position I was in: having 15-plus years of advising experience but with a staff that will have, at most, two returning students.

Here’s what has stuck with me:

“Digital natives”

I heard this term used at least a few times during the week, the implication always being the same — that our students can simply understand technology the way a sea turtle automatically goes into the ocean after being born.

This isn’t true. Or, at least, it isn’t true the way people say it is.

Yes, our students are “digital natives,” but that doesn’t really do them any favors. In fact, we should call them “digital fearless,” rather than “natives.” They can tackle a new (to them) piece of technology without a worry about the potential learning curve. Or at least that is true for many of them.

But to suggest that they just “get it” is wrong. My students can work the apps on their phone like a 12-month old can work a pacifier. But they completely uneducated, and quite frankly immature, about the power and proper use of technology.

They want to know how to use Photoshop’s tools, for example, but it doesn’t really occur to them to question why they should use it, or to what end.

Start with print

When starting from scratch, start with print over a web site, assuming you can’t afford both.

Nothing sells your program like a high-quality product that is in the hands of your audience. Plus, you don’t have to spend all the time and energy driving people to your website, especially in a school where driving that traffic to your site is difficult because social media sites are blocked.

People always want to know how much it would cost, especially since you can start a bare-bones website for free. If you are near a decent-sized city, a rule of thumb is that you should be able to get about 1,000 copies of a 16-page paper for about $500. ( would charge $486.)

We have no budget provided to us, so that means fundraising and selling ads, which are skills my students don’t get elsewhere, though that doesn’t get them excited about it.

Abandon covering everything

Ideally, a student newspaper covers all the major events and news at the school as well as student life and culture.

My school has 2,000 students, and my first year’s staff consisted of 10 people. None of them had any experience on day one. That means I needed to get them versed in the basics of journalistic writing and coverage right away, focused on getting an issue out quickly, balancing speed with quality.

As a result, the notion of covering every significant event at the school, or even most of them, went out the window. My solution, which was not ideal, to be sure, was to assign each student four things:

  1. A “Humans of New Bedford”-style piece, which included five portraits along with a mini-interview. (This is a great way to get them out and about even before talking at all about how to structure an article.)
  2. A 300-word profile of someone at the school. I think my restrictions were that the person couldn’t be in their grade or be related to them.
  3. An inverted pyramid news article about an event or “news” topic.
  4. A personal column.

So if I have 10 students doing four assignments, we’d end up with 40 possible pieces for the paper. Realistically, six or seven of them would do all four (based on the culture of the students at my school), and a fair bit of those would be rather weak.

That meant that the first issue of the paper was 12 pages, with the double-truck being essentially a photo essay of Spirit Week, and it came out in the middle of December. And it went over as well as could be expected. It looked like a real paper, and it had real content. What it didn’t have was complete coverage.

Use each tool at least once

We were presented with so many wonderful tools that could significantly engage them in new and fascinating ways.

I used to teach at a school where I would have been quite comfortable saying to a student, “That’s a great idea. I think Tool X might work. See what you can come up with,” and have that student go off and figure it out. (Well, most of the time.)

Now, I know that if I were to basically turn loose a student to tackle something novel, most (not all) of the time, that student wouldn’t have much of a clue how to proceed, how to analyze the situation and stumble toward a solution. I’ve seen too many of my students abandon something when asked to sort things out for themselves.

That means that I need to have at least a passing familiarity with whatever tools I am asking them to use.

Here’s an example: Cut-out backgrounds. I hadn’t done one myself in years. I don’t have a need to do so outside of advising, and at my previous school, I hadn’t done one in years because the students just taught each other how to do it. It just got passed down from student to student like the secrets of The Force. So I needed to refresh my memory, and for me, it wasn’t just like riding a bike — something about a magic wand … .

Access at home

For a fair number of my students, their internet access at home consists of their wireless data plan. (It’s a predominantly low-income school, but I’d say at least 95 percent own a smartphone.) They can take their laptop home with them, but may need to rely on a hotspot for laptop internet access, which means any internet-based work they need to do may be inefficient, at best.

Therefore, everything takes longer than expected because anything beyond news-gathering might need to be done in the classroom.

In many ways, we all have the same destination in mind. We all have many of the same tools available. And we all have our own unique situations we work within, that we need to navigate amid ever-changing circumstances day by day, week by week and month by month. Like trying to repair your car while driving it down the highway at 65 miles per hour.

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