Lack of money, interest forcing many high school newspapers to fold – Chicago Tribune
When there wasn’t enough money in the Steinmetz College Prep high school budget to cover the cost of printing a student newspaper, its journalism adviser made a desperate plea to one of the Chicago public school’s most successful former students for help.
Hugh Hefner, Playboy Enterprises founder, agreed to pay for five years of printing costs for the Steinmetz Star, which, through the end of next school year, will allow students taking a journalism class at the Belmont Cragin school to create thick, full-color, monthly publications.
“Newspapers in school, all the way back to grammar school on the Northwest Side, and then the Steinmetz Star, they were major influences in school for me,” Hefner said. “I think that … papers, in particular, inspire students in that direction. Certainly it was true in my case.”
Without their own millionaire benefactor in a sailor cap, however, many high school journalism programs across the state and country are struggling to stay afloat. In an era of tight school budgets, high-stakes testing and changing news consumption habits, the once time-honored tradition of offering students the chance to be newspaper reporters has joined the list of school activities becoming obsolete for today’s students. Newspapers are forced to scale back, move online to save printing costs — and often eventually dry up.
“I have seen a lot of papers in the state that have gone away,” said Stan Zoller, east region director for the Journalism Education Association, which hosts contests and offers teaching resources for high school newspaper advisers. “They see it as an elective only, and it’s expendable.”
Some journalism advisers and school administrators argue that students’ waning interest in reporting on school affairs is a troubling trend at a time when social media allows students to publish their own thoughts and ideas more easily than ever.
“Journalism is a way to get out a really important message,” said Tom Davis, superintendent of Heritage School District near Champaign, where low enrollment in journalism courses prompted the layoff of the teacher who oversees the newspaper.
“But maybe they feel like with blogs and Facebook and Twitter, they’re already media people.”
In 1991, nearly 100 percent of Chicago public high schools surveyed in a study by Roosevelt University‘s College of Communication had newspapers. By 2006, the number had dropped to 60 percent, according to Linda Jones, associate professor of journalism at Roosevelt.
More recent data and studies tracking similar trends in suburban Chicago and across Illinois are not available, but some journalism advisers and school administrators say it’s clear high school newspapers and organized journalism programs have continued to shut down, especially as educators are expected to prepare students for standardized tests that are tied to school funding.
And there’s a marked difference today in the way students view student papers and lend their time to publishing them, they say.
At Morgan Park High School,English teacher Keith Majeske used to have to hide stacks of newspapers in the school’s main office so students wouldn’t grab them before they were ready for distribution. Today, stacks go untouched for days — unless it’s an issue with prom pictures or Valentine’s Day personal ads.
“There isn’t that kind of buzz that there once was, especially among the underclassmen,” said Majeske. “It’s scary because they don’t know what’s going on beyond their own front door.”
Similarly, in Bartlett, language arts teacher Jill Flanagan noticed a distinct drop in enrollment in her journalism classes in 2008, two years after Facebook became available to anyone over the age of 13 with an email address.
This school year, her newspaper class was canceled due to low enrollment, and it won’t be offered next year. As a last-ditch effort to keep the newspaper alive, Flanagan recruited hard for her after-school journalism club, personally reaching out to 60 students who were good at writing, as recommended by fellow teachers and students.
While 30 students came to an informational meeting last year, only about 20 returned in the fall. Today, five or six students regularly meet after school to update the high school’s online-only newspaper, or to appear on the school radio station.
“I think that it’s really a shame that journalism has taken such a hard hit,” Flanagan said. “It’s just such an important part of democracy to have an informed public and to have a public that can make responsible decisions for themselves and their communities.”
Yet with public school funding shortfalls, and school days often structured to focus on subjects covered on standardized tests, school administrators say they are forced to make tough decisions, and journalism programs are another casualty of tight economic times.
“When you see a state $6 billion hole predicted for next year, it’s going to filter to every level of government — and schools are part of that,” said Davis, of the Heritage District, referring to the $6.6 billion projected budget gap Gov. Bruce Rauner references in his budget proposal. “To me, this is just the beginning.”
Sally Renaud, executive director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association, noted that some journalism programs — especially in Chicago’s north suburbs — remain strong. But the loss of others across the state present potentially troubling consequences, she said.
“It offers a sense of a vibrant intellectual community in the school. The kids are thinking, they’re reporting what the other kids are doing, they get outside of themselves,” Renaud said. “It’s bad to lose that sense of community.”
Still basking in the popularity of their publication, students and the adviser at Steinmetz say they are hopeful.
Next year, Hefner’s five-year commitment ends and students will be on their own to raise money or convince school administrators to cover the costs of publication.
“I think we’re coming to the end of the initial $50,000 grant,” Hefner said in an interview with the Tribune. “But I suspect there’ll be more coming.”
Hefner added that he hoped alumni of other high school papers across the country would be inspired to help their former schools as well.