It’s an interesting time to be a high school journalism adviser. The high school newspaper has long been a staple of high school culture, though at times its purpose has been debated in courts high and low. And as I read through the Language Arts section of the Common Core Standards, many of those standards could be met through journalism classes, especially a class in which newspaper production is the goal.
Yet across the country, independent, professional newspapers are slashing staff, slashing service, slashing content, and raising prices.
When I’m involved in writing curriculum for journalism classes, we hang a lot of “must-haves” on the phrase “industry standard.” But when the “industry standard” involves layoffs and deep budget cuts, tossing around that phrase suddenly becomes a little loaded.
I just completed my first year of newspaper advising at my high school (I had one other year advising at a school in Salt Lake City), and right out of the gate, I was asked to make cuts. Luckily, as part of a curriculum, I don’t have to cut staff. But I had to cut pages, color printing, and frequency of publication. Budgetary concerns have been part of the conversation with my business manager (a student) and the editorial board (all students).
Here’s my concern about “industry standard” and journalism. It’s starting to mean do more with less. It’s starting to mean decrease coverage. And what scares me the most is that it’s starting to mean further devaluation of the Fourth Estate, a subtextual message that with so many people willing to write (not always well, and often not objectively) for free on blogs, Americans do not need a professional, paid press to report news. After all, reading an objective report of a newsworthy event is not nearly as exciting as reading the snarky commentary about said event.
I get the bottom-line philosophy that drives America these days. Really, I do. Producing a paper costs money. Advertising revenue is down. Readership is down–unless it’s online, so behold the paywall–and with fewer readers, I get that it’s tough to justify an army of reporters and page designers.
So my worry, I suppose, is less with the actual newspapers and more with us. Are we reading the newspaper? Are we paying for online content? Are we trying to be an informed citizenry?
But here’s my bigger worry: how do I teach my students that journalism matters, when there’s so much evidence telling them it doesn’t?