CAREERS AND EDUCATION ISSUE: The evolving state of high school newspapers
CAREERS AND ED It's hardly breaking news that the world of print journalism has been flipped on its head in recent years by the rise of the blogger and the trials and tribulations of paper publications. High school newsrooms have hardly been exempted from the medium's challenges. In fact, in many ways they're on the front lines. The pre-collegiate generation, after all, has grown up with itchy Google fingers.
As a high school journalist myself, I felt it was high time we looked at how the youngest crop of newspaper writers is dealing with the dramatic shifts taking place in the media. I interviewed high school student-editors all over San Francisco. I'll profile two in this article who have differing views on what the Internet means to the news — but agree that major shifts are brewing.
Lowell High School has been publishing its award-winning newspaper since 1898. Aaron Pramana, the current web editor-in-chief and the rest of the school's news team put out eight monthly issues of the Lowell each year, distributing papers to the entire student population of 2,800 plus teachers and various subscribers.
Pramana, a 17-year old senior, hasn't seen a drop in readership over his years at the school, and thinks that the majority of Lowell students read the paper regularly. He says that the paper actually plays a pretty big role on campus. "Our paper inspires positive change at our school by bringing to light issues that affect the student body and that might have gone unnoticed otherwise."
But times are changing nonetheless. Like many other high school papers, the Lowell has chosen to create an online website. "We opened our website in 2003," says Pramana. "Originally, its sole purpose was to republish articles already seen in the print edition. Today, our website has special web-only stories as well as multimedia features like photos, podcasts, and video in addition to articles already published." The newspaper also operates an Twitter account and Facebook page during the school year.
Pramana sees the Internet's impact on the paper and journalism on the whole as a positive one — he thinks that professional journalists will adjust to the Internet's popularity, even if it means the loss of a printed paper. "I feel the Internet will help current events and media become more accessible to the public, which is ultimately a good thing. I believe the industry will eventually find a business model that allows them to remain solvent while maintaining quality, even if that means letting go of print publications."
Pramana says his paper tends to publish fewer pages per issues these days "in favor of publishing more web-only stories. This allows us to report on the most timely stories immediately, while saving space in the paper for features and opinions that don't get outdated."
His glowing view of web journalism is not shared by all his peers. Kathy Woo, last year's co-editor of Washington High School's newspaper, believes that the Internet has done more to harm than to help journalism and that it "has generally made a negative impact, in that its convenience has prompted the reduction of printed paper," which in turn has led to paper closures around the country.
But Woo says in terms of Washington High's paper, the Eagle, "students prefer to read the [print version] rather than Eaglei, our Internet site. The paper is distributed to every English class and students are free to — and do — pick up the paper to read." The discrepancy might have to do with the relative usability of the paper's sites — Eaglei is a bit less user-friendly than the Lowell's slickly produced site.
The Eagle, which has been publishing since 1954, is distributed every month and a half. But print distribution is spendy; although readership of the paper was good last year, Woo and her staff ran into budget difficulties when it came to publishing.
"The biggest issue the Eagle faced this year was the budget to print the paper," Woo says. "Budget cuts have been made throughout California schools and any available funds have been used sparingly and are directed towards basic necessities." Her paper's budget came mostly from Washington's parent-teacher-student association, as well as community sponsors, and local businesses that advertised within its pages.
Pramana and the staff at Lowell High School rely on print advertisements as the main source of budget for the paper. Members of the Lowell's staff are required to sell at least three advertisements per semester so the paper can plan on a fixed amount of finance.
Perhaps most surprising — and perhaps telling of journalism's current flux — is that neither Pramana nor Woo are hoping to pursue journalism as a career.
Woo, now a freshman in college, is a film and media studies major at the University of California Santa Barbara and aspires to become a movie director. "A career in journalism was definitely an option for me, but I found something I loved doing even more, which is filmmaking. I still love to write and who knows, things down the road might change and I'll just fall in love with journalism all over again."
"I doubt I'd work as a journalist, but I might blog in my spare time," says Pramana, who plans to study computer science after graduating next spring. "I think a career in journalism is possible, just not in the way it was a decade ago. Instead of working for a newspaper or syndicate, more writers will turn to smaller news websites or start blogging independently. This gives them more control over how their work is published and compensated. Newspapers are laying off their employees because print journalism involves too much overhead to be viable and competitive with niche news websites."
Both editors say that the majority of the students on their newspaper staffs don't have plans of continuing on the path to a career in journalism.
"The individuals behind The Eagle don't all necessarily have long term goals of becoming journalists," says Woo. "There are some who, in the process of choosing their classes, found journalism to be interesting and applied for it to try something new and see what the class had to offer. There are those who join in the hopes of improving their writing and English skills. There are the returning second, third, or fourth year journalism students, and there are the aspiring journalists. And there may be a few students who didn't know what classes to choose and therefore chose journalism on a whim."
As they continue to find success with their publications in print and on the web, the youngest crop of Bay Area journalists are hardly calling to "stop the presses." But judging from their experiences, changes may be on deck in the world of newspapers.
Sean Hurd is a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and co-editor of its student newspaper the Paper Tiger