Morehouse Olson is a teacher of scholastic journalism at St. Francis High School in St. Francis, Minnesota.
DL: What are high school students reading today?
Morehouse Olson: They’re reading newspapers at great rates because it’s localized. They want to read about themselves, so they read the newspapers.
Some of the high school programs are some of the best right away at embracing new technologies and the whole convergence thing. But some of us are struggling: My class continues to get smaller, not because there’s no interest, but because schools are cutting journalism. They say it’s obsolete. And kids are taking college credit and AP [Advanced Placement] courses, and they’re not taking the time to do journalism classes anymore.
They’re tweeting like crazy. My student journalists were the ones who adopted that early. Everybody else said it was stupid, and now there’s not a kid without a Twitter account. High school kids are always on the cutting edge of that stuff.
We distribute the paper during school hours. That’s the time that they have to read it. Maybe they’ll stop reading a newspaper once they get out of this environment, but it’s free, and it’s available, and they read it. They read it in hard copy, not a lot of traffic to our website. It comes out once a month, and it’s a 79-year tradition.
This year, because of shrinking numbers, I am teaching online, broadcast and print in one class. It’s pretty interesting. What I did last year is make staffing choices. They rotate through the various staffs, they learn every skill, and all of the stories are multipurposed across platforms. The successful programs are moving to that model, where at least they’re combining print and online into a single class, and they’re also teaching the video element of it.
Some of the students prefer one platform over another. I have them for two trimesters, and the third is just volunteers. The print product is more difficult to get out on a volunteer basis. Doing a 1.5-minute video story on the fly is a lot easier for them, they have no issues or problems with doing that. We have a weekly broadcast, and we update every other day on the Web.
The really great thing is that there are some fabulous resources out there for scholastic journalism, like the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and the [National] Scholastic Press Association. I take students to the conferences. I got a scholarship to go to an advisers institute, specifically about online. And they have fabulous online resources, including curriculum guides—it’s really just everything you can imagine, the resources are out there. The JEA [Journalism Education Association] pairs new advisees with experienced advisers, so it makes people feel supported. Here, I am on an island, I’m the only person who teaches what I teach. But there’s a JEA listserv; it’s an amazing community of teachers, I could post a question in the morning before my class, and I would have five responses within an hour …
My class is given for an English credit. Across the country, journalism in some districts is taught by a tech teacher, in the tech department, teaching photography and design. In some it’s taught as an elective. In some, it’s taught as an English credit. In others, it’s only extracurricular. Mine is known as co-curricular—which means class + after-school time.
The NCAA does not value journalism as an English credit, even if your school and the state that you live in deems it appropriate as an English credit. I have the issue with the kids who are hoping they’re going to get a D1 or D2 scholarship, because the NCAA doesn’t accept it. It only accepts kids who want those scholarships, but every kid thinks they’re going to get one of those scholarships. My kids were writing more and publishing more than the English students, but the credit doesn’t count.
Some schools are arguing that journalism is obsolete. JEA has done a great job doing Common Core curriculum to prove that we’re doing what Common Core wants. We’re talking nonfiction, we’re covering these texts, they’re writing opinions, they’re problem solving, they’re doing critical thinking at its finest, and they’re doing teamwork. It’s the perfect place to learn, especially in the Twitter-sphere and given the way news organizations are working, every student should have their foundation in what is fact vs. opinion. That’s getting really confused out there now, and what is responsible social media? There was a story that went national that in another district, a student went on one of those anonymous sites and said that he’d had relations with a teacher. It was a joke, right? That teacher is now being investigated, you’ve put her entire career in peril. What is responsible social media? What is responsible to print? When do you tweet? How do you know that it’s a valid source?
You don’t have the same issues with plagiarism, that’s a foundational piece of journalism. Every student should have this experience. It makes you a better consumer of news, and that’s our goal: to educate consumers of news. They read the stories in their newsfeeds, they’re clicking on the links. What’s trending on Twitter? Fewer and fewer are actually consuming news stories in any kind of traditional way. They do read some, but they read what they want to read, their own opinions, so they’re reading things that confirm what they already believe.
I am hoping to make them better consumers … I am always asking, “What was your source on this?”
I really do think journalism education is missing an opportunity if they don’t start at the high school level. I take my students to the elementary school and my students go into third-grade classrooms and they partner with the younger kids; they brainstorm about what’s happening in their school, what could we write about, they come up with ideas. I teach them the 5Ws and H, and a sort of mini-story structure. My kids have to teach it so they learn it so much better. When those kids get their newspaper, it means so much.
A former editor of mine had the fourth-grade newspaper on his wall that he wrote when he was in the elementary school partnership I worked with. The experience meant so much to him—and he grew up to be my editor-in-chief! The news industry is doing itself a disservice if they don’t start thinking about their audience at an early age. They’re focusing on the audience that’s leaving them, but the fact is, kids still love to get a newspaper and read about it. They love it. If it’s relevant, local, if they’ve been taught that this is important, they’ll get into the habit.