Tuesday, February 9, 2010

We need high school journalism courses

The days that the Oak Leaf arrived in bins was a recurring highlight for me at Santa Rosa Junior College. I read the student newspaper faithfully, frequently issuing submissions and rebuttals. During my final semester at JC, I was one of its student reporters and the paper's arrival took on renewed importance because it meant that I could view my bylines.

My first experience as a beat reporter evolved, quite naturally, out of my daily quest to park at the JC campus. Parking spaces were tight, so the JC offered a shuttle service between the campus and the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. As a result of either trying to park on-site or riding to campus in the shuttle, I ended up filing several stories.

Today, student bylines are as likely to be online as they are to appear in print. The Oak Leaf also uses social media to "Tweet" about notable links on www.theoakleafonline.com.

Despite the platform's changing face, the principle remains the same: Oak Leaf students are learning journalism. When covering the news, a student reporter must establish the who, what, where, when and why.

My earliest exposure to journalism was at Calistoga Junior/Senior High School, where I wrote essays and drew cartoons for a high school student newsletter. Since it didn't take an entire year to produce the high school yearbook, the newsletter was what we yearbook students produced during the rest of the year. It offered me an opportunity to experiment with different types of writing, including satire and reviews.

My favorite piece of journalistic juvenilia, which I have regrettably misplaced, was for a high school English class. I produced trial coverage for William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." The official sponsor was "Poniard Cutlery."

I have accrued lifelong benefits from taking media and journalism courses: first in working as a reporter and later as an editor and columnist.

Sadly, fewer students have access to these potentially life-changing courses. A recent article at Bakersfield.com detailed a 14 percent drop in the number of high schools statewide that offer journalism programs. High school journalism course enrollment also dropped, by 24 percent, while total state enrollment increased 24 percent.

I can't explain why fewer students want to take journalism classes. Even if they prefer "new" media, producing news for an online platform, they still have to understand the difference between writing objective copy and venting a personal opinion.

Declining student interest is only one factor; the article also cites high schools placing a standards-driven focus on test scores and core subjects to the detriment of electives like journalism.

But where will journalists learn their craft in an era in which newsrooms are hiring less and less? Journalistic education at a university may additionally be cost-prohibitive.

Absent an opportunity to be trained on the job or to enroll in a four-year or post-graduate school, high school and community college programs become all the more critical for training would-be journalists.

Even for students who do not go on to pursue a career in journalism, newspaper production courses can have lifelong benefits. Speaking in the article at Bakersfield.com, Steve O'Donoghue, director of the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative, says that newspaper production courses help teach analytical and writing skills. Other educators credit these courses with teaching computer use, design, fact-checking and research skills.

Our society needs trained journalists to accurately report the news. These programs are more than worth the investment in terms of the benefit they provide.

Published Feb. 9, 2010 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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