On fixing journalism, high schoolers beat the pros

BY ADAM SULLIVAN | JULY 24, 2009 7:15 AM

Wide-spread layoffs, pay cuts, and defunct publications. Recently graduated journalism friends have told me they literally have nightmares about those things.

But step back an age group to the high-school journalists I hung out with this week at the 2009 UI Summer Journalism Workshops. For them, lost jobs, low wages, and closed doors are an incentive to stay in the field.

“It’s an exciting time to be in journalism. It will be our generation who decides what’s next,” said Jacqueline Novak, a 16-year-old student from Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Ill. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

That attitude undoubtedly stems in part from classic teenage naïveté: These 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t paying the bills yet, and they’ve yet to realize they’re not invincible.

However, these students also have good reason not to be petrified of pursuing a career in journalism: Often, they have better ideas on ways to make our trade viable than do the professionals.

More than 150 high-school students from as far as Florida and Texas were on campus this week to take in some journalism instruction. I was a camp counselor for the week — mostly in charge of making sure none of them caught on fire or got lost on the Ped Mall — but I also got a chance to talk about the future of journalism with the students.

This year’s camp T-shirt reads “rethink everything” across the back. That’s exactly what they’ll need to do if they want to turn journalism from a co-curricular hobby into a post-college profession.

The students I talked to realize that certain information is better fit for certain media. The web, of course, is best suited for breaking news and multimedia content. But these teens contend there will always be demand for some form of print — long-form, in-depth reporting is simply more comfortably read when you can hold it in your hand. And — more importantly to the girls I talked to — there will always be a call for teen magazines.

“You can look up new makeup and hair styles online, but it’s not as much fun,” said Alyssa Harn, 17, from Lyons Township High School. “People are so used to just being able to lie down and have a Seventeen or Tiger Beat in their hands. They will always be hard copy.”

Keep in mind that these students are supposed to be web addicts. They have never lived in a world without the Internet: By the time these kids were born, AOL was distributing its 2.0 release.

Still, they crave news they can hold in their hands.

Harn understood better than most veteran newspeople that the relationship between online and print needn’t be one of absolutism; the two media can and should coexist. She noted that the online edition can be used to promote special features in the print edition, and the physical copy can build hype for the web version.

Unlike recent college grads, these high-schoolers have also come to terms with the fact that rich and famous journalists are a far-and-few-between exception.

“To me, money has nothing to do with it,” said Carly Strand, 17, from Mother McAuley High School in Chicago. “I don’t care if I won’t make anything. Writing is what I want to do.”

Aside from having at least half a decade of education before joining the workforce, the biggest thing the students I talked to have going for them is their ignorance: They’re too young and inexperienced to know there are things they can’t do. They don’t know they can’t create elaborate multimedia packages on a daily basis, or redesign an advertising model, or make a paper product people want to pick up.

Too often in our industry, we don’t do things “just because.” High-school students have yet to be corrupted by that attitude.

We all need to forget there are things we can’t do, and we need to do it fast. Our trade depends on it.

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