Where did journalism classes go?


While the newspaper industry worries about shrinking print editions and uncertain economics in the digital world, an equally vexing issue lurks. Where will the next generation’s journalists come from, and how well will they be trained?

In speaking to a workshop for award-winning high school reporters from across California, I was dismayed to learn how many of their schools have dropped journalism courses and cut back or eliminated student newspapers. In the last decade over 200 high schools in California have scrubbed journalism.

Nationally, the situation is similarly worrisome. According to Anita Luera, a director at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Arizona, “Many high school journalism programs have suffered in recent years, the victim of budget cuts and other priorities, especially at schools with large minority populations.’’

But beyond budgets, the increasingly rigid focus on core subjects and standardized tests has made some valuable electives, such as journalism, less important to high school administrators. That’s not only a shame, it’s misguided.

A study by the Newspaper Association of America showed that students who worked on high school papers and yearbooks scored better on college admission tests and tended to have higher grades in their first year of college.

Notably, while the journalism trend line is plunging at high schools, it is actually rising at the college level. At Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, for example, the number of graduates is up by about 25 percent over the last decade; at the University of Missouri, the journalism school graduating classes are up 40 percent during the same period.

At these colleges, journalism is a core area of study, with its own revenue base. But at many high schools these days, news writing is viewed as more like, say, the cheerleading squad — the difference being few high school administrators would ever dare cut the cheerleading budget.

Some high schools that have managed to maintain student papers have cut frequency to monthly or quarterly. As a result, the publications become more feature and opinion oriented, while lacking hard news. This tends to feed the very problems that young writers face in the expanding online world, where everyone has an opinion and the glorious freedom to express it, but too often without proper discipline in reporting, editing and fact-checking. It’s difficult to develop a serious regard for these components of responsible journalism if there are no classes to teach them, and if the school paper, produced by an under-funded after-school club, doesn’t encourage them.

As I spoke with individual students at the workshop, the knowledge gap between those whose schools offered journalism and those for whom it was no longer available was stunning. It’s difficult to imagine the latter group succeeding in college journalism courses.

Even at colleges where journalism programs appear to be thriving, there are subtle shifts in curriculum that put less emphasis on the fundamentals of good reporting. Many schools, for example, are combining basic journalism with video and computer classes, where the focus tends to be more on the medium than the message. Sadly, this mirrors what is happening in the consumer marketplace.

As journalism’s economic and delivery models change at the professional level, it is more important than ever for colleges and high schools to ground students in the principles of good writing and reporting. Communities must find the means to restore high school journalism programs, lest the pipelines that flow to colleges and the professional world run dry.

Many observers of the current media scene fret for good reason about the careless, even reckless, state of what often passes for news in burgeoning outlets on the Internet and cable-TV dial. Journalists in the next generation can’t be counted upon to improve things unless they at least know better.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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