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Blog: Notes From the Field, part five

This issue of Notes From the Field is the third of several that will feature Q&A’s focused on the problems facing high school papers across the country, held with several experts in high school journalism, from state and national officials to press law experts. 

These conversations will give me a good sense of the issues plaguing high school journalism in America, allowing me to answer my guiding question: “What is the best way to increase the presence of high quality journalism in public schools?” Hopefully, the answer to that question will be by addressing one of the many issues I uncover.

My last two interviews focused on the legal issues of high school journalism, so I figured I’d branch out a little more and talk about something other than the law. To do that, I reached out to School Newspapers Online (SNO) in the hopes of speaking about the more technical side of journalism.

I ended up speaking with Kyle Phillips, who has been one of SNO’s education and training specialists for almost two years. Phillips also manages Best of SNO, SNO’s website featuring the best of high school journalism from around the country.

 

Q&A

Q: What do you think, from your perspective, are the major problems facing high school journalists are, be it to do directly with SNO or even on the production side of things that you interact with?

A: I think funding is going to be tricky, especially at the public school level. If you get into some states that are working to send more money towards private and charter schools, then you have less money for public schools. Unfortunately, one of the first things to get cut is often electives like journalism. I was a former advisor myself for nine years. So I know publishing a single round of print papers, I’m not sure what it is at Central, but for us, it was about $400 per issue. So you know that alone, especially if you don’t have the advertising revenue coming in, is kind of tough to sustain. Another thing that’s tricky is advertising. These days, businesses are more inclined to take that advertising that maybe used to go to the local high school paper and instead put that towards social media advertising where they can be a little more targeted. So that’s a revenue stream that maybe has dwindled a little bit since the days of print. And so those be a couple things, I think come to mind right away

Q: I was wondering if there’s anything you see on the training side of things or relating to websites specifically that you see schools struggling with?

A: I don’t know if it’s struggling, necessarily, but at the JEA convention last week I did a session about making sure to add quick reads [to your website]. Pull quotes, embedded videos, things like that into your story pages to break up long blocks of text. I think that might be something that older advisors, especially ones that came out of the age of print, maybe don’t consider as much when they’re doing the web, but you do need to think your story packaging; just like you wouldn’t dump a single photo and a ton of text on a page of print, it’s the same thing on the website. So you want to make sure you’re planning it out, having some secondary photos or embedding in infographics, but doing something to kind of liven up the story and keep readers engaged, especially in the age of Tik Tok and Reels and other social media where people’s attention spans are rapidly declining. You need to keep that in mind when you visually design your story.

Q: You work with Best of SNO a lot, so I’m curious, is there anything that you see that schools that are often winning Best of SNO do that a lot of other schools don’t that you think really separates them?

A: I know there a couple things that we’ve tried to send out in our newsletter. We do three or four Best of SNO newsletters every year where we try to highlight things that schools that are often successful are doing well. One of them is making sure you’ve got more than one source for a story. There are a number of stories we see come across the submission desk that are single source stories. You know, if you could just go out and talk to at least one other person ideally two that really enhances the coverage of the story. Making sure that a story is fully developed [is also important]. The minimum word count is 300 words. A 300 word story is not really a whole lot of anything. so make sure you’re telling the complete story there. And then, close editing [is important], keeping an eye on AP Style. I’m not sure how much that’s being taught and obviously different schools have different resources to access, the style book and things of that nature, but I see a lot of AP style things that people maybe aren’t doing quite right. And then just little things like always starting a new paragraph after a quote, that’s a common writing error that we see. Then the other big thing, before you click “submit” on that story, think, “is this a story that I would want to read about if it was about another school?” We’re looking for that broad appeal. We do see a ton of stories that are well written and they’re serving their school well, but I unfortunately don’t want to read about North Liberty’s track meet last night, [even if it’s a well] written story and people in that community are going to love it. It’s just not what we’re looking for on Best of SNO. I really do try to stress that Best of SNO should not be looked at as the end-all be-all writing award. There could be something that you could earn a state award for, but it might not meet what we’re looking for. But we’re also cultivating stories that are going to be of interest, hopefully to anybody who comes to bestofsno.com

Q: So obviously, the point of a capstone project is to create something in the end, so what do you think could be done to help bring the level of writing up across the board? Is there some big program, or something simple that could be done to help?

A: I think that if you are responsible in using it, AI could definitely serve as an assistant to making sure you’re getting that AP Style correct because, you could probably feed a story in or just ask it a question, you know, what’s AP Style when I’m doing a movie quote or different things like that, and you’ll get the answer right away. Rather than having to know the AP Stylebook, needing to go to this really obscure entry that most of you have been using for many years. You don’t know where to go, and it can be kind of tricky using that style book sometimes. So I think that could be a tool. But then you know, it is probably incumbent on the student editors because I think it’s going to be more likely where students can better police themselves than having to trust the teacher to do it, to make sure that those new reporters are still going out there writing their own story, rather than feeding it in and have an AI spit something out, but then utilizing it as a way to look up style and things like that. 

Q: So maybe an idea for me to pursue would be giving more training infrastructure for editors?

A: Yeah, definitely. If you look at some of the high school journalism programs that are out there, the advisors work really closely with creating an environment and a system that’s totally student run where, yeah, that as those editors grow into their role as section editors or editors-in-chief, they’re sitting down with the new reporters, and they’re doing the majority of the teaching after that advisor has probably done their work intro level class.

Q: This is the third of these conversations I’ve done, and I’ve talked to a couple of people involved in state level JEAs and in the National Student Press Law Center. And one thing I heard a lot about was censorship. I think what I’m starting to lean towards for my artifact,is some sort of project, some sort of initiative, that collects those stories that get banned and puts them into one place. because I talked to Mike Hiestand from SPLC. And he told me there used to be this network of schools that did that where they just say “it we get banned, we send it to another school, they publish it for us.” So I was kind of curious, first, I was wondering if SNO has ever thought of something along the lines of that, maybe by creating a website like Best of SNO for censored stories, or second if you generally have any thoughts about how a project like that might work with the infrastructure of high school journalism.

A: I love that as an idea because you’re right you know, especially those cases that wind up in the Supreme Court, more people see those stories that administrators tried to censor than ever would have seen them if they just ran quietly on the school website or in the school paper. But I’ve never had anybody approach us with that idea. You know, ultimately, we are a business so I don’t know if the founders would be open to hosting a site like that. That’s maybe a nonprofit and then figuring out a way where people can submit that. That being said, if there were a way to get the information out there to student journalists about how easy it is to start your own website at wordpress.com Because the schools can only limit what the students are doing on the school sponsored website. You could then take that story and put it out on your own blog and hopefully spread the word that way and maybe get some people to read the story there. But I do love that idea of creating a database there where people can go and read “too-hot-to-handle” stories.

 

Conclusions

This conversation really cemented the idea of an anti-censorship website in my head. There are certainly areas where improvements can be made that Phillips pointed out, but those all feel like problems that are difficult for me to solve; a lack of fundamental journalism skills (reporting primarily, but AP Style to a lesser extent) is something that would be best addressed by bringing journalism classes to more high schools, or greatly improving the quality of training available to advisors. These both seem doable, but that change has to come through school boards (for curriculum) and bigger organizations (for training). I certainly could interface with those two pathways via activism or curriculum development, but I think the censorship idea has the potential for a much bigger and more immediate impact. 

Upcoming posts

Within the next week, I will be publishing my final Q&A, this time with Laura Widmer, the Executive Director of the National Scholastic Press Association. After that, I will be moving on to my artifact.

I’ll be posting on my X account (@jpfeifferCT) whenever new posts come out, so follow me there to make sure you stay up to date on my blog.

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About the Contributor
Jake Pfeiffer
Jake Pfeiffer, Editor-in-Chief
Jake Pfeiffer is a senior, entering his third year on the Central Times staff, this time as Editor-in-Chief. Jake joined CT as a sophomore because he wanted to write news, but since then he has grown to love just about every element of journalism. While it is rare to see Jake anywhere other than the CT office, occasionally you can find him captaining Central’s debate team, watching baseball, listening to a seemingly endless amount of podcasts or drowning in college applications.
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