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Naperville Central High School's award-winning newspaper.

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Naperville Central High School's award-winning newspaper.

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Blog: Notes From the Field, part six

This issue of Notes From the Field is the fourth and final 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.

So far, I’ve spoken with the president of the Illinois Journalism Education Association, a lawyer for the Student Press Law Center, and a training specialist at School Newspapers Online. Those three conversations helped establish a rather firm idea for an end product, but I was hoping to speak to someone from a national student journalism organization, be it the NSPA or JEA.

I decided to reach out to the NSPA, where I was connected with Laura Widmer, the organization’s Executive Director. Widmer worked as a college journalism advisor for over 30 years, at Northwest Missouri State University and Iowa State University before becoming NSPA’s Executive Director.



Q: In your role, what do you think some of the big overarching problems that high school journalists deal with are?

A: Yeah, so you know, I think that there’s really pre-pandemic and post-pandemic [problems]. Now, post-pandemic, we have students who are a bit shell-shocked because of their experience. For two years [they were] looking at a computer screen, so I find that sometimes their social and their interviewing skills need to be honed a little bit because they’re a bit gunshy about talking to someone directly. I think that’s an issue and I hear that from a lot of advisors on the college as well as the high school end of it, just retraining high school and college journalists on how to be good reporters. That’s [about getting] boots on the ground, and going out there to get the story, not waiting for the story to come to you. So that’s one of the things post-pandemic that I hear a lot. The other thing post-pandemic is that we had a lot of great advisors retire during the pandemic or immediately right after the pandemic. And so now we have some roles that we really need to fill and sometimes the training for new advisors is not quite what what they need in order to step into a program or even to bring up a program that maybe didn’t aspire to enter contests or to do those type of things. So I would say training students and training advisors are two of the things that we still need to work on.

Q: How have you and your organization been working on that so far?

A: Some of the things that we do, besides the two conventions that we do each year, we also have a summer workshop. And we also have some training resources. And our advisory committee members reach out to members who may need that little nudge [to learn] more about press law or knowing more about good interviewing skills, and we like to provide those [supports]. We also have some of that through our critiques and through our consultations that we have available, so that’s always an option for our members as well.

Q: Right now for my project, I’m in the process of switching from asking what the issues are to focusing on creating a solution. So I’m curious: Generally, what do you think there is left to be done to help high school journalists and advisors raise their skill level.

A: For high school students, I think one thing that we need to look at is, we need to have peer-to-peer training. I think many times you hear it from an advisor and it’s kinda like Charlie Brown’s teacher after a while; there’s a lot of noise, but not much retention. But sometimes I think if I’m a high school student, and I’m hearing it from someone who might be a year, maybe two years older than me and just went through what I’m going through right now, maybe that would be a more direct attention getter for them, or something that they can relate to a little bit better, and maybe not be afraid to ask questions to that peer. So we’re starting some of that with our Student Advisory Committee, and now we are at the point on [figuring out] how to make that deliverable. And so those are things that we’re looking at and hope to get into a little bit this summer when things slow down a wee bit.

Q: Is there any way that you think I would be able to interface with [your efforts], anything that I could do specifically to?

A: I think if you could think of some modules [for teaching], whether it’s on interviewing or reporting or even how to be a good new leader, you know, how does a sophomore coming into that newspaper class [succeed]? What steps do they need to take if they’re interested in being an editor someday? I think some things like that would be great, to get some thoughts down on paper or maybe to record some things. I hope eventually we’ll be able to get this as a live one-on-one time with students because if they’re asking you questions, it’s a little easier going one-on-one than 10-onone or something.

Q: Yeah, so I think that’s about it for like the broad questions. I do have some more specific things for one idea that I had. I’ve been talking a lot with people from the SPLC about some of the legal challenges faced by high school students, and the main thing that I’ve heard is censorship.. So I was talking to someone with SPLC and the idea came up of creating this website where students who have their work censored can go to publish some of that work to magnify the scope of what they’re doing because, even if the school says “not in our publication,” there’s nothing preventing you from putting it somewhere else. So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think that it would work? 

A: Yeah, I think it has great possibility. It would have to be vetted a little bit to come into a third party website, because we would want to talk to the reporter as well as the advisor, to see, “is this is this straight on, or is this all opinion? Should it be in an editorial or column versus a news story?” Things like that, but I think that I think that has great possibility.

Q: So you just think there should be a pretty extensive review process? 

A: Kind of, but not necessarily. I would call it more vetted. Again, if I were to put it on mine, and if you were to start your own and put it on yours, you would want to make sure that you’re not going to be responsible for libel anywhere. You would want to make sure that this has been checked. Have the reporter — as well as the advisor just because you don’t know that reporter initially —  and probably someone from SPLC as well just to make sure there’s not any red flags.



I think I’m about ready to move ahead with the censorship website idea. I like the idea of making a video series to help budding journalists, but someone else can do that. I think I am in a unique position to make a difference for students who have their work censored, and for that reason I am going to move forward with that plan for an artifact. Widmer’s ideas were helpful in figuring out the exact logistics of this website, particularly in developing a review process with the SPLC.

Upcoming posts

In a few days, my final blog post, complete with my artifact, will go live. Keep an eye out!

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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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