High school journalists. When you read that, do you "see" six or seven kids gathered at 3 p.m. in a tiny office (probably near the boiler room) behind a door marked The Bugle, writing articles about the prom, with the adviser looking over their shoulders to be sure they don't get "too far off base"?
Well, better look again. High school journalism, like the rest of our computerized society, is changing rapidly and shows signs of being almost unrecognizable in the next 10 years.
Tomorrow's journalists are today setting their own school yearbook type on off-line computers; they are working on community-oriented teen newspapers that explore controversial issues ranging from student's evaluating their own teachers to teen-age pregnancy, and they are interviewing legislators with mini-cameras.
And, yes, of course, many (we'll admit it's probably the majority) are still telling their own school's stories in their boiler room "Bugle" offices, yet with a higher degree of professionalism and freedom than students have ever experienced.
Although the old prom and baby picture stories are definitely on the way out, some things have not changed. They would be easily recognizable to the thousands of adults who were former sports or senior picture editors in high school and who value the leadership training they got through journalism. Personally evaluated writing help, self-discipline, selling, know-how, and experience in group dynamics -- these things remain.
"More students than ever before are being taught responsibility," according to Ronald Clemons, president of the Journalism Education Association. Tom Rood, director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association at Central Michigan University, agrees. "Not everybody who comes out of a high school journalism program becomes a professional journalist," Mr. Rood says. "In fact, the number is small.
"What we are doing is taking some of the brightest, most promising young people in the high school and training them in researching, meeting deadlines, business management -- there is almost no discipline we don't touch."
It is clear, however, that the background in which these qualities are being developed is shifting rapidly. First of all, financing the high school paper is no longer "a piece of cake."
Costs of printing the average school paper have doubled in the last three years: Film and paper costs are rapidly increasing, and the price of ink has risen 200 percent in three years. "Tax cuts like the Jarvis in California and [ tax] millage failures are hurting us," says Mr. Clemons. "Journalism teachers are getting pink-slipped, and teachers who are not trained in journalism are being put in their places. Worse yet, programs are being cut back or even dropped completely."
Advisers, determined to keep journalism in the schools, are scrambling to become self-sufficient and to economize -- they are pasting up their own yearbooks, setting photo- readytype, and reverting, if absolutely necessary, to mimeograph machines. Despite the budget problems, however, many agree that the state of high school journalism has never been healthier.
They are encouraged by several important trends:
* Students are flocking to journalism programs as never before, attending conferences and summer sessions to supplement their journalism courses. They are enthusiastically interacting with professionals: Many papers like the Detroit Free Press and the Washington Post send reporters to teach at conferences and even bring the students into the editorial rooms to make up pages and set type on exciting new electronic machines.
* New technology in electronic journalism and computerized printing is demonstrating that it can work at several major high schools in the country, and with decreasing prices, more and more students will be able to get experience with the machines of the computerized future.
* Most important by far is the new trend toward honest, in-depth exploration in print of issues important to young people. All over the country, in big and little schools, students now have a freedom inconceivable 10 years ago to explore school board actions, course offerings, teacher qualifications, and the teen-age job market.
The effect of opening up school papers as real forums for the expression of serious issues cannot be overestimated.
Until the 1970s, school administrators usually thought of themselves as publishers of the school paper and expected students to present "good news" and to stay away from controversy. Today many schools actively encourage their school papers to responsibly present youth issues, and editors and reporters are jumping to respond. Headlines like this are common in school papers today: "May I please see your ID?"; "Black and white together"; "Teachers burn out, syndrome evident"; and "Angel dust proves not so heavenly."
The example of students in the Chicago area, who did a thorough investigation of fast-food hiring practices and abuses, is only one of several to receive national attention recently.
The Columbia Scholastic Press Association is one of several agencies awarding prizes to outstanding school journalists, and recent medals have gone to schools that focused on serious issues. For example, Deerfield Academy's Scroll won a Medalist Award last year for issues that included stories on increasing campus vandalism, test scores and college prospects, campus counseling, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Freedom of speech for high school publications is encouraged by the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., a not-for-profit agency funded by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and other sources. The center attempts to educate principals, advisers, and "the several students who call in each week" on what First Amendment rights are for high school students. Recent court cases have established the principle that public schools are extensions of the state and must allow papers to serve as open forums for discussion.
It's a difficult area, and the cause of friction at some schools. But one student paper's enterprise proved, in the long run, to be a boon for everyone. A feature editor at Truman High School in Independence, Mo., surveyed the school's lack of compliance with federally ordered guidelines for facilities for the handicapped. The result was that the school responded by speeding necessary changes.