Young journalists know print, online and pain

CHICAGO — As newspapers reinvent themselves, high school newsrooms are locked in their own transition amid the economic tumult that has jolted the industry.

Several school newspapers in Illinois, for example, now publish online only, while others are turning to the Internet to post stories edged out of a shrinking newspaper.

These days, the pressures of tighter budgets, thinner papers and slumping ad sales are as central to the lessons of journalism as beat reporting and editing, educators said. “If we want to make it as real world as we can make it, you’ve got to be able to pay for the pages (through advertising). If you can’t pay for the pages, you figure out another way to do things,” said Michael Gordy, adviser to Antioch Community High School’s paper, The Tom Tom.

The high school in Chicago’s northern suburbs now publishes a 12-page paper every month, down from 24 pages a year ago. Fewer pages means smaller production costs — a necessity when the newspaper’s bank account is $2,269 in the red, Gordy said. Every student is urged to sell three ads plus sweets in a monthly bake sale to close the gap.

Still it was news coverage, not cash balances, that dominated a recent class discussion. Editor in chief Ashley Meyer, 18, and the paper’s 20-member staff bounced around ideas for the April issue, which was to include a pro-con editorial on gay marriage, a follow on a survey about how kids treat one another in school, and a preview of the spring musical’s performance for senior citizens.

“Will someone who’s not in the student council and not in the play please write that story?” Meyer said.

With the last article assigned, students left the classroom for the computer lab next door to start researching. They’ve learned that with space shrinking, only the most compelling stories make it into print.

“Even if we can’t run a lot of pages … we definitely know we are putting our best work in,” said Chris Terzic, 17, chosen as next year’s sports editor.

Other schools have no pages at all.

University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill., shifted its editorial operation online four years ago and pushed students to cover more stories, more often than a monthly print would allow. Students initially tried to publish the newspaper and an online edition, but they opted to go Web-only when the workload became too much, said adviser Dave Porreca. Budgetary woes hastened the digital-only push at Lake Zurich High School. Publishing the Bear Facts newspaper online next year could save $11,000 in annual printing costs at a time when the district faces a $4 million shortfall, a spokesman said.

Some schools are adding a digital element simply to stay relevant.

Among them is Peoria, Ill.’s Richwoods High School newspaper, which will begin in the fall to publish some articles from The Shield online, while weighing the promise of reaching more readers and advertisers with concerns about still finding time to produce a top-notch newspaper.

“They’ll be selective so there’s still a reason to have the print version,” said adviser Dan Kerns. At $4, annual subscriptions and some advertising cover production expenses. Students have worked with the printer to save money where possible.

Mt. Carmel High School on Chicago’s South Side published its first online-only edition this year in addition to the five printed editions.

“If the money is there, I prefer to have that paper in your hands, but maybe I’m getting to be a dinosaur,” said journalism teacher John Gonczy.

Less certain, Kerns said, is whether a second newspaper published by Richwoods journalism students will survive the belt-tightening in Peoria Public Schools District 150, where up to a $9 million shortfall is projected next year. Two-newspaper schools may be going the way of two-newspaper towns like Denver and Seattle.

Despite the tumult, students are not shying away from journalism.

Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism graduated 184 students last year, up 24 percent from a decade ago. At Columbia College in Chicago, 127 students received journalism degrees in 2007, up 32 percent from five years earlier. The University of Missouri School of Journalism graduated 475 students last year, a 40 percent increase in a decade.

“The kids who are committed, who want to write or shoot, they still are excited. Their parents might be worried they are not going to have a job when they graduate. But students are still passionate,” said Sally Turner, executive director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association.

Julie Fine has gone door to door in Antioch selling ads for the school paper. The 16-year-old junior has baked cookies for bake sales and come in on Sunday mornings to lay out the paper — all while watching the newspaper get thinner and the debt get bigger.

Yet Fine, the next editor in chief, said she can’t imagine doing anything else. She hopes to study journalism at Indiana University and then find a job at whatever publication — online or printed — is hiring. “This is what I do, and I love newspapers,” Fine said. “But will I have a future in it? I just don’t know.”