Newsroom Training at Urban High Schools: By Learning Hands-On Skills, Minority Students Take the First Step to Becoming Journalists

By McDonnell, Lynda | Nieman Reports, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Newsroom Training at Urban High Schools: By Learning Hands-On Skills, Minority Students Take the First Step to Becoming Journalists


McDonnell, Lynda, Nieman Reports


Two and a half years ago, I walked out of a newsroom and onto a college campus to help build a program that could help identify and develop high school students of color who can be part of the next generation of journalists. The need is embarrassingly obvious. According to the latest census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the average American newsroom has 12.9 percent minority employees while the nation's population is nearly 32 percent.

Happily, by linking the skills of newsroom professionals and journalism professors with minority teens in urban high schools, we've found we can have a significant and rapid impact. Using journalist volunteers, we've helped revive newspapers at three urban high schools in Minnesota. Already 13 students who have attended our two-week summer camps since 2001 are studying journalism in college. Several more will start this fall.

A young Hmong student who attended our programs just landed a coveted internship at a local TV station. Four alumni of our summer program--a Liberian immigrant, a Somali refugee, and two Hmong women--are studying journalism at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts university in St. Paul, Minnesota in sore need of such diversity.

Equally important, through work in various urban high schools, I've seen what a powerful vehicle journalism can be for young people to express their concerns, share their experiences, and report on the world around them.

They see good stories. They do serious work, particularly when they have good guidance. We underestimate teens when we think we can hook them on newspapers by publishing stories about J-Lo and navel piercing. With few exceptions, the kids we see in journalism classes, weekend seminars, and the two-week summer camp have weightier things in mind.

But scholastic journalism is in serious trouble in many parts of the country. Budget cuts and a back-to-basics approach to education spurred by standardized testing means that more and more schools are doing without. In Minnesota, only 58 percent of the state's high schools have newspapers. Some of those are four pages photocopied in the school office.

The latest issue of Roosevelt Standard, the newspaper of a fortress-like public high school in Minneapolis, exemplifies what a good student newspaper can be. The place was named to honor Teddy Roosevelt. Jesse Ventura is its most famous alumnus. Now 85 percent of students are students of color, 70 percent are poor, and 37 percent speak English as a second language.

In the 1960's, the school produced a weekly paper. Two years ago, there was only one issue for the entire year. Since then, thanks in part to journalists who work with the journalism class twice a week, eight-page papers are produced each quarter. They're lively, timely and real. Along with news articles about the school's new fitness room and a visit by Dr. Peter Agre, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, there are thoughtful essays about why kids join gangs and how it feels to be gay when classmates call each other fags and dykes as a passing putdown.

Keeping the Standard alive hasn't been easy. Last year's journalism teacher was laid off in a round of budget cuts, but the principal was committed to preserving a journalism class and a newspaper. He recruited the head of the school's medical program to teach the first semester. When her husband got a job in another state, the school's testing coordinator stepped in.

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