by Tracy Thompson
CCJ Traveling Curriculum trainer and contributing writer Tracy Thompson is a former Washington Post and Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter and the author of two books: The Beast: A Journey Through Depression and The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression. She blogs regularly here.
In his inaugural address, President Obama urged Americans to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.” Community service work is no longer the province of retirees and socialites and urban missionaries, we are told; volunteerism is hip, something we all ought to be thinking of ways to do. Naturally, I thought: I know! Let’s start some student newspapers!
My God, you are thinking, this woman thinks it’s still 1975 – but hear me out. As the parent of two children enrolled in public school in suburban Washington, D.C., I speak from experience when I say that schools have not really entered the digital age. For all their talk of “one laptop for every child” and all the push for computer labs, the average public school still communicates on paper. On any given afternoon, millions of school-age children across this country walk in the door of their homes loaded down like pack mules with paper homework assignments, notes from the teacher, PTA notices, flyers about bake sales, behavior charts, school calendars, fund-raiser exhortations and sign-up sheets for this or that. Your kids may be able to surf the Internet in their sleep, they may text like fiends under the dinner table, but during school hours they live in an environment where print still reigns supreme. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing – actually, I tend to think content is more important than the medium it comes in – but it is what it is. Distributing printed matter to hundreds of kids is something schools do every day already. Newspapers may be tanking in the real world, but in this environment, it’s a model that still works.
I speak from experience here because a couple of years ago I volunteered at my older daughter’s elementary school to be the adviser for a student newspaper. My little experiment didn’t go very far – the newspaper folded after one issue, and I’ll say more about that in a minute – but it taught me some valuable lessons, the most important of which is that kids from about the age of 8 on up absolutely eat up the idea of expressing themselves in print. They aren’t just interested in journalism; they are natural-born journalists already. Give them an organized outlet for expressing their opinions, permission to scour the halls for the latest gossip and the chance to be the first to know stuff, and they think they’ve died and gone to heaven. I had more volunteers for my little newspaper than I could possibly handle; I had to limit it to fourth- and fifth-graders, and ask the teachers to winnow down the applicants.
There was also a lot they needed to learn. These were kids who had been steeped in various kinds of media since birth, who were experienced media consumers. But many of them were strangers to the idea of mentally sifting through the information they were being bombarded with. That’s not to say they were gullible; if anything, they regarded a Bratz commercial and The New York Times with the same jaundiced eye. One of my first jobs was to talk about where information comes from, and the kinds of questions to ask – things like: Who’s saying this? Why are they telling me? Does anybody else say the same thing? A journalist’s job, I said, was to do this kind of sifting, and as much as he or she was able, to get the facts right. To some of the kids, I could tell this was a new idea. They’d grown up hearing so many assaults on the media that it had never occurred to them journalism might be a way of pursuing truth.
We brainstormed ideas; we talked about story-telling; we talked about opinion writing and news gathering and working in teams and taking good pictures. The questions they asked me made me realize how smart they were, how complicated some of these topics were, and how much skill it took to convey some of those complexities in ways that made sense to them.
And I learned some other things, too. I learned that in educational terms, school newspapers are a huge luxury; teachers were enthusiastic about the idea, but their days were so filled with standardized tests and state mandates and basic instruction that there was no time in their world to do even one extra thing. The kids I ended up working with had to be good students who could easily make up whatever they missed in class once a week because class proceeded on its lockstep march without them. Space was at a premium, too; we met sometimes in a corner of the library, sometimes clustered around a couple of old desks in a hallway.
And that, in the end, was why my little experiment lasted only one issue: I undertook it not understanding the hurdles I would be facing. It just wasn’t possible to generate any continuity without a regular meeting time and place, and our meeting times kept getting bumped because of school assemblies or tests or some other interruption. If I had it to do over, I would concentrate on one grade; I would figure out one place to meet, even if it was the janitor’s closet; and I’d have a regular meeting time, even if it was before or after school, and I would establish a publication schedule from the start. I also was dealing with a principal who, I think, saw my newspaper idea as my own little vanity project. It goes without saying that anybody doing this needs to get the principal completely on board.
But it can be done – and it’s a terrific opportunity for any professional journalist, no matter what medium you work in. Journalists are an army of people with a wide array of knowledge and talents, and these days, unfortunately, the woods are full of journalists who have been downsized and are looking for something meaningful to do. Here it is. I’d suggest working with kids no younger than fifth-graders; they are old enough to grasp some fairly complicated ideas but too young to be blasé about things. Go in prepared, and willing to put in some hours because (as I have learned the hard way too many times to count) nothing like this is as easy as you think it reasonably ought to be.
It will, however, be worth it. You may or may not incubate some future journalists, but who knows? Journalists and children are both natural egomaniacs; introducing kids to the thrill of seeing their names in print is like showing baby ducks where the water is. I wrote my first newspaper story for a school paper in seventh grade, and I vividly recall realizing that someday it might be possible to write stuff total strangers would read and get paid for doing it. For the life of me, I couldn’t see why a person would want to do anything else. Even now that I am in my dotage, or close enough that I can see my dotage from here, I can remember many times when I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to run around, untethered to a desk, finding out really interesting stuff. And that’s another concept some kids need to be introduced to – the idea of work as something soul-satisfying, something that actually qualifies as fun.
The real benefit, though, will be to you. If you’re starting to feel burned out at work, or you’re wondering if journalism as you know it is a dying craft, this will be a wake-up call. It will remind you why you got into the business, and it will force you to articulate what you think is most important about it. And you’ll be passing on one of the most important lessons of living in a democracy, which is that it’s not some abstract legacy handed down to us by a bunch of 18th-century geniuses we call the Founding Fathers, but something we choose to create and re-create with every new generation. I can’t think of a better way to empower the next generation to keep up that work than by showing them how to ask questions, think critically and exercise their curiosity. And if in the process they discover that for them, as it was for H.L. Mencken and others, being a reporter really is the life of kings – well, then they’ll know our little secret.
Talk to Tracy at firstname.lastname@example.org.