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(Article submitted by the Missouri Press Association)

High school journalism students are gaining real-world communications skills and boosting local news content in a pilot program that could grow to other communities.

Sedalia School District 200, the Sedalia Democrat and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia have joined forces for Rookie Reporters, a program in which Smith-Cotton High School students report and write stories that are published with their bylines in the Democrat.

The students learn how to prepare for and conduct interviews, take notes, write in news and features styles and meet deadline. Like most media outlets, the Democrat has experienced staffing cutbacks, so the students’ stories provide additional local content that is relevant to its readership; with students reporting on school-related matters, the Democrat’s staff is able to pursue other issues.

The program started informally during the 2013-14 school year, and when Roger Gafke, director of program development for the Reynolds institute, heard about it, he proposed the Democrat and Sedalia 200 track students’ and readers’ experiences during the 2014-15 year to gauge whether Rookie Reporters could be effective in other communities.

“Our goal for this project is to discover ways to connect high school journalism students to community media organizations to report and produce editorial content on parts of the community that otherwise would not be covered by the regular staff of the organization,” Gafke said. “We hope both citizens and the students benefit.”

Smith-Cotton students have tackled an array of subjects, including concussion protocols for student athletes, the Family and Consumer Sciences’ class competing in versions of the Food Network shows “Cupcake Wars” and “Chopped,” a school-wide seatbelt safety program and a breakdown of the high rate of turnover recently among varsity head coaches.

Students also have written Opinion page commentaries about the pressure students feel to go to college and a plea to reduce the drama tied to teen relationships.

Sedalia Democrat Editor Dennis Rich sees Rookie Reporters as a way to fill educational gaps.

“Not only have we seen cutbacks in newsrooms, we have also seen the loss of high school publications as well as dramatic changes to area college journalism programs, eliminating the opportunities many of us had to learn the foundations of reporting and community journalism,” he said.

“Though the medium journalists use to convey information may change in the coming years, the skills needed always will remain. The Rookie Reporter program has allowed us to share some of that institutional knowledge with students as well as providing our readership with valuable content that helps tell the stories that inform and shape our communities.”

Chase PlymellJunior Chase Plymell, who wrote the coaching turnover story, has aspirations to go into sports journalism. He currently is working on a report about the declining number of three-sport athletes.

“Rookie Reporters offers many benefits,” Plymell said. “It provides many great opportunities to enhance communication skills and allows students to become more confident in their writing skills, which both can be applied to other classes in school and even real-world situations.”

Bob Satnan, Sedalia 200 communications director and journalism teacher, said Rookie Reporters is valuable for all students, not just those who plan to enter the communications field.

“As high school teachers, our job is to prepare students for the working world,” he said. “With Rookie Reporters, students gain vital communication skills that are applicable to most any occupation, and they have examples of their work to include in a resume packet that could give them a leg up on their competition. Our community also gains from knowing more about what is happening in its local schools. There are so many positives from this program, and we’re hopeful it can grow in Missouri and elsewhere.”

Originally published in the Missouri Press Association newsletter.

The photos accompanying this post are examples of published journalistic work produced by Smith-Cotton High School students as part of the Rookie Reporters pilot program are on display in the Sarah Cotton Computer Lab at Smith-Cotton High School, which is home base for the school’s journalism program. The Rookie Reporters program is a joint effort among Sedalia School District 200, the Sedalia Democrat and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia.


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