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Where Journalism Begins



I should have written this column last year. That was when McKinleyville High School decided to eliminate the newspaper class which produced the Paw Prints student paper. So I now apologize to the hardworking Paw Prints staff. I slept on my watch.

Their counterparts at Arcata High now face the same fate. To save money, the district might eliminate the class that produces the Pepperbox newspaper. That would relegate it to club status. In the tightly scheduled life of a high-school teen, that would leave many students without the time to participate in it. School newspapers that exist as a club, rather than a class, become cliquish. That becomes an obstacle for the introverted students who would most benefit from it. I know. The newspaper in my high school was a club and I didn't have the courage to join it.

I can't think of many things scarier than a high school journalist. I once stood in front of a roomful of them at Arcata High and it was terrifying. They stared at me with blank expressions. That's what you expect from high school kids. But with high school journalists, you know that behind those blank expressions their brains are working -- thinking critically about everything you say, questioning every statement you make.

Working on a newspaper is a transformative experience. I see that each term on the Lumberjack newspaper here at Humboldt State. Students come in afraid to talk to people they don't know; all their lives people told them to mind their own business and respect, rather than question, those in authority. They come out of the newspaper class with the confidence they need to accomplish any goal they set for themselves, whether it is to get a reporting job, apply for law school or go into public service.

Journalism forces students to toss many social rules out the window. You must butt into other people's business. You must plant yourself where people think you don't belong. You must ask impertinent questions to people in authority. You must question things people say to you. In high school, a newspaper teaches the most useful skills a person could have for any future profession: assertiveness and responsibility.

Students who come to Humboldt State from high school papers are different. They breeze through the journalism prerequisite that sends a large number of students off to other majors. Who knew journalism could be difficult? They already think critically and know how to synthesize and communicate complex information, which prepares them for courses they must take in the humanities, sciences and social sciences. Cut school papers out of high schools and you eliminate the best college prep class you've got. Want to raise test scores? Instead of eliminating journalism classes in high school introduce them in elementary school.

Journalism classes are cost-beneficial. While the district pays the cost for the class, students raise the money for printing the paper by selling ads. And the paper benefits more than the students who take the class by giving even students not in the class an avenue of expression. Want high school kids to read and write? Give them something to read that's about themselves and a place where they can communicate to their non-Facebook friends. As Pepperbox Co-editor Cedar Lay put it in a recent column in the Times-Standard: "Where else are students able to voice their opinions about how their school is run? How else can students hear about all the news and all the decisions being made behind closed doors that affect them and their school directly?"

In the age of electronic social networking, high-school papers are more necessary than ever. Kids now communicate to each other through the written word at very early ages. Text messages and tweets replace oral communication. Young people need to learn how to master written communication and the responsibilities that come with it. That's what high school journalism teaches. Quinn Miller, the Pepperbox managing editor, described it this way in a column to the Arcata Eye: "... the learning is self-paced and the result is something that can only be attained through teamwork. Hard work is rewarded while procrastination results in failure," he wrote. "There's no sweet-talking your way out of a press deadline, and if you screw up, all 800 of your peers will let you know about it."

As a community, we will leave to these high school students the environmental and societal problems we can't figure out how to fix. That's why we need to teach them the importance of public service. That's what high-school journalism teaches.

Consider this: The students on the Pepperbox hear from their school that the paper isn't necessary. They hear from the outside world that there is no future for newspapers. They likely hear from their parents that there will be no future jobs for them in newspapers. Yet they fight to keep alive a newspaper class that forces them to work harder than any other class they take.

Our Founding Fathers put freedom of speech and press, right after freedom of religion, as the most important rights Americans have. School newspapers give students real life lessons about their First Amendment rights: In 2008, the principal at Eureka High pulled issues of the Redwood Bark off racks because he was concerned about an artistic drawing the students published that included the figure of nude woman. He later apologized to the student body. In 2007, Pepperbox students had to respond to a widespread backlash from the student body after they published a student letter that argued that homosexuality was immoral.

Protect the Pepperbox. And bring back Paw Prints. Our publicly funded school systems need to recognize that classes that encourage expression and teach the responsibilities that come with that First Amendment right should be the last ones cut from the school curriculum.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.

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