If you want to read some of the most interesting and relevant journalism in Humboldt County you'll have only till the end of the month. That's because this year it's been coming out of our local high schools and when the school year ends, so do the publications; many of the reporters and editors will then head off to colleges elsewhere in the state and country.
It is unfair to compare a high school newspaper with a professional publication. It comes out monthly, which is a lifetime in the newspaper business. On the other hand, the students have no advanced training or professional experience and have far less life experience than their professional counterparts. What they do have seems to be a fresh perspective on life around them, a healthy curiosity and the energy that we all seem to lose after our teen years.
One of the two papers, Arcata High's Pepperbox, received media attention last month after it printed a letter from a student that called homosexuality an immoral lifestyle. The letter offended many students, parents and teachers and led to a backlash against the paper and its staff and teacher. Editor Jesse Alm said he personally found the letter offensive, but the writer was exercising his right to freedom of expression and the paper would print all letters that came in that were not libelous. The teacher told the Times-Standard that she agreed to run it since it did not rise to the level of hate speech.
California's high school students enjoy greater free speech protections than do students in many other states. In a 1988 decision in the Missouri-based case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court said high school administrators could curb student expression if they could show they had a valid educational purpose in doing so. But the California Education Code does not allow school teachers or administrators to censor expression simply because it is controversial or potentially disruptive. A California appeals court judge recently reaffirmed that in a case that arose out of Marin County involving two columns in a high school paper in 2002, one of which focused on immigration issues and which offended many Latino students.
Elsewhere, students face harsher curbs on their rights to free speech. In January, an Indiana high school teacher who advised her student newspaper was suspended and later transferred to another school for allowing the publication of a pro-gay rights column without first getting permission from the principal.
The attention the Times-Standard gave the Pepperbox controversy overlooked what has been a year of some terrific journalism from both that paper, overseen by teacher Joan Williams, and McKinleyville High's Pawprints, overseen by teacher Anne Sahlberg.
Earlier in the year, Pepperbox reporter Coral Bourne interviewed students who had family serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and quoted one student who explained how upset it makes her when she sees Humboldt County residents protest the war -- to her it is as if these people protest what her sibling is doing even as they say they support the troops. Reporter Zari Duff wrote about the local availability to students of the new human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, something a bit controversial since a girl is not at risk for HPV until she begins having sex. And Alm and reporter Charlie Hankin collaborated on a story about the problems of methamphetamine in Humboldt County. In the story, they interviewed the Arcata Police Chief and a man on probation for meth-related crimes.
Over at Mack High, the Pawprints published six stories in its December issue that focused on homeless students. They reported that 95 of 743 students at Mack High spent at least part of last year living on the streets or moving from one couch to another as they shuffled between the homes of anyone who would take them in. The stories profiled three students living at Launchpad, a transitional living program for 16-20 year olds, and explored how and why they ended up on the street -- one was kicked out of a foster home, another was living with her father in a van until she moved into the home of a family friend where she slept on the couch, and a third saw first his mother and then his sister evicted from apartments. Pawprints profiled Launchpad, and another support program, The Raven Project. In a story by Feature Editor Kalie Tomlinson which looked at the idea of what "system" to blame, she noted that since there are limited methods for finding needy students, there could be many more of these homeless students out there. Many teenagers, she said, don't know the support programs exist and struggle to get by with little to no guidance.
The reader finds out, through the interviews, that even as the students struggle day to day, they haven't stopped dreaming. One wants to go to College of the Redwoods and then transfer to a university, another wants to have a car and apartment of his own and become a marine zoologist, and the third wants a good education so that her future children will have a better life.
The great philosopher and innovator Buckminster Fuller once said that children have an incredible natural ability to learn and then we send them to school and teach them how not to. I sometimes think that way about journalism education and training. While some of the more important journalism tends to come from experienced reporters, much of the really interesting stories come from the ones with the least experience; they simply know a good story when they see it, and they haven't yet learned to train their brains to seek the stories that will get them promotions and journalism industry accolades.
Across the country newspaper readership is in decline. An annual report on the state of the news media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted this year that daily circulation dropped 6.3 percent over the last three years.
The future rests with our children and if newspapers want to be included in that future, perhaps newspaper editors should take a close look at what young people are writing and reading. They might learn something.