The National Scholastic Press Assocation (high school version of ACP) announced its annual online pacemaker finalists, and for the first time since before I was editor in chief there, the Grizzly Gazette did not place. I'm not going to say I'm surprised by this. The Grizzly Gazette -- the online-only newspaper for Granite Hills High School in Porterville, Calif. -- is produced and maintained 100 percent by students. The problem: they update by hand in Dreamweaver. That's right, no content management system.
With multiple updates a day, there's a huge focus on the technical end and not so much on the content. I'm not saying that the technical aspect isn't important, but it's not a web design class; it's a journalism class. The flashy stuff is worthless when the content is no good.
By using a CMS, the students could focus on producing high-quality content, including (not limited to) video and slideshows and podcasts and -- dare I say it -- writing! A CMS won't entirely forfeit the students' ability to learn the dynamics of HTML and the web, it just takes away the redundancy of adding a new row to the top of the page and inserting a fresh thumbnail and hyperlink with each new article. Instead, students can focus their technical expertise on more advanced skills.
Advice from a college j-student
Now to the real point of this blog post (now that I'm done preaching about their need for a CMS). Yes, Pacemaker awards make for good bragging rights, but the real value of being involved with the Grizzly Gazette is the freedom to innovate.
Upon reflecting on my days with the Gazette, I realize that the environment I was so accustomed to in high school is exactly what college journalism education needs right now. Evan Hackett (the Gazette advisor) had the idea of starting an online-only newspaper, despite criticism from the school district's IT administrators that it would be too hard. They literally laughed in his face. Because of his indestructive optimism (and stubborn persistence), I came into college ten steps ahead of the rest of my journalism peers.
He took it upon himself to learn Dreamweaver and get students motivated. In Mr. Hackett's classroom, the word "No" didn't exist. We tried new things and broke the rules and went against every expectation that anyone ever had.
In high school, I never realized that I was producing the future of journalism. I didn't realize the industry was changing or struggling. I didn't realize how groundbreaking it was that I was part of a leading student news site or that teaching myself HTML and Photoshop would have so much value.
College journalism school is in desperate need for educators like Hackett. We need people who are willing to stay up with the times and force students to do the same. We need teachers who let their students take control and try to learn with them as they go. We need more Evan Hacketts in the college world.
So, Grizzly Gazetters, this post is for you. Let this be an opportunity for you to seriously assess the news site. Find out what works and what doesn't. What are your weaknesses and how can you improve? Most of all, how can you innovate? Do things that the professional and college worlds haven't thought of yet.
Trust me, the rest of the journalism world is struggling. In high school, you have nothing to lose. There are no major advertisers at stake. You're not pressured with the lingering fear of getting a job. You're free to experiment and bring fresh ideas to the rest of us. You're free to make mistakes without terrible repercussions. Take advantage of it while you still have a teacher who will let you get away with anything and support you along the way.
Nothing is holding you back. So hold your heads high, restructure, re-prioritize and have a strong comeback next year.