Below is the text of the address given by the 2006 Dow Jones News Fund National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year Alan Weintraut at the JEA/NSPA Fall Convention in Nashville.
I would like to thank the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, Rich Holden and Linda Shockley for sponsoring the awards program and for bringing us together. I would also like to thank my parents, my family and friends who have traveled from Iowa, Minnesota, Virginia and Washington D.C., to be here today. I would also like to thank all my colleagues and friends from Fairfax County Public Schools and the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers including Carol Lange, Becky Sipos and Niki Holmes, who at times have served as mentors, but always as friends. Lastly, I would like to give appreciation to Terry Sopher, the parent of one of my highest achieving students, Chris Sopher, for providing the impetus for this application process.
This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this teacher of feathering his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to encouraging and possibly enlightening thoughts.
It is my desire, if not my pleasure and my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen and women with some candor and enthusiasm about what is happening to scholastic journalism, and our place in it as media advisers.
I recently had a discussion with a producer from the Discovery Channel who came to my classroom to talk about the future of journalism. We addressed several topics of concern. He asked me how I felt about the industry to which we are preparing our youth, especially since it has had a broad dose of bad news in the last five to ten years.
Newspapers around the country are either being bought up by corporate interests, or they are on the auction block to the highest bidder. The reasons chiefly being that their profit margins are only 20% and not 30% percent that Wall St. has grown accustomed to. Those of you from the Los Angeles area know this fact very well.
Layoffs in the corporate newsrooms today are common, and too often community newspapers reprint wire stories found in big cities far away. Readers are sometimes disenfranchised by the very product that is supposed to unite a community and help shape and define the local culture. How many of us have traveled to a major city, bought the local newspaper at the airport, only to find that half the front page stories and nearly all of the editorial comment have been written from inside the Beltway?
Though revenues have not dipped commensurately, readership is on a sharp decline. According to a recent Pew poll, today, only 40 percent of American adults say they read the newspaper yesterday, down from 71% in 1965. And a recent Carnegie study showed that teenagers barely read the newspaper at all.
Whether our students look to the Internet, print or broadcast or Podcasts, there aren’t many models for them to follow these days. The Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glass’s and unconscious plagiarists in our profession have sullied a once proud and noble calling. The Cronkites, Murrows and Koppels have been replaced by the Coopers, Courics and other focus-group tested beauties.
As the TV screens have gotten flatter and bigger, the talent has gotten thinner and smaller.
Questions and calls about censorship to the Student Press Law Center have been on a steady incline, and in too many cases administrators feel our public relations function eclipses all other independent thought or creative expression students should possess.
This producer from the Discovery Channel had raised some important issues with me that day in my office.
But whether you have been a media adviser for 1, 5, 15 or 30 years, essential to our survival of the production cycles, complaints and long nights of pizza boxes and computer glitches…is understanding that we embrace the challenges that are brought to us each day. We come together in a forum such as this to share information and find support among colleagues in what has become this “mutual admiration society” we call the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association.
As I went on one of my night runs through my neighborhood of tree-lined rowhouses in Washington D.C. on the eve of election night, the Capitol looming behind me and following me like a full moon, I once again thought about my own place in this profession…the most challenging I have ever had.
I reflected on the answers I gave to issues raised by the Discovery Channel producer:
There are three reasons we choose to rise to the challenges of our day.
First, we become the chief stakeholders in our school communities. If you have been a media adviser for just a few years, and you have built a successful program of telling stories that matter the most to your readers, viewers and listeners, you know how identifiable and important your programs become to your school culture. We can measure that in yearbook sales, newspaper subscriptions and Internet story hits, but the best way for us is to listen for the sounds of silence. For 15 minutes every three weeks when the newspaper is published and hits the hallways, kids and adults stop to read about the news that is closest to where they live. At end-of-the-year yearbook signing parties and magazine distributions, kids exchange fond promises of forever lasting friendships, and they linger for hours, earnestly scribbling words that we all periodically reflect upon years after we’ve left high school. In our adult years, yearbooks and magazines become the only journalism many of us have left from high school.
While print versions of newspapers have seen a decline in audience, many of us enjoy a veritable captive and long lasting audience. Where local papers sometimes print too much of wire service stories, communities look to high school publications to cover all the material that can’t be found on Google.
Advisers who have grown through their fledgling years become their own POPS sponsors, department chairs, and liaisons to the PTSA. We are asked serve on panels that select the next principal. We become a strong thread in the fiber of our communities, and administrators learn to recognize that they need us sometimes need us more than we need them, especially for yearbook advisers whose average career life expectancy is just 3 years.
We are here principally for our students, but sometimes it is just about us. And although many of us face our own particular challenges to First Amendment freedoms, and some of us went to great fundraising lengths just to be here in Nashville, few of us are in danger of being downsized or laid off. We do not need to be airbrushed or ready for our close up to be effective in the classroom. The discriminating quality we ask our broadcast students have is initiative.
Secondly, no one in our schools recognizes the transformative quality of media and its impact on youth as well as we do. We tap the constructive potential of media and increase media literacy. We recognize that the “new media” is the only media that matters to teenagers.
The recent Carnegie report citing the youth abandonment of newspapers is not news to us. Clearly, teenagers do not rely on the morning paper on their doorstep or the nightly newscast for up-to-date information; in fact, they—as well as us—want their news on demand. We are the vanguards for implementing new technology in our schools.
I read the blogs, JEA list serve postings and news stories like you do. I see the decline in newspaper readership, but it is highly doubtful that teenagers don’t care about the news.
Close to home back in Washington, D.C., when Virginia Senator George Allen called a Democratic volunteer of Indian descent a “macaca,” students viewed and reviewed that moment on YouTube. It is still one of the most watched clips today. Many credit that media moment for Allen’s loss for reelection to the Senate. And when Steve Irwin, died in September, I first heard about it through a text message, from a student.
Students want to be connected to the news that impacts their lives, but sometimes they need our help to be steered away from Sodoku and similar distractions.
We can handle the tsunami of new technology that comes out ever year. The advancements in the just the last five years have revolutionized how we help students improve journalism and tell stories in their schools, and we have been first-hand participants in that process.
- the iPod just turned five years old, and many of us are already on the Podcasting bandwagon.
- Google did not exist as a noun until 1998, and then a verb just four years ago when AOL declared Google “the reigning champ of online search.” Our students’ reporting has never been so factually based as it is today.
- Myspace signs up 230,000 users on a typical day—roughly the population of Scottsdale. A year ago it passed Google in terms of traffic, and now MySpace ranks second to Yahoo in page views, with one billion daily, according to Fortune magazine.
We help them derive meaning from their media saturated world. They chronicle their lives with music, movies and photos of every achievement, and sometimes they want to put it up on the Web for immediate feedback, to re-resonate meaning.
Somewhere we all have a box of photos from high school or our youth that number no greater than 100 pictures, and that might reflect our entire life from infancy to 18 or 21.
When we take students to conventions today, and they have 300 pictures—just from the one trip—and they are up on Flicker, Web Shots or sometimes on their own self-created Web pages. I guarantee you there will be students at this convention today who will post photos and blogs before they ever get home.
Though technology has changed rapidly in recent years, one thing has stayed the same with teenagers that is on our side: they are still delightfully narcissistic. It’s still all about them. Like the person yelling from the mountaintop to see if their voice is heard, they want that media validation, or at least the resonance of their own echo. They stake their claim on their Myspace, Facebook, Friendster and YouTube to give themselves their own personal proclamation of identity.
And we are there to navigate through the complexity of their connectivity.
Although we are not early adopters, and many of use cannot write HTML code, we have iPods, we provide wireless access and take-home laptops and Blackboard user groups to help them stay connected with each other. We provide them with the electronic umbilicals to the news world. We are orchestra conductors who know how the song should be played, and we know how to coach students to hit the right notes, even though we never pick up the instruments ourselves.
We create converging communities that change the world.
By partnering with local professional media who come into the classroom, enlisting the support of the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, we find new audiences and new technologically-based ways to circumvent censorship and use it to our advantage.
Divisions between publications in our schools are dissolving. Yearbook photos are spreads are on the web, newspapers are on the web, and broadcast modes are found everywhere in TV stations in school with online clips for the world to see.
Our publications labs and newsrooms are an oasis for kids who get dragged down by the high pressure testing culture our schools have become.
All 50 states have standardized tests that are barriers to graduation. We reward kids for a sameness or oneness in thought. We want everyone to bubble in the right answer, and we reward convergence in thought. In journalism, we converge our media so we teach kids how to produce stories for the web, print, radio and broadcast, but we always inspire for divergent paths of thinking in editorials, commentary and coverage decisions.
Our publications become magnets that draw students to a world where their geekiness has value, and sometimes it can be the students’ first opportunity to discover who they are. We are also inclusive of the broader world, and our nerd herds have kids from all faiths, all walks of life and all nationalities. Unlike other electives, publications staffs need all types of kids to be successful. Noncaucasian students are coming into the fold more, and that one elusive minority demographic can be seen in greater numbers on yearbook staffs: guys.
We are the coaches who see our students through all four seasons, and often all four years of their high school lives. We, in turn, begin to mark our careers by the editors and students who touch our lives. Like you, I have many former students who are now journalists at prominent media organizations. However, I am most proud of the fact that in the last five years, I have not gone a month without having lunch or dinner or attending a social function of a former editor.
In summary, to answer the concerns of the Discovery Channel producer, I told him that we aren’t trying to make every student into a journalist. But we keep kids engaged in the civic process, we bring them to real-world learning experiences, and they make publications and products that will stay with them forever.
In short, we change students’ lives.
I know, because 20 years ago, I was in that nerd herd, and I found a way to develop my talents. I was a newspaper geek in my formative years in the mid ’80s in Davenport, Iowa, under the tutelage of Steven Lyle at West High School, and then Dick Johns at the University of Iowa.
I forgot to tell you, the Discovery Channel producer came to my office that day, not because he was doing a piece on scholastic journalism, he came looking for a job. Approaching his mid-40s, he was looking for a soul-satisfying job, and I said, welcome to our world.
Considering all of the resources available to us and the potential for impact on the lives of young people, there has never been a better time to be a media adviser.
Our history and our future will be what we make it.
I hope you all make it a great year.
Good afternoon, and good luck!