The value of an outside perspective

Each spring brings another set of passages to high schools: end-of-year testing, the Prom and graduation. The journalism program is no different with its year-in-review newspaper, yearbook distribution, selection of new editors and staff and maybe a farewell banquet. The adviser likely gives a final exam or asks students to turn in a portfolio of their cumulative work. Along with those important events and activities, each publication or media staff should take advantage of the annual spring renewal to seek an outside perspective for maximum benefit.

Unlike students in other scholastic activities, journalism students have an opportunity to gain a greater understanding about the work they do by participating in an annual evaluation. Producing a newspaper, yearbook, website or magazine is a specialized activity. Getting better at it requires a broader perspective than just the students and adults in the newsroom.

Fortunately, staffs have numerous options for just this kind of advice through one of the critique services at the national or state levels. NSPA has a longstanding program, as do the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and the Quill and Scroll Society. Many state associations also offer evaluation services. These programs provide two important aspects to success: recognition for the hard work and achievement of the publication over the past year and suggestions for how to improve the endeavor.

The critique can’t be done in isolation, though. It must be put to work. Improvement is a process. Because the staff composition changes each year, a critique evaluates the publication at that time. That’s why the rating or score must be secondary to the suggestions for improvement. Through evaluation, reflection and action, a critique will provide a path to build on the foundation.

Evaluation. The evaluation comes in two stages. First, the staff must evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. Some critique programs will demand more evaluation from the editors and staff, while others request only a letter of explanation. However, identifying the publication’s areas of strength and deficiency will help the evaluating judge provide targeted feedback. Second, the judge will apply the association’s criteria to the publication. The judge will write about what is working and what isn’t. He or she should provide a blend of praise and suggestions — ideally with specific tips for how to make the improvements — and a rating according to the criteria.

Reflection. Once the evaluation has been returned to the adviser and staff, it’s time to review the comments and reflect on the suggestions from the judge. This evaluation from an outsider may raise some important issues on which the staff can reflect. Some of the points might be reminders of more rigid rules of scholastic journalism, while others might be more in line with preference or taste. Regardless, the editors and staff ought to consider each point carefully and determine whether it should be accepted. If a suggestion is to be disregarded, the rationale should be clearly stated. Simply disagreeing or taking a defensive attitude does not help improve the publication. From there, the editors can work with the adviser to determine the best course of action for implementing the suggestions and making the most of the critique.

Action. The steps to be taken after an evaluation are best expressed in a set of goals. Some of the goals may be individual, such as an editor’s goal to have more of a certain type of coverage in each edition. Others may be staff goals, such as reducing the number of errors before submitting pages or teaching staff members how to improve their photography skills. The adviser and editor in chief should work with section editors to develop the individual goals and staff goals based on the suggestions from the evaluation. The action plan is up to the staff. For example, if the judge suggests including more stories about off-campus sports and recreation, how will the staff make this happen?

Evaluation, reflection and action can happen throughout the year, but the annual review is one way to create a benchmark. Periodically refer to the goals as a way to keep the staff on track throughout the year. The previous year’s critique can be referenced when setting goals and also when submitting for the next critique. It’s acceptable to miss a few goals. Make sure that staff identifies and reflects on the reasons for falling short.

So add a new rite of spring to the staff’s checklist: the annual critique. When the critique is returned a few months after submitting, the staff can set to work on implementing the suggestions for the publication or website. Celebrate the rating, but use the evaluation as a launch pad for improvement.

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