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.

Balancing the public’s right to know with its safety

A post to the JEA email discussion list this month asked for response to the actions of a community paper, which published the names and addresses of gun permit holders. This was in the wake of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., which claimed two dozen lives.

The paper’s story. The Poynter Institute’s report about the publication. But should student news media cover this story, and if so how?

The two issues here would definitely make for some interesting class discussion as well as a news story or point-counterpoint opinion article. I hope some news staffs are inspired to cover the debate around public records.

The two issues are, of course, whether the data should be available to the public and then whether the newspaper was right to publish the database with a map.

For the debate on why records are public, I think Washington state has a wonderful explanation from its “sunshine law”: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” That is the spirit behind most sunshine laws — the public can hold its servants and agencies accountable only by knowing what those people and offices are doing.

Minnesota law states that all government-collected data is public unless specifically excluded. Here’s a new wrinkle in the private-or-not debate: The Star Tribune reported in August that cameras mounted in Minneapolis police vehicles routinely photograph license plates and add the plate and location to a database — almost 5 million vehicles in the first eight months of 2012. Turns out that data is public, and people have varying feelings on whether it should be. The report used as example the various locations of the mayor’s city-owned vehicle.

Today, Minnesota Public Radio reported that among the 100 requests for the city’s database were several from academic researchers and business opportunists. The story made me realize there are many other uses to public data besides just curiosity and accountability. The data can lead to academic discoveries and new business. One example was the route of the police vehicle itself (a one-day example video is online) and another explored whether a vehicle reposession agent could improve his job with access to the data. Most people probably don’t want their car’s location tracked, let alone published, but this story helped me see different perspectives.

Imagine the benefit of having a discussion with students about the value of public records and how they serve the public’s interest in many ways. Journalists serve the public interest, too — they are the watchdogs of government on behalf of the public. Then, move the discussion to how journalists can best serve the public and whether publishing a complete database is helpful or causes more problems.

I’d love to see some thoughtful examples of this work by students.

Look for photos beyond the obvious

As part of its Lightbox feature online, the photo editors of Time magazine recently showcased the work of Pete Souza, chief official White House photographer. This article included Souza’s comments on his work photographing the Obama Administration and the Obama Family and the photos that he’s captured since 2009.

Souza said that as he assembled the 100 images for this Lightbox feature that he wanted to create a portrait of the president to help people understand him. Souza had known the president since Obama became a senator in 2005 when Souza was working for the Chicago Tribune. “I was looking for things that I knew that if he ever became President you would never see again,” Souza said in text accompanying the Time feature. “[Obama was] walking down a sidewalk in Moscow in 2005 and no one recognized him. I realized that if he ever became President, you would never, ever see a photo like that again. The odds of becoming President are obviously pretty slim, but I knew he had the potential. And you can’t say that about too many people.”

What Souza recognized that day in 2005 — that something special was to come and Obama had the potential to be famous well into the future — made Souza begin to look for moments that would prove valuable in the course of history.

That’s exactly what student journalists need to do, too. Even as a photographer captures the action of a game or assembly or flirting in the halls, he or she can always look for the action that’s beyond the field and the obvious photos. Seek the behind-the-scenes moments that will help future readers to know what it was like on that day — at that moment at your school. Look for the stories around school that have the potential to tell us as readers and viewers not just what’s important today but what might be important in the future. These are the observations, the moments, the glimpses that will prove valuable in the course of history as our memories fade – our impressions of the school change.

And advisers need to help students see these moments. Advisers know that moments change unexpectedly. Whether in triumph or tragedy, teach students to anticipate many situations. Doing so will mean that unexpected won’t mean unprepared. Help students see beyond the obvious and to collect bits of observation, sideline images and off-hand comments before assembling a larger narrative.

Sometimes the narrative is not apparent even though students are in the middle of documenting it. That’s why going beyond the obvious is so important. Some photos, quotes or stories are obviously important, while others may prove valuable only later. The challenge as a journalist is recognizing the potential in everything.

Find Pete Souza’s collection of images:

When considering colleges, look at student media

In March 2012, an email message arrived from a familiar sender, so I opened it immediately. “Hi Mr. Aimone,” it read. “This is Henry Rome, and I’m now the editor in chief of The Daily Princetonian.” I remembered Henry as a standout editor of The Spoke newspaper at Conestoga High School in Pennsylvania. He carted home a stack of plaques he and his staff won from the National Scholastic Press Association — for writing and multimedia as well as a national Pacemaker Award for general excellence and as 2009 National High School Journalist of the Year.

Now, as a college newspaper editor, Henry was interested in replicating some aspects from his successful past. Like many others, Henry wanted to see his peers at The Daily Princetonian recognized for their excellent work, so he sought membership in NSPA’s college branch, the Associated Collegiate Press. He’s not alone in wanting to continue his passion.

Among the most rewarding and fun aspects of my role as executive director is recognizing outstanding high school journalists and watching them become outstanding collegiate journalists. Some, like Henry, move into leadership roles at daily papers. Others work as reporters, photographers, designers, Web managers or in advertising.

Students who have a passion for storytelling — no matter the platform — should find a way to pursue it beyond high school. One of the components of NSPA’s mission is to foster careers in journalism, but a small number of high school journalists will find a career as a journalist. But they can extend their career as a student journalist a bit longer by finding a college media program that fits.

College media organizations come in many shapes and sizes. Universities with an established journalism school will likely offer multiple student media outlets. For example, Indiana University has a daily newspaper with a website, a features magazine, a yearbook and both radio and television stations.

It doesn’t take a big journalism school to have strong student media. Community colleges provide excellent opportunities to get involved right away. Most have a newspaper in print or online, and the staff is usually a loyal and motivated group. The selection of courses might be limited, so students with skills are essential. Experienced students from high school programs can jump in and participate fully. California has many strong community college journalism programs.

While most high schools offer yearbook journalism, many colleges don’t. Standout yearbook programs like at the University of Oklahoma or the University of Miami in Florida operate successful businesses based on producing a record of the year. Specialty magazines programs require similar skills. Drake University in Iowa and the University of Oregon are two schools with outstanding student-produced magazines.

Some college media organizations operate independently of the institution. The University of Missouri’s independent newspaper, the Maneater, is completely student-run, as are Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota and the Daily News at Yale University. These staffs don’t even have an adviser.

Finding the college that fits means discovering a school where students can participate in student media organizations from the first days on campus. Visit the newsroom and learn the available positions and requirements to join the student media staff. Some colleges require a couple years on campus before students can join the newspaper. Others may hire first-year students, but the process may be competitive. Large schools with daily newspapers will need many students to fill all positions, including specialized beats. Schools with a weekly paper and a daily website will require covering broader beats.

Consider the student media organization’s campus presence. In addition to a newspaper in print and online, many will have a magazine as well as yearbook and broadcast media. Students who worked on a high school yearbook staff may discover a special-interest magazine would be a good place to work. Designers and photographers could work for multiple media, and the skills developed in making high school broadcast or multimedia projects could lead to the campus radio or television station.

Finally, what role can a student can play in the student media organization? The smaller the staff, the more hats an individual will be required to wear. Some students will like the variety of duties and ability to work on all aspects of production. Others prefer to specialize.

Working on collegiate student media can be enriching, rewarding and fun. It can also pay the bills. Large schools will pay editors, reporters, designers and photographers, while small schools might pay editors but rely on volunteer staff. Most will pay advertising sales reps a commission.

Ask questions to help understand how to continue a passion in college. Doing so will lead a student to a college that fits.

Blaze a trail and try something new

In January, I came across a remembrance in The New York Times of a pioneering photographer who had died recently. I read with interest about Louise Serpa and how she came to love both photography and rodeo. She was a pioneer in both. I grew up in a rodeo town, and one of my mentors in college was a rodeo photographer, so I have always had an interest in this area. Growing up, I knew a lot of people who were tough and classy like Serpa.

Though I have never been an arena photographer, it is easy to see how it can be both exhilarating and exceptionally dangerous. Other sports photographers may contend with thrown bats or a stumbling running back, but in Serpa’s profession, she had to keep shooting while avoiding bulls, broncs or bucked-off cowboys.

While reading the article, it occurred to me that Serpa was a true traiblazer — the lone woman in a field where men dominated, and she didn’t let that stop her. Serpa become famous — at least in the rodeo world — because she had a passion for arena photography and because she was good at it.

So I wondered whether there are there any trails left to be blazed today. For students working in media today, the answer is apparent. There has never been a more exciting time to be working in media. There have never been more tools for use in creating, more methods to research and gather information, or more platforms on which to tell a story. In short, there’s a wide-open frontier ready to be explored.

The take-aways from the article about Serpa are simple: Motivation, ingenuity, passion and willingness to work hard will get you what you want in life. Be open to exploration. Be curious. Seek solutions. And find a passion.

These aren’t new concepts. They’ve been shared by teachers, graduation speakers and parents for generations. What is new is that there are ways to start doing this in your student media right now. Pursue an ambitious story that needs telling, and show it to your readers. Experiment with new online tools like Tumblr or Storify. Dip your toes in the pond of a new area of digital media, and you’ll discover the water’s not so bad.

Just like Louise Serpa, you might have to dodge some obstacles. You might be the only person like you in a world of people who are different. But, don’t let that stop you. Breathe in the exhilaration. Blend your interests with your assignments. Blaze a new trail.

Find the article at:

Five helpful resources you don’t want to reinvent

Even though a few months of the school year have passed, it’s not too late to get some policies in place to help your organization be more successful. Look at each of these five items and evaluate how they can assist your staff. They’re all available from NSPA at The Wheel — resources you don’t want to reinvent.

Model Code of Ethics for High School Journalists
The NSPA Code of Ethics establishes seven ethical principles for high school journalists. No more modifying other codes of ethics. This one is specific to the situations facing high school students and advisers. And, it’s been created with all media in mind.

Why and how to use: Student journalists need to have a foundation in ethics, but they also need to have examples that recognize the unique aspects of scholastic journalism. Copy the Code and provide it to every staff member. Spend class time anticipating some of the ethical situations posed in the Code, and how students will deal with them.

Legal Issues for Publishing Online
Understanding the basics of media law is essential for any high school journalist. But that understanding may be even more important for the multimedia journalist because of issues unique to the online world.

Why and how to use: Many people have misconceptions about what is legal or ethical online. If you have a student media website, knowing the law is important. Compare the differences between print and online.

Sample Student Media Staff Member Contract/License
This sample contract and license between a student media staff member and a student media organization was drafted by the Student Press Law Center and is an attempt to fairly balance the intellectual property rights of the student creators of a work against the business and practical requirements of student media organizations that publish such work.

Why and how to use: If a student takes a photo, he or she owns the copyright. It doesn’t matter whose camera was used or whether it was for a class assignment. Being proactive to allow a limited use by the student media organization can avoid any gray areas — and tense situations — while protecting the student’s rights.

Equipment Checkout Forms
Ensuring the proper maintenance of photographic equipment starts with an organized system to know where the equipment is, who is using it and who had it last. A checkout procedure helps students take responsibility for keeping track of equipment and to understand the cost to replace equipment.

Why and how to use: These models are examples from educators who found systems that worked for them. Take what makes sense and make it work for you.

Obituary Samples and Policies
Being proactive with an obituary policy can make for easy decisions if, and when, student journalists need to cover the death of someone in the school community.

Why and how to use: During a stressful, emotional or confusing situation, it can be helpful to turn to a policy for guidance. Consider these models and what makes sense for your student media and situation.

Once you and your staff have all of these components in place, you’ll be in great shape.

Robert Redford’s words of encouragement to journalists

Robert Redford likes the work of student journalists, and he said it is as important as ever in this age of democratization of news.

Last weekend, the Associated Collegiate Press held its 27th annual Midwinter National College Journalism Convention in Los Angeles, Hollywood to be exact. Redford appeared at a press conference before approximately 300 students to promote his new movie, “The Conspirator.” Students questioned him about his creative process for that film as well as others. His work for “All the President’s Men” came up about a half hour into the presser. He said that’s where he learned the importance of accuracy and getting every fact exactly right.
ACP is the college program of National Scholastic Press Association.
The students got over the star power and really asked thoughtful questions. It should be noted that the best-attended single session of the convention was the one where journalists were actually doing real journalism.
Here’s a clip of the last minute of the talk, where Redford appreciates the work of journalists.
Yes, I got to meet and introduce Redford, and in our 15-second chat, I thanked him for making that great movie in 1976 and shared how much my students enjoyed it even years later.

Double truck only for the really big stuff

It happens all the time, and it’s probably happened to you: “What should we have for this month’s double truck?”

The idea of filling two full newspaper pages on a single topic is intimidating, and many staffs believe they must run an in-depth story each issue. Associations, like NSPA, who run contests bear some responsibility for the idea that the natural spread in a newspaper has to be some sort of in-depth coverage. It doesn’t. In fact, it shouldn’t unless the topic really merits two full pages. One-page features can be handled very well. Additionally, organizing the paper in a way that allows for flexibility — one-pagers as the default and double-trucks when necessary.

One way to structure the paper is to develop sections that will yield specific content. Some ideas:
• You probably have a sports section, but do you have a page for leisure? The leisure page could cover everything that isn’t a school sport — hiking, video games, Ultimate Frisbee, Scouting, hobbies.
• Develop a page on health, and you will never have a shortage of topics. Scour newspapers such as The New York Times, which offer a bounty of national news items with health-related news pegs. Localize them. To do this, simply ask questions: Is this happening here? Why? What do our readers need to know about this? Why? I guarantee you could find something health-related to write about (and localize) every week.
• Try a section on something that is of high interest to your student readership. Why not a section about family or faith? Maybe you could have a series of stories that showcase the activities families do together. Make it a quick-read format and go photograph the family. A few of these could be prepare at once and printed over several issues.
• Teens are just entering the world of money and finance, and they need more consumer education. A series of helpful stories on how to get a checking account, be disciplined about saving money, get a credit card, buy a car (and the insurance) or rent an apartment would be of great value to your readers. Alternate story forms would make these more approachable.

Once you have structured the paper into sections such as these, the story idea-generation process is easier. Instead of asking “What should we write about for the double truck this month?” you’re now asking “What can we cover for leisure?” “What’s the most important health story this month?” For a winter issue in leisure, do a creative take on some snow sport. As the weather warms, switch to other pursuits: horseback riding, hiking, geocaching, etc.). Health in the spring could be how students cope with allergies. It’s important to find students to use as your “representative sample” — kids at school who tell the story. Otherwise you just have an encyclopedia report on the topic — boring and useless and something no one will read.

When the editors commit to a section like those mentioned above, it forces better content overall. You have to develop a structure of sections that works for your paper and your school. Don’t just get locked into News, Opinion, Features, Sports (and sometimes A&E). Think about what your readers need and want, and create a paper that serves them. Content ideas will come naturally.

And when you really need two pages to tell an in-depth story with multiple components, it will be obvious. Your discipline in providing the most appropriate space for each story will pay off.

The legacy of one California newspaper adviser

From a post to the JEA email discussion list:
I did not have the good fortune to meet and know Ted Tajima, but it appears we have lost a giant in our field. The occasion of his death led me to revisit some of scholastic journalism’s history and learn more about this man and his school. Takima had been the adviser for many years to The Moor newspaper at Alhambra High School. Here’s his obituary from the Los Angeles Times.

Last week, I spoke with a reporter for the Los Angeles Times about The Moor and its adviser and accomplishments. The reporter’s beat was obituaries, though another reporter wrote this piece. The reporter I spoke with happened to be one of Takima’s former students and a member of The Moor staff that earned a NSPA Pacemaker in 1972. It should be noted there were only five or six newspaper National Pacemakers each year from 1961 through 1978. The Moor earned that honor twice for its weekly editions.

The reporter with I spoke shared with me an article, from the Los Angeles Times morgue, printed in 1983 when Tajima retired from teaching. The lengthy piece covers his personality and career but also changes in society and Alhambra High School, in education and in professional and scholastic journalism. This passage from the article demonstrates his teaching style and how some issues remain unresolved today:

And, he said, there have been changes in the type of reporting done in the school paper as students became more aware of the world around them.

“It used to be, back in the ’50s, that we’d report one week that the Spanish Club would meet, and then the next week report that the Spanish Club had met,” he said.

But in the ’50s and ’60s, Tajima said, his students seemed to become more aware of what was going on outside the school, and started to report on it, sometimes even in the colorful language that was then becoming acceptable.

“Our rule has been that a four-letter word may be used once in a while, but only if it is in context of the story, and not just for exploitation, just to attract attention,” he said.

“One of the principles I’ve always taught is that the newspaper is an educator as well as the schools, and that the newspaper must set standards for the community.

“I’ve told them: You know who your readers are, but it doesn’t mean you have to get down in the dirt with them.”

In the NSPA archives, I found a note Tajima submitted with the 1981-82 critique for The Moor: “Admittedly, THE MOOR in its makeup appears more traditional than the many biweekly and monthly publications we see in exchanges and in journalism conventions. It is our feeling, however, that we publish a weekly newspaper, 37 times a year, and we are able, because of a Monday deadline for a Wednesday publication day, to emphasize news more than features. So we stick more to a newspaper format instead of a magazine format. Yet, we are criticized for the fact that we prize frequency and news emphasis over less news-worthy magazine styles.”

Even 29 years later the debate about frequency continues, as does the evolving discussion about newspapers vs. newsmagazines.

Clearly Ted Tajima’s legacy includes the many former students who are now professionals in a variety of fields, including some notable journalists.

Headline: 8 Things to Think About in 2010-11

You still have time to make 2010-11 the best year on record and to try some new endeavors to improve your media operation. Here are 8 things you can try. That’s one a month for the rest of the school year.

1. Be excellent. Excellence isn’t settling for pretty good. Good enough is not good enough. Set goals to improve with each edition or deadline.
2. Put yourself in a position to be tell stories in the most-appropriate format. There’s really no excuse today for not having at least a basic website where you can post a PDF version of the printed paper. Ideally you update news throughout the school day. An online presence opens up a new universe of multimedia opportunities.
3. Get into social networking. Facebook andMySpace accounts are free. Connect with readers (and alumni, parents and community members) by asking for tips, photos, and letters. Expand your printed coverage with social bookmarking by posting links at a site like Share photos via a site like
4. Add multimedia. Sometimes, the most appropriate format to tell a story is with videos, slide shows, still images audio or text. Add these tools to your toolbox, so when you have a good story, you have multiple ways to cover it.
5. Start Tweeting. The microblogging site allows 140-character messages to be posted. These are great for simple updates and links to stories online. You can also follow people to get trend or news ideas and dearth by using a hashtag (a # and a word/phrase).
6. Follow the law. Obey copyright for images and audio. Search the Creative Commons-licensed photos on Flickr to see what is available for no charge, just the photo credit. Know privacy laws. Know your rights, especially if you live in a state that grants rights to student journalists.
7. Be the #1 source. Be serious about being the top information source for all things about your school. If someone wants to know a fact, score, date, time — whatever — be the place they turn to for that information. You can own sports stats, especially for non-varsity teams. Find out how good it feels to scoop the local paper.
8. Remember your role on campus. Regardless of the type of media you work with, your role on campus is to inform and enlighten your audience. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell them the things no one else will tell them.