Does your local high school have a student newspaper? And in this day when a social media message saying, "Tonight's Green Design and Technology class homework sucks!" can instantly be sent to thousands, does it need to?
The New York Times reports this week that only 1 in 8 of New York's public high schools has a student newspaper — and many of those are published just a few times a year. A few more are online, which can leave out poorer schools.
The national figures are a little higher. But as Rebecca Dwarka, an 18-year-old senior in the Bronx who works for her student paper, The Dewitt Clinton News, told the Times, "Facebook is the new way of finding out what happened. Nobody wants to actually sit down and read a whole article about it," which makes a "whole article" sound a little like a long sentence in solitary confinement.
I am not nostalgic about high school student newspapers and never worked for mine. I put out what was then called an underground magazine with a group of friends because we wanted to write about peace, war and rock n' roll without school officials admonishing us not to make jokes about the local alderman.
But we learned. Trying to convince a local druggist to buy an ad in your slender rag can be humbling and make you determined to turn out a paper he's proud to have his name in, too.
Hearing that school newspapers are in decline because students now "find out what happened" in social media bites is a little discouraging because it confirms that for millions of Americans, journalism is becoming a do-it-yourself enterprise.
When a tornado strikes or a bomb goes off, we look for social media messages as soon as they flash, too. Facebook posts and Tweets have become the means by which politicians, celebrities, citizens — and reporters, for that matter — can confirm, deny, pass on stories and register opinion without the press challenging, probing, pre-supposing, slowing or straining the message. That's just how we talk to each other in these times.
Matt Drudge, who runs his own controversial website, says, "We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices. Every citizen can be a reporter."
But truly good journalism is a craft, not just a blog post. It requires not only seeing something close-up, but also reporting it with perspective. It uses an eye for detail to help illuminate a larger view. And even journalism that conveys an opinion strives to be fair. If school newspapers begin to disappear, I hope there are other ways for students to learn that.