Five Pieces of Advice For High School Journos

I had a million questions and concerns when I wrote my very first news story. And it wasn’t even for my high school paper. It was just a practice assignment.

How was I supposed to format the story? Which font should I use? What size should the font be? How do I know which quotes to use? How do I do this? What do I need to fix? And so on and so on.

So, this post is dedicated to a list of things I wish someone would have told me when I first started writing for my high school paper. And this also acts a suggestion to high school newspaper advisers to have a college journalist visit sometime early in the year, before all the “real” work starts, to put young, stressed out minds at ease (or, possibly, stress them out even more) about what they are getting into.

1. Avoid email interviews like the plague.

In high school, I relied on email interviews far too often, and I can guarantee that my stories suffered because of it. And most of those interviews were with students or teachers. It’s really not that hard to walk down the hall or down a flight of stairs to meet with a teacher in person. You’re going to get better quotes, be able to read body language and you can ask follow up questions on the spot, instead of waiting to hear back via email. Plus, email gives the interviewee way too much time to think about their responses.

2. Establish a beat system.

One of our biggest issues (no pun intended) at my high school paper was coming up with story ideas. We didn’t have press releases bombarding our inboxes as starting points. Every idea in the paper was staff generated. If we would have had a beat system set up for more than sports, there is no doubt in my mind that we would not have had a shortage of story ideas. Some ideas for beats could be athletics, counseling, library services, PTA, school board, band, choir, English department, social studies department, etc. The possibilities are endless. Is there a new class being taught next year? Is the school year being extended next year? How many awards did the band win at its last competition? These are things that you can find out ahead of time, rather than through word of mouth, to make your publication as current as possible.

3. Get added to the school district’s media list

School districts absolutely love to send out press releases about every, little (and big) accomplishment. Granted, not every press release will relate to your high school, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Create an email for the newspaper that the adviser and editor in chief have access to. Talk to the school’s communications department about being added to its media list. If nothing else, this could start a “district news” column, similar to a news briefs section, but it’s strictly about the school district.

4. Cover school board meetings

I won’t rant about this one again, but head over my previous post if you haven’t done so!

5. Stay in touch with upperclassmen after they graduate

Upperclassmen have a wealth of knowledge about the goings on of the newspapers, at the high school level just as much as at the college level. And 99 percent of the time, they won’t have a problem with an email or a phone call about how to do one thing or another. Plus, keeping that professional relationship alive can help with selling subscriptions, increasing readership and potential recommendations down the line. Just to prove a point, I can honestly say I’ve been out of high school since 2009, and I have subscribed to my high school paper every year since. And I’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future, even though by the next school year, I won’t know a single person on staff.

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Why ‘bored’ meetings are vital —especially for high school journos

In my three years “working” for my high school newspaper, not a single board meeting was covered. And that was probably one of the biggest mistakes we could have made.

I understand board meetings are not the most exciting thing in the world. I’ve sat through enough of them in the past few months to speak to that statement. But the true inner workings of the school are found there — along with a huge amount of story ideas. I generally get at least two stories and a couple future story ideas out of each school board meeting I attend.

I remember as a high school journo constantly struggling to come up with story ideas. We would have brainstorming sessions and barely come up with enough stories to fill the paper sometimes. Obviously, it all ended up working out. But I think there would have been a lot more interest in the paper itself if we covered the important things that were going on around the school (late-start days, required reading during our academic networking period, how state legislation affects students, etc.).

As an example, we generally knew about all the construction projects going on, but short of anything sports-related, I don’t think it dawned on anyone to write a story about them. They were just an aggravation, not something we ever really considered covering. But we should have.

It’s the same kind of theory we had at my college paper. Why are you letting the area news outlets cover things that are happening in your coverage area? It would frustrate me so much when I would see the Belleville News Democrat or the Alton Telegraph had stories about SIUE that as a campus paper we didn’t even know about. I don’t know why we didn’t have that same mentality in high school.

You generally think in high school that your paper (or newsmagazine, website, etc.) really doesn’t have any competition, unless you count a district-produced PR newsletter. But if more young journalists thought of community newspapers as their competition, especially now with the Patch sites popping up everywhere, they might be more inclined to work a little harder to get those stories.

If nothing else, doing so would have increased teacher readership and readership from the poor souls who felt bad enough for the journalism kids that they bought a subscription out of pity. Plus, it would have prepared those of us who continued to study journalism in college with meeting coverage skills.

Sure, I had a veteran reporter/editor showing me what to do when I covered my first Student Government meeting, but having internal knowledge of how to cover meetings would have helped me immensely.

So, if any high school journalists (or high school journalism teachers) out there are reading this, please, please encourage the students to force themselves to sit through the never-ending meetings. It might be painful, but, trust me, it will be worth it.