As journalism changes, Johnson County high school students adapt

Updated: 2014-02-12T03:52:28Z


The Kansas City Star

When St. Thomas Aquinas senior Annie Schugart became editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, she wanted to make some changes.

The newspaper, called The Shield, hadn’t been taken seriously in the past. Not much color was used, the size of the pages looked more like a magazine, and students weren’t all that interested.

So Schugart and the new newspaper staff got to work. They added color, lengthened the pages and shot video to incorporate a new application students could use while skimming the latest issue.

The app, called Aurasma, is the staff’s biggest undertaking yet — and just one way high school students are adapting to the changing world of journalism.

To make Aurasma work, the journalism students have to shoot video for a story, then link the video to a picture that would go in the paper. When the issue came out, students could open the app, hover their phones over the picture and see a video pop up on their screen.

For the small staff of eight at Aquinas, it’s a lot of work. But it’s worth it.

“In years past, our newspaper didn’t have the greatest reputation,” Schugart said. “But I think we’ve turned that around.”

Schugart and the other staffers at Aquinas are not alone in their efforts to make their journalism program succeed in a time of unprecedented change in the journalism industry. Across Johnson County, high school students will learn new skills and spend hours outside of school to make their publications the best they can be and on the cutting edge of new technology.

They don’t get paid for it. Still, they can be seen taking photos, interviewing subjects and writing stories. And in today’s journalism, the work doesn’t end when the newspaper is put to bed, even for students.

“It got to a point where I’d come home, and from like 4 to 5 I’d just be putting up stuff on Twitter, on Facebook,” said Shawnee Mission East senior Grace Heitmann, co-editor of The Harbinger Online. “I’d just be plugging it everywhere. And then it got to a point where I was like, ‘I just need to do my homework.’ 

This is the life of competitive, dedicated and passionate high school journalism students.

In Johnson County, high school journalism programs have a history of excellence.

There’s Shawnee Mission East, which won six consecutive Kansas state champion titles for its print publication The Harbinger.

Last year, Shawnee Mission North took the state champion title. In 2012, Blue Valley was the state champion in the 5A division.

For the 2013 school year, Blue Valley Northwest adviser Jim McCrossen received the Jackie Engel Award, given to top high school journalism teachers in Kansas.

Shawnee Mission West journalism adviser Amy Morgan received the same award in 2011, and Shawnee Mission East adviser C. Dow Tate earned it in 2007.

The awards are a testament to each program’s ability to help their students think outside the box and develop skills that will help them succeed.

“I think that kids kind of get that it’s in some ways bigger than them, that the end result is improved selves, but it’s also improving the product and improving the program,” said Tate, who has been at Shawnee Mission East for 12 years.

A successful program also is about fostering an environment where students feel comfortable to try new things and work well as a team.

At Shawnee Mission East, the environment in Room 521 is a comfortable chaos.

Students file in after the bell rings and take their seats as the editors of The Harbinger stand in front of the whiteboard to go over housekeeping items before the work begins.

Junior Julia Poe, co-editor of The Harbinger Online, encourages the staff to tweet during basketball games to earn multimedia credits. She also warns them not to bring uninvited guests into their workspace.

“This is our space, we’re family,” she says.

After the students go over a design exercise, they split up to work on current assignments.

In an adjoining room, editors plop down on couches with their laptops or fill the rolling chairs behind the computers that line the walls, which are plastered with quirky quotes from staff members and funny memes.

“I post my stories without edits all the time — YOLO,” reads one quote from Andrew McKittrick, co-editor-in-chief of the print edition of The Harbinger.

The staff of about 70 is impressive. They include videographers, broadcasters, a social media editor, a radio editor and an editorial board.

“They’re the cream of the crop,” Katie Knight, co-editor-in-chief of The Harbinger’s print edition, says of the staff.

They are constantly on crunch time, putting out an issue every two weeks and producing new content daily for the website.

“I always laugh when people say, ‘Oh, I’ve been at school for 12 hours,’ ” Knight said. “It’s like, we spend 15 to 16 hours here, don’t even complain.”

In the main classroom, the lights go out as sophomore videographer Matthew Bruyere begins filming each member of the editorial board in front of a solid black screen. One by one, the board members sit in front of the camera. As the camera rolls, they speak their piece about the school district’s plan to spend $20 million on take-home computers for every student in the district.

Tate’s method of teaching is less hands-on and more laid back, allowing the students to claim ownership of The Harbinger and providing advice when needed.

“He doesn’t physically do any of the work for us,” Poe said. “He does not come in and write stories for us, he doesn’t rewrite stories for us, he doesn’t do design for us. The thing with Tate is that he just pushes us to be so much better than you think that you are. He is really almost parental with us; he cares about the entire staff.”

“I just want kids to understand what they can do,” Tate said. “I think it’s important for them to see what they’re capable of. That a lot of times, with empowerment and a little bit of guidance and training and some freedom, they can really do things beyond what they even thought they were probably capable of.”

Part of the ever-evolving world of journalism requires high school journalism programs to bring innovation and interactivity to students who can get their information at the swipe of a button on their smartphones.

The basic techniques are still important: Writing, interviewing and providing news to the student body will remain constants. The online world, however, continues to grow and change.

Not having an online or broadcast platform forced journalism students at St. Thomas Aquinas to consider other options.

The app Aurasma was used mainly by yearbook students until Schugart and other staff members realized it could be used for the newspaper, too.

“It was something I don’t think any of us had ever seen before,” said Janie Bachkora, who joined the newspaper staff at the beginning of the semester. “It gave the newspaper more attention than it’s probably ever received.”

Each staff member was already responsible for writing, editing, taking photos and conducting interviews. With the introduction of Aurasma, they could now add video skills to their list.

“When they debuted that, everyone was just on their phones, amazed,” said Jackson McElroy, a junior new to The Shield. “It got me even more excited to be a part of this.”

At Blue Valley Northwest, journalism students changed their newspaper, The Express, to more of a magazine in order to provide more feature content to readers. That’s because the online site, which is updated daily, is used for news.

“Our website has gained so much momentum,” said Delaney La Fon, editor-in-chief of The Express. “I think the rest of the world is changing to a more technologically advanced side of journalism, and so are we. That’s how we’ve started to thrive the past two years.”

Newspaper journalism students at Blue Valley Northwest also work closely with broadcast students, who produce “Husky Headlines,” an award-winning program advised by Kim White, a former editor and producer at KSHB TV.

“Sometimes my kids will run down there to talk to them about stories we’re working on to see if they’re working on the same stories,” McCrossen said. “Her producers and my editors meet once a week to talk about what we’re all working on.”

The two classes also work together on bvnwnews.com, which features videos, interactive graphics, photo galleries and monthly “Husky Headlines” shows.

“Husky Headlines,” which is shown once a month during an advisory period, is another way students can get interested in school-related news.

“You can tell people a story, and you can also write a story down, but I think being able to show them parts of their lives or things about their life through video is more powerful,” said junior John Burdette, co-executive producer of “Husky Headlines.”

Students at Shawnee Mission East incorporate live broadcasts of sporting events into their online platform.

On a wintry Friday night, the icy parking lot at Shawnee Mission East was packed for the Lancers’ varsity basketball game against Rockhurst. Both the visitor and student sections were filled, as students from East showed up in their ’50s attire for the “greasers” theme.

Amid all the noise, senior Andrew McKittrick sat sandwiched behind a table between student sections, headphones on as he looked back and forth between two desktop screens.

Before tip off, the live broadcast cut to different interviews between Harbinger staff members and different subjects, including a basketball player, the principal and a coach.

McKittrick and Poe narrated as a camera in the corner of the gym showed the live action of an intense game that ended with the Lancers winning by a single point.

The online broadcasts occur every Tuesday and Friday, and require the help of two cameras, a camera above the bleachers, a scoreboard camera, two commentators and a producer.

At one point, the broadcast was viewed by about 130 people and could later be accessed online for those who missed the game or want to see it again.

“We try to take the medium of the website and use it to its full potential,” Tate said. “And ultimately give kids skill sets that make them marketable.”

Whether they’re incorporating apps, increasing multimedia content or contributing to their program’s online platform, high school journalism students are learning skills that will prepare them for life.

They’re asking important questions. They’re covering important topics. And most importantly, they’re gaining real-world experience.

“The opportunities that we have here are different than the opportunities that are given at any other activity in the school,” said La Fon of Blue Valley Northwest. “You feel important being here.”

And those rumblings about journalism being dead? They don’t take into account the ways high school journalism programs prepare students.

“The kids have to think, and they have to do a lot of problem solving,” McCrossen said. “I think it’s really important for kids to be challenged in that aspect.”

Eventually, the newspapers the students produce will gather in a pile, maybe in the corner of their closet or in an attic. The work they produced online will be buried by fresh content.

But the skills they’ve learned — the communication, the problem-solving, the dedication — will live on and make them marketable for their future careers, whether they’re engineers, journalists or even app builders.

“Ultimately, there’s always going to be some sort of communication. … What medium you choose and what people seek out is probably always going to be changing in some way,” Tate said. “But those skills are still useful.”

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