You’ve been hired to advise a high school publication. Now what?
Taking over the publication of a school newspaper or yearbook can be a daunting task, especially when you are the only member of the journalism department of your school. Here are some things to consider when facing the challenge:
Bargain. Before you accept a position is the best time to bargain for the space, supplies or time that you need. Do you have access to enough computers? Do you have cameras? Are you given class periods to teach students? Will the school pay for your membership of organizations or to attend conferences? You will never have more leverage than you have when beginning a job. While you can always fundraise for equipment yourself, finding a school district that is supportive of offering publications as a class rather than an after school activity is probably the most important thing to staying sane and having your program thrive.
Join your state and national journalism associations. Even if you are the only journalism teacher in your district, you are not alone in your profession. You can gain a wealth of knowledge and support from colleagues through the Journalism Education Association, the National Scholastic Press Association, Quill and Scroll, and your state programs—in Iowa, it’s the Iowa High School Press Association. These groups will provide advice, support, ideas, and probably most importantly, contests to enter which reward and motivate your students. Associations also host conferences where you and your students can keep up-to-date with learning technology and trends. The job of a publications adviser is ever-changing, so professional development will never stop being essential.
Know your rights, and don’t take them for granted. People before us have fought long and hard to gain free speech rights for students and teachers. And although the Tinker ruling says that we don’t leave our First Amendment rights at the schoolyard gate, we also have to work to keep our publications public forums in practice and policy. If you experience censorship, contact the Student Press Law Center for free advice from lawyers willing to help you.
Put it in writing. Form an editorial policy for your publications so that when you run across an unusual issue, there is a planned procedure to handle it. How will you handle a death in your publication? What happens if a senior turns in a yearbook photo with an inappropriate prop? Visit the JEA Digital Media site for a template of an editorial policy that you can shape to fit the needs of your own publication.
Create strong design. If you are a yearbook adviser, consider choosing a template that will be used for each section of the yearbook: people, student life, academics, athletics, and activities. You can flip each template vertically and horizontally if you wish to make it seem like there are more variations. Templates allow for better design because editors can put their time into making five attractive templates that work well together, and then others can focus on filling the templates with great content of photos, captions, and stories. Templates also hold students accountable for including the content that your editors deem important, such as quote boxes, score cards, dominant photos, interesting headlines and captions that tell who, what, when, where, and include the photographer’s name.
Use social media to your advantage. Of course, posting links to your website is a great way to get your content viewed, but having social media accounts for your publications can do much more than simply draw traffic. Here are some ideas:
Make social media a part of your advertising packages to raise money for your publications.
Conduct fun surveys about current topics that you can publish in your yearbook or newspaper.
Create contests where students submit photos under a certain hashtag, allowing you to grab those photos for your publication (funniest reposed photos from grade school, best Halloween costume, etc.)
Request photos that you will have a hard time getting yourself, like the summer trip to Guatemala.
Don’t neglect video. While you may only be paid for putting out a yearbook and newspaper, you are missing out if you don’t include video. It is easy to require photographers to capture a minute of video as a part of a photo assignment to include on your website with the story of a game/ concert/ event or to simply post on your social media accounts. If you have DSLR cameras that capture video, make a habit of using this feature and creating content on your YouTube or SchoolTube account. You can then embed the videos on your website or link them from your print editions. If you do not yet have video equipment, most students have cell phones that will capture video that can be immediately posted to social media. Even if you don’t have a studio, your students can create documentaries or conduct on-the spot interviews. You can get a lapel microphone that can plug into cameras and cell phones for under $20, allowing your students to conduct professional-sounding interviews. Shotgun mics attach to the hot shoe mount on DSLR cameras.
Find a grading system that works for you. The advice that worked for me early on (hat tip to Jack Kennedy, the executive director of the Colorado Student Media Association) was to grade on completion rather than ability. You will have a wide variety of talent and experience in a newsroom, but the most important thing is that the work gets done in a timely manner. When I graded solely on the final product of student work, I had editors refuse to help others with their work because they were afraid that their editing would help the other students’ grades, which made it a competitive and hostile climate to work in. If students see each other as a team with their own important roles, climate improves. If students view their work as something that can be improved through editing, and they are willing to put in the work of revision, they will learn to be better journalists.
Being a publications adviser is a demanding job that requires long hours, a keen eye, a sense of humor, and lots of donuts, but it is continually rewarding and the most enjoyable part of my job as an educator. I hope you find it as fulfilling as I have.
JoAnn Gage, CJE, has been a publications adviser at Mount Vernon High School for over 20 years.