California Forum

More than tradition at stake for high school newspaper

After this year, the journalism class at C.K. McClatchy High School will no longer be funded. In Sacramento, major private schools – Jesuit, Saint Francis, Christian Brothers and Country Day – all have newspapers. Among 50 public schools from districts throughout the Sacramento area, only 19 have student newspapers.
After this year, the journalism class at C.K. McClatchy High School will no longer be funded. In Sacramento, major private schools – Jesuit, Saint Francis, Christian Brothers and Country Day – all have newspapers. Among 50 public schools from districts throughout the Sacramento area, only 19 have student newspapers. Sacramento Bee File

Sacramento’s C.K. McClatchy High School is as indebted to newspapers as a school can be. Our school’s name honors Charles Kenny McClatchy, the crusading editor of The Sacramento Bee and a founder of McClatchy publishing company.

In addition, many of our esteemed alumni – including Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and author Joan Didion – have written for our 78-year-old school newspaper. So when my journalism class was informed we’d no longer be funded, an identity crisis ensued. McClatchy High without a newspaper class? Blasphemous.

That irony is unique to our school, but the plight of our student newspaper, The Prospector, is not. Rather, it’s part of a broader split between journalism and public schools that hurts both institutions, and society as a whole.

Budgets are tight, and because journalism isn’t a core subject, offering it has become a luxury for deep-pocketed schools. In Sacramento, major private schools – Jesuit, Saint Francis, Christian Brothers and Country Day – all have newspapers. As for public schools? I called 50 from districts throughout the Sacramento area, and only 19 have student newspapers.

Even among public schools, money matters. “Most of the wealthy suburban schools have full journalism programs,” California Scholastic Journalism Initiative director Steve O’Donoghue told me via email. “Most of the urban, non-wealthy schools don’t.”

The U.S. News and World Report’s high-school profiling system quantifies a school’s “economic disadvantage” by the percentage of students that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. I talked to 12 schools with 30 percent or fewer students getting lunch assistance, and seven had student newspapers. In comparison, only two of the 11 schools where 70 percent of students were economically disadvantaged produced student newspapers. The Roseville and Rocklin school districts were the only ones where more than half of schools have newspapers. By all accounts, the financial constraints of a school limit its chances of having a newspaper.

But the poorest schools are the ones where a newspaper has the most value. Journalism is about exposing truth in the name of justice. There’s an element of activism inherent, and public schools would benefit greatly from students being engaged in school issues.

Consider the Davis High School multipurpose room. Davis had lacked an indoor eating space since 2012. Most students ate off-campus or in classrooms, and were not affected. But special-needs students who needed supervision were hung out to dry.

In late 2014, the school newspaper called attention to the issue, and its efforts led to the “All Student Center,” currently under construction. That’s the power of a newspaper in a school environment. What if that power could be wielded on other, needier campuses?

After all, the less money a school has, the more likely it is to face problems that a newspaper could tackle. Poorer schools are plagued by overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers and infrastructural deficiencies. Such places need a watchdog. They need journalism – and journalism needs them too.

Most of what we know about the world isn’t from experience. Instead, media informs our perception of people, places and events beyond our reach, thus profoundly influencing our thinking. This is particularly true for newspapers, because they generally do the original research – interviewing, data-crunching, etc. – which is recycled by TV and internet news outlets.

Because newspaper stories are the building blocks of our perceptions, it’s imperative that they be told by people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives. A worldview shaped from a singular angle will inevitably be lopsided. If journalism isn’t prioritized at schools with greater socio-economic diversity, however, the newsrooms of the future will become homogenous. And we’ll all pay the price.

The relationship between public schools and journalism is symbiotic: Schools benefit from the accountability imposed by a newspaper; newspapers – and everyone, by extension – benefit from a diverse pool of trained journalists. That relationship is also endangered, but it doesn’t have to be. McClatchy’s Student Union fought to secure the journalism class for one more semester, and the same should be done elsewhere.

More is at stake here than tradition, even for a school named McClatchy.

Kainoa Lowman is a junior at C.K. McClatchy High School. Contact him at kainoaskl@gmail.com.

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