I was born and raised in Howell, Mich. I was in the advanced newspaper class my senior year, the class in which we produced the Main Four, Howell High School’s student newspaper. It was an eight-to-12-page monthly print publication funded entirely by the ads that students sold to local businesses. The Main Four was run mainly by the section editors and editor-in-chief under the supervision of the teacher.
The paper also operated under a policy of prior review and restraint – it had to be submitted to an administrator before it could go to print. As a result, there were a few instances of censorship of some of the articles in the paper, which created an air of cynicism and culture of self-censorship in the newsroom. I felt strongly then and still feel strongly that, legally, the Main Four should not be censored in this manner (if you examine the Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court cases and apply how the Main Four functions in practice and not in policy) – but that’s another story.
The point is that the Main Four staff didn’t completely love the school administration and the Main Four wasn’t the administrators’ favorite pet either. To clarify, they by no means hated it (to my knowledge) and have never actively tried to shut it down – but I’m sure that it was a small thorn in their sides.
Anyway, even in my year (2008-2009) there was talk of the Main Four ceasing to be a print publication and instead being published solely online. Since the Main Four never had an online presence besides a PDF version of each edition that was posted – usually a few months late – on an obscure page on the school website, this would be a radical change for the paper.
I’m excited to say that as of this school year, the Main Four has gone digital.
Through the grapevine, I heard that there were some issues finding a teacher for the newspaper class this year. The current teacher wanted to hand it to someone else (likely because the newspaper was putting a lot of stress on her), but since the other candidates had no journalism experience, the class went back to her supervision.
She’s been circulating Facebook messages to Main Four alumni to get them to write letters about how the Main Four influenced where they are now. Upon further inquiry, she explained that she wanted the paper to be better considered for staffing and scheduling next year and that she knows that the alumni are doing great things and she wanted the administration to know that.
So here’s my challenge to you: write to your old newspaper teacher (or find the old one) and write to the administrators and school board in support of your high school newspaper. Let them know why newspapers are still important and why reading from a textbook can never replace first-hand journalism experience.
Here’s my letter:
Letter in support of Howell High School’s Main Four newspaper
By Erica Shekell, Howell High School class of 2009
Oct. 26, 2010
Journalism is not dying. Newspapers are dying. It is the medium – the form but not the content – that is changing. The need for journalism has never been greater; people are still hungry for information and they still need someone to help sort, verify and put into context the barrage of information that exists in the world.
It is an incredibly exciting time to be going into the field of journalism, where newspapers will live on in a “leaner and meaner” form, where people find their news and journalists will find original sources through social media, and where journalists can share their stories in more than just text, but video, audio video, interactive information graphics and more.
More tools for journalism are being created every day, and journalism students need to have a solid foundation in writing and reporting skills and ethics. But they also need to to taught how to use these new tools to produce content for a variety of media.
How the Main Four has impacted me
My name is Erica Shekell and I am a 2009 Howell High School graduate. I am a second-year journalism student with junior status at Michigan State University and a member of the Honors College.
I joined the Main Four my senior year by chance – it was spring of my junior year and students had just started scheduling classes for the next year. I ran into Ms. Haskins in the hallway after school, and she asked if I was going to sign up for the class. I’d forgotten that the class existed; journalistic writing hadn’t been on my radar, because I was more into creative fiction and poetry.
Joining the Main Four was one of the best decisions I ever made in high school. (The other best decision I made was to take six AP classes during my time at Howell. This helped me become salutatorian of the HHS class of 2009 and also allowed me to enter MSU in the fall as a sophomore with 29 credits.)
The experience I gained at the Main Four was invaluable. One can’t learn to be a great reporter by learning from a book (though a few of my professors have tried this method). One can only learn to do great journalism by:
- Interacting with people
- Asking questions
- Dealing with difficult sources – those who are very shy and aren’t very descriptive and need to be coaxed to reveal more; those who are very outgoing and quickly get off topic and need to be directed back to the question; those whose loved one has just died and require a greater sensitivity; those who try to control and micro-manage what one will write about them; or those who would rather not talk to a journalist or student journalist
- Running into situations that bring up ethical questions (“my source wants to be anonymous – should I use them as a source?” or “my source told me this, but they want me to write this instead” or “my source wants me to Photoshop their acne to make them look better… is that OK?”)
- Having an experienced adviser who can guide them through these situations.
And then when it’s all said and done – one can only learn to do great journalism by sitting down to write a story, sifting through the wealth of gathered information to find only the most vital facts, and then explaining the context of those facts in clear, direct language that others can understand.
Students will produce their best work when they know it will be seen by more than just their journalism adviser, but by their peers, teachers, parents and community. When students have a publication (whether it’s a newspaper or an online publication, as is the trend) in which to put their work, it increases their sensitivity to their audience, which has always been important in journalism and is increasingly so because of the proliferation of hyperlocal/niche journalism and the trend toward community journalism.
(As large newspapers are folding, the publications that persist are pulling their resources from small, local communities and can only afford to cover large national issues. As a result, many publications are springing up to fill these vacuums and are finding success in providing information about a community that the community’s citizens can only find in there and nowhere else. This is why young journalists must become even more sensitive to the specific needs of a community than they have needed to be in the past.)
And in journalism, a 4.0 or a grade of 100% isn’t (in the scheme of things) as important as a portfolio with great clips. It is very hard to quantify good-quality writing. And for student journalists trying to get their foot in the door to their very first college publication, the articles they wrote in high school are often all they have to show in a portfolio.
In fact, I used a couple of the articles I produced at the Main Four when I applied last May for my current job as a student writer for the University Relations department at Michigan State University, where I produce videos and articles that are published on the news.msu.edu website.
My experiences at the Main Four are what gave me the desire and the skills necessary to pursue a career in the field of journalism. I can’t describe how influential the Main Four class was to my continuing success, both educationally and professionally, at Michigan State University.
So – what did your high school newspaper do for you?