Mission Local's Annika Hom leads a session on 'Uncovering the Unequal' at the JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention on April 21 in San Francisco. Photo by Julia Gitis

They flew into San Francisco from Vancouver and Florida, but there was one group of students noticeably absent from the National High School Journalism Convention held last week at the Hilton Union Square: Any students from San Francisco Unified School District. Around 3,000 students attended; zero were from San Francisco public schools. 

The JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention is the largest gathering of high school journalists and journalism advisers in the nation. The convention, held every fall and spring, is held in different cities to give more students a chance to attend. Students from 31 states attended this year’s convention from April 20 to 22. The convention was last held in San Francisco in 2018, and is not scheduled to be back in San Francisco any time in the coming years. 

“It breaks my heart, when there’s such a great opportunity right there in their front door,” said Laura Widmer, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association. “For each convention, we work with a local committee. It’s important for the local committee to have all facets of the area represented. We, as a national organization, need to identify those who we are not serving, and try to make more of an effort to get contact.” 

Journalism education leaders are not surprised. “It’s been this way for a while. We’ve gone to other cities, and the same thing happens,” said Steve O’Donoghue, director of the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative and former multicultural commission chair at the Journalism Education Association. “It’s income differential, it’s remnants of segregation, it’s the impacts of redlining. There’s lots of contests at the convention, and the awards tend not to go to schools from urban areas, because there are very few programs in those schools.”

Sharon Noguchi co-directs the Mosaic Journalism Program, a nonprofit providing journalism training to underserved high school students in the Bay Area. Noguchi warned about the lack of diversity at the conference. “The attendees at the convention are where the U.S. journalist corps is going if we don’t intervene: Mostly white, and overly representative of private, parochial and selective suburban schools.” 

Students from several San Francisco private and parochial schools attended the convention, including the Urban School in Haight-Ashbury and Archbishop Riordan in Sunnyside. According to Noguchi, four out of the five San Jose high schools that attended are private. Palo Alto High School, a top-ranked public school with a nationally recognized journalism program, sent 125 students.

Since outreach efforts rely on contacting existing journalism advisers, Widmer acknowledged it was challenging to reach schools that don’t have journalism programs. “We want to provide voice to the voiceless, and right now if you don’t have a student newspaper, you don’t have a voice.”

There are around 16,000 high school students in San Francisco public schools. Out of 17 public high schools, only Lowell and Lincoln have student newspapers. Galileo has a smaller journalism program, and the librarian at Mission High is working on getting a student newspaper started, too.

“About a dozen of my students said they would be totally interested in attending,” said Sara Falls, journalism adviser at Lincoln. “They ended up being busy with college visits, JROTC competitions, and AP exams that start next week. It’s such a busy time of the year. I’ve brought a handful of kids with me in the past; they’ve always loved it and got a lot out of it.”

“We didn’t go to the spring convention, because we went to the fall convention in St. Louis. Getting San Francisco kids to the Midwest was a priority for me,” said Eric Gustafson, journalism adviser at Lowell. “And the spring convention is a throwaway for seniors. Their heads are not in it anymore. But it’s a student-run decision, and I asked them if they wanted to go. It was their job to come up with what the costs would be. They came back and said it just doesn’t make sense.”

Chalida Anusasananan, the librarian at Mission High, just got a journalism elective approved for next school year. Anusasananan heard about the convention, but among her many other responsibilities, didn’t attend this year. “It costs money to run a journalism program, and we’re figuring it out,” she said.

Back in 2019, James Shapiro was an English teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland when his school asked him to teach a journalism class, even though he had no journalism training or experience. “There was zero support, from a district level or site level, in how to teach journalism. The only people who helped me were fellow teachers who I reached out to. It was all on me to get the help, and all on those teachers to volunteer their time.” 

Shapiro never attended the JEA/NSPA convention with his Oakland students. “The amount of time that is expected of teachers to produce the newspapers is just insane. I was there every day after school for hours and hours in Adobe InDesign, ’cause the class time was spent with the kids doing the actual writing. That was really burning me out. The thought of going to conferences on top of that was something that didn’t feel doable.”

What can school districts do? “Every high school should have a journalism program,” said O’Donoghue. According to a study by Indiana University, participation in high school journalism programs is linked to higher educational outcomes for students. “It’s not about training kids to be reporters, it’s about exposing all students to the First Amendment and free expression and how our government works,” said O’Donoghue. Fully resourced high school journalism programs often have a Journalism 1 class where students get journalism training and a Journalism 2 class that runs the publication.

“In reporting, students learn how to talk to strangers, including people who may not want to talk, may not like you, or may be belligerent. That’s a useful skill in life,” said Noguchi. “Journalism broadens our minds and our world.” 

A Lowell English teacher and journalism adviser, Gustafson’s experience in the classroom has been positive. “People who are civic leaders and elected officials, and even people in public education, have this notion like, ‘Why would you teach journalism? It’s over.’ It’s too bad, because it’s the best way to teach English and writing. In other English classes you’re creating assignments and trying to make them real. Here this is real stuff, and it really matters. Students are motivated to do it, and they want to do a good job. On a pedagogical level, that’s great.”

Robert McChesney and John Nichols, authors of “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” note that school budget cuts disproportionately impact student papers in urban areas. “The budget-cutting frenzy that has been clobbering school districts across the country has been especially hard on journalism education in poor, working-class, and majority-minority schools. The papers in these schools have historically played outsized roles in surrounding neighborhoods; we must reinvigorate them, not merely as education tools but also as potential sources of information for adults in urban neighborhoods.” 

O’Donoghue sees the unique value that student publications bring. “The standards for high school journalism are the same as the standards for the New York Times. You have to have attribution, you can’t make things up. There are lots of examples of high school kids breaking stories that the professional media missed. Kids are a watchdog over the government, and in this case, the government is their school. No journalism class, no watchdog.”

The next JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention will be held in Boston in the fall.

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  1. 125 students from one public school in Palo Alto and not a single one from any SFUSD school says so much about the plight of our urban public schools.

  2. Goes a long way toward explaining the pathetic newspapers in SF! Little interest in actual journalism in school translates into incompetent and journalists who simply can’t write nor can they think critically or objectively. Sad state of affairs.

  3. Fantastic reporting. Thank you for highlighting this issue and hopefully it’ll kickstart some movement within the SF public high schools.

  4. Before we start volunteering (or shaming?) teachers to run journalism clubs, can I suggest we take a look at a number of potential influencing factors for the lack of participation in this convention?

    1. The lockdown is still causing all kinds of disciplinary problems, in addition to
    2. the payroll and tax fiascos, which, together are creating
    3. massive shortages in teachers and administrators, which means there are
    4. not enough teachers to cover core classes and electives, of which journalism is of the latter category.

    That said, I agree – and I think a majority of the social studies and English teachers in SFUSD would – that we desperately need journalism classes/clubs/programs in SFUSD. So, let’s figure out a way to pay teachers to teach journalism or run journalism programs, that doesn’t involve working at extra 10-20 hours per week on top of a normal teaching schedule.

    1. Excellent comment.

      The quote, “‘They ended up being busy with college visits, JROTC competitions, and AP exams that start next week. It’s such a busy time of the year,'” is misleading, since the city’s private schools, and every school that came from outside of SF, are doing the same exact thing.

      College visits are NOT happening right now, that is a summer and early fall thing. AP exams are at the same time for everyone nationwide, starting next week. Most of our high schools barely offer AP courses anymore, anyway! How many students are in JROTC who are also involved in journalism?

      Teachers need support, encouragement, respect, and pay to start and maintain these programs.

      SFUSD’s administration and non-public-school SF residents need to understand that your bullet list, all totally true, are also issues of equity and inclusion. For students, teachers, and school-based staff.

  5. I’m curious whether missionlocal has connections to or works with any public high school journalism programs in SF? Seems like there’s some opportunity there.