Kids are already doing [journalism], but we’re not talking to them about how to do it correctly or how to do it really great,” explained Liz Winfield, who runs the journalism program at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen.
Juarez is one of a dwindling number of schools that still have journalism education and a student media presence. Inadequate funding and a lack of prioritization have taken their toll on student newspapers throughout Chicago, especially on the South Side.
While some schools have cut back on print editions to save money, others have eliminated programs altogether. Even where there still are journalism classes, Chicago Public Schools graduation requirements force students and teachers to focus on core classes at the expense of electives. As a result, the responsibility falls on individual journalism teachers to keep the programs running and ignite excitement for journalism in their schools.
At Juarez, securing an elective class for journalism is a privilege in itself, according to Winfield. “Electives, you know, it’s a luxury that we can even have them,” she said. With constantly shifting graduation requirements within CPS, students rarely have room for electives such as journalism.
Juarez used to have an Introduction to Media Studies class where students could be trained in the basic elements of journalism before moving on to the dedicated journalism class, Winfield said. But with funding cuts, rehiring, and the shift to a more career-focused curriculum, the school combined newspaper and broadcast journalism into one class where the basics of newswriting are taught. “Because we are just a class, students will come in with zero experience. Now, because it’s an elective, it ends up not really functioning like a newsroom,” she said.
A similar problem plagues Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood. According to Sam Dudek, the school’s journalism and English teacher, students are typically in journalism for one year at most, which makes it difficult to build a strong team of reporters and have robust student editing roles.
Dudek echoed Winfield’s comments that the elective structure prevents underclassmen from being involved in journalism. “I think ninety percent of my journalism students are seniors this year,” he said. “When I come back next year, I’m only going to have three or four kids that know everything and are ready to jump in and get things running.”
Part of the problem with the elective structure is that students tend to dedicate themselves to their core classes, and administrations prioritize the fulfillment of graduation requirements over the strength of elective programs. Often, students end up in journalism classes because they need to fulfill a requirement or because they have an open space in their schedule, not because they explicitly sign up for the class. “I don’t think it’s ever necessarily a huge focus of any school, [because] we have to get the core stuff done, we have to get our kids to pass state tests, and journalism doesn’t fit into that,” Dudek said.
Across the board, journalism education in Chicago public high schools has been declining for years. In 1991, Roosevelt University’s College of Communication surveyed CPS high schools and found that nearly one hundred percent had newspapers. By 2006, that number had dropped to sixty percent, according to a Tribune report.
While a significant drop within the city, this brought CPS more into line with national standards—two-thirds of American public high schools have a student paper, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University. However, a “disproportionate” number of of schools without newspapers primarily serve students of color in urban centers, Mark Goodman, who oversaw the study, told the New York Times in 2013.
That disparity is evident in Chicago. Though funding for journalism programs is sparse throughout CPS, some North Side schools have been able to subsist on private funders and donations. In one famous case, Steinmetz College Prep in Belmont Cragin secured tens of thousands of dollars from one of its media-connected alumni—Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Steinmetz went from being close to cutting its print newspaper to publishing monthly in full color.
“[They] wanted $25,000 and they got $20,000,” said Ray Salazar, the journalism teacher at Hancock College Prep in West Elsdon. (Salazar has contributed columns to the Weekly.) “I looked at that and I was like, that’s ridiculous.”
At Hancock, Salazar’s yearly budget is around $3,000, which is adequate to fund print editions, but those editions are kept at $0.25 per copy because Salazar chooses not to print them in color or do intensive formatting. Salazar has his students take photographs using smartphones instead of expensive camera equipment as another way to stay frugal.
At Lindblom, funding is even more sparse. “It’s pretty much nonexistent,” Dudek said. “When there were budget cuts a few years ago, I actually volunteered to cut my print edition… I got the feeling that it would be a good way to save money.”
Juarez also cut their print edition years ago and now receives the vast majority of their journalism funding through grants that Winfield herself seeks out. “All of my computers were bought through grants [from the McCormick Foundation],” she said. “Cameras, about half of them were bought through grants. Tripods and microphones, I got through grants.”
Without grants, teachers like Dudek end up relying on limited technology. “I’m working on six-year-old laptops and software that came out even before that,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of server space to store all my pictures. I don’t have a working printer.”
A lack of prioritization of journalism education means that the strength of individual programs is often a reflection of the initiative taken by the teachers—as well as their students. Salazar noted the strengths of the student-run nature of the publication. “I think our students deserve a lot of credit for not producing pieces that are simple summaries of what happened last month.”
Salazar, Dudek, and Winfield are the only teachers running their schools’ journalism programs and are responsible for spearheading every effort related to improving and sustaining the newspapers. Dudek is also the yearbook advisor at Lindblom and uses this connection to make ends meet. “I actually fund my newspaper through the sales of the yearbook,” he said. “I use that money to buy cameras, or whatever we need to get the newspaper going.”
Dudek commended the journalism educators in CPS who are truly dedicated to the field but also said that CPS would benefit from having more strict hiring practices and finding people with more journalism-specific experience. Dudek himself has a degree in journalism but said that across CPS, because the program’s resources tend to be so sparse, standard practice is to appoint any teacher who is willing. “My understanding is that the only requirement to be a journalism teacher at CPS is a degree in English,” he said. “But I think the one strength is that a lot of people value [journalism experience] and try to find someone who does have that.”
Despite the difficulties faced by journalism education, Dudek was optimistic about journalism classes staying around. But he felt that some significant improvements need to be made in the level of resources available to educators and students in order to carry out more complex ideas, specifically in how journalism utilizes media. “I think the future has to be to get a little bit away from the idea that print is king,” he said. “In order to do that, we’d need that technology, and we just don’t have that.”
Winfield is excited for journalism education to mirror more of what an actual newsroom would look like but doesn’t feel that the direction CPS is going is conducive to that. “I think that right now we’re at a state of journalism education in CPS that is just random, and nobody really cares enough about it to make it an explicit educational goal. I think that’s what needs to happen,” she said. “How can we turn the classroom into a real, functioning newsroom and have students take ownership over what they’re doing and what they’re learning?”
Salazar believes access to journalism education on the South and West Sides is connected to the community’s relationship with journalism and mainstream media. “A lot of the [mainstream] media outlets don’t take into account the realities that the Southwest Side is facing,” he said, noting that while there was an abundance of reporting on school closings on the Southwest Side for years, there wasn’t as much about how overcrowded the schools were in the first place.
“The philosophy that I follow with my students is that news should be insightful to the people that it affects… to the people included in the piece,” Salazar explained. “And I think that there aren’t enough relationships between the media and communities of color to where the information that is reported and presented is always insightful.”
As journalism education on the South and West Sides declines, those relationships are likely to become even sparser. “Who ends up in those media outlets?” Salazar asked. “It’s the students from the suburbs, from affluent communities… but then their relationship with the city is completely different and detached, and the reporting just cannot get into the nuances that it would if the reporters were homegrown Chicagoans.” With fewer local journalists doing in-depth reporting in these areas, communities may not feel journalism is worth engaging with or supporting—and that could mean even less journalism education in the future.
Salazar thinks that making journalism a greater priority in CPS schools now could change the nature of media publications in Chicago in years to come. Mainstream media outlets would benefit from partnering with CPS schools and engaging students at the high school level so that more of them are encouraged to pursue journalism.
In the meantime, educators are doing what they can to keep the programs running. As Winfield said, “If nothing is done with it, then it will just go away.”
Sara Cohen contributed reporting