Every year since 1925, devoted high school journalists have gathered at Columbia University for the conference and competition of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. Once there, students learn how to improve their newspapers from peers at schools across the country. The association’s longtime executive director, Ed Sullivan, says that since the 1970s the number of public New York City high school newspapers involved in his organization has declined. Sullivan estimates that 85 schools were involved back in 1969. Now it’s five or six.

What he’s noticed is not a fluke. Over the last three decades, New York City’s public high school newspapers largely have disappeared. No one has kept track of the numbers – the Department of Education does not keep a list – so they’ve quietly died off, succumbing to budget cuts, staffing changes, or the displeasure of principals who would rather freedom of the press wait outside the school doors. Of the 500-some high schools in the city, educators estimate that 75 to 100 have newspapers. But now, say people involved in youth media, the numbers may slowly be increasing – especially if online news efforts are included in the count.

The decentralization of New York City’s schools in 1969 was the beginning of the problem, says Sullivan. It was a process that gave more power to school districts to create their own curricula and manage their funding – and newspapers often didn’t make the cut. “That really sort of started a death spiral for a lot of school publications,” he says.

Then came the fiscal crisis of the 1970s that “pretty much decimated the high school press,” said Keith Hefner, executive director of Youth Communication, a city nonprofit that teaches urban teenagers about journalism and produces several magazines. Hefner says New York City public high schools’ vibrant press of the 1960s was pretty much gone by the ‘80s – by which time schools were financially unstable and a subgroup of students had become more politically active, making the idea of giving students an independent voice unattractive to principals. Sullivan says censorship became a big issue. “If they didn’t control the message, they didn’t want the message heard. And within about seven or eight years [the decline of newspapers] was more or less complete.”

It Takes A Regents Test

The high school newspapers around today face many of the same problems of funding, fear and low priority as 30 years ago. Jessica Siegel, an assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College, said compounding all that is an increasingly intense emphasis on the Regents exams that high school students must pass in order to graduate. In the last 10 to 15 years, Siegel says, “electives like journalism have often been thrown out the window.”
        
“Schools pretty much do what they’re assessed on,” focusing on subjects like English and math, Hefner said. “Even though newspapers are central to a democratic society, nobody holds schools accountable for a having a decent school newspaper.”

Siegel, who founded the New York City High School Journalism Program at Baruch College five years ago to revitalize the city’s high school newspapers, adds that another challenge to starting or maintaining newspapers is the turnover of newspaper advisers because of the generational shift among the teaching staff. Currently, the average age of a teacher is 26, and the position of newspaper adviser is often pushed onto the most recent hires with the least teaching experience.

Then there’s the trend toward dividing one big high school into several smaller schools – which makes it harder to sustain extracurricular and afterschool activities. And although some schools have been successful in pooling efforts for an athletic team, “not everyone is going to get together to put together a newspaper or debate team,” says Pamela Wheaton, director of Insideschools.org, whose staff visits schools to compile an independent guide to the public schools. “I think everybody is still doing yearbooks,” she noted.

Of existing papers, critics are quick to point out that some are skimpy newsletters or quarterlies, too often little more than publicity pages for the school. “If you look at the papers you’ll see that many have little to them. They don’t write about anything going on in the school. They don’t seem to give people a way to be serious school citizens,” says Leslie Seifert, an editor at Newsday who began a high school newspaper at Middle College High School in Queens in 1994. The Middle College High School News was entirely uncensored and covered controversial topics like drug addiction and violence at school.

Even at top-tier schools, papers like the one Seifert produced are often impossible. While these schools have been recognized for superior writing and production, censorship remains a problem. In 2005, the editors-in-chief of the Science Survey at Bronx Science wrote an anonymous article condemning the censorship of their paper by the school principal and distributed the article off school grounds. “Don’t let the administration’s obsession with conserving our school’s ‘impressive’ reputation dampen your creative spirit,” they wrote.

Many of these threads combine in the experience of Josh Cohen, an English teacher and advisor for The Hilltopper, the newspaper of Jamaica High School in Queens. Cohen’s been a teacher for four years and newspaper advisor for three, and with little journalism background himself, he learns the craft alongside his students. The paper comes out every other month, and the school funds two or three of those 12-page issues. Student fundraising – and donations, as from alumnus George Vecsey, the New York Times sportswriter – pay for the other one or two issues. Through involvement with the New York City Scholastic Press Association, which holds its own conferences, as well as the Columbia conference, “each year we enhance what we’re doing,” Cohen says.

The Hilltopper disappeared for a stretch in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then came back in the ‘90s. The principal – who was replaced this year – cut an article last year about security at the school, which has been labeled "persistently dangerous," Cohen said. “I’ll be able to handle that better this year,” he says of such challenges to stories.

Outside Agitators

In response to the lack of journalism education available to high school students, nonprofit groups emerged to fill the gap. Hefner’s program, which he began in 1979, was one of them. So is HarlemLIVE, a program began by former public school teacher Richard Carlton to expose more low-income children of color to different forms of media. Students at HarlemLIVE – there are about 60 of them during the summer – are exposed to print and video journalism, as well as photography. Many of them join the organization with no previous experience and return to their schools in the fall, interested in joining the newspaper.

If there is one. Melvin Johnson, the associate director of HarlemLIVE, said about one in four students in the program has a paper at her school. Johnson participated in HarlemLIVE as a teenager and attended Adlai Stevenson High School, which didn’t and still doesn’t have a newspaper. Most HarlemLIVE participants attend public schools composed largely of low-income students of color, who are generally at a disadvantage when it comes to after-school activities. A Knight Foundation study last year found that “Seventy-six percent of schools without newspapers were urban or rural schools, those most likely to have high concentrations of poor students and students of color.”

The city Department of Education has no policy on whether schools should have newspapers, says Melody Meyer, a DOE spokeswoman. “This is a decision we leave to principals and school-based staff,” Meyer said.

Amina Martin, an incoming senior at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, said her school does not have a newspaper. She landed an internship this summer at Children’s Pressline, a nonprofit group that teaches children ages 8 to 18 about journalism by helping them interview subjects and recording the interviews. Through CPL, Martin worked on a story about a homeless shelter in East Flatbush whose inhabitants include a large number of sex offenders who are harassing local residents. Before coming to CPL, Martin had never considered journalism as a career, nor had she ever envisioned what a newspaper from her high school could look like. “I guess the newspaper would be talking about violence,” she said.

Today’s Edition

When Hefner first began Youth Communication almost two decades ago, almost none of his students were involved in their high school newspapers. Now he says, perhaps 10 percent are. Sullivan, too, said he’s seen a small increase in participation from New York City public high schools in the CSPA.

The complexion of that participation may change as student publications come in new forms. At the Arts and Media Preparatory Academy in Brooklyn, a new small high school that opened with just 81 ninth-graders last week, English and media teacher Ryan Baxter plans to get all students doing personal blogs, then start an online newspaper. The pièce de résistance will be an "internal school-wide Wiki," or compendium of student-generated material on classroom subjects that's open to ongoing editing by everyone.

"Printing costs have been prohibitive in the past" at other schools, Baxter said. "It definitely limited the number of papers that could be published each year" – and by the time the paper came out, the news was old. "For us, it just seems more burdensome than it needs to be, and it doesn't quite fit with the school's mission."

This school year, Jessica Siegel will be working to provide a definitive answer to the question of how many high school newspapers there are. She received a $20,000 grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation to survey NYC public high schools, one by one, about what kind of journalism program they have. She also intends to create a website for city high school journalism, so students have better access to each other's stories, ideas, information and inspiration.

It's the kind of place where they might find out about the Jamaica High School student – who had never considered journalism as a career – who's now studying just that at Purchase College after meeting with writing success in high school. Maybe he'll be the next one to send donation checks back to The Hilltopper.

- Anna Phillips

Additional reporting was contributed by Karen Loew.