Still strong in Huntley, Johnsburg, but school journalism programs are dwindling

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At Cary-Grove High School, gone are the days of having students type their bylines to see them in print later that month.

Devin Hester, faculty sponsor for the school’s extracurricular newspaper program, said it was probably about four or five years ago that the elective journalism course was dissolved into an after-school activity, and a year ago when it started producing an exclusively online publication.

“Obviously, our readership went down compared to when you could put a hard copy directly in front of students,” Hester said, adding the focus now is on new media, such as social media platforms, photos and video. “But there is a step back in the audience, which I think kind of deflates the kids.

“I mean, you write an article and you’re excited about it, excited to see it, but then it can just disappear into the abyss of the Internet.”

A tangible newspaper produced as part of a high school course is a thing of the past at all School District 155 schools.

At Crystal Lake South, physical newspapers folded this year, Activities Director Matt Koll said. The students in the after-school program focus more on taking pictures, and the articles that do come out appear on the school's general website.

“[For the journalism elective], student interest was declining to the point where we could no longer have the course,” Koll said, adding the elective was discontinued four years ago.

This is a trend experts outside of McHenry County said is becoming more prominent.

“With the push toward a 21st century curriculum, I think there’s a push to focus less on electives than on core courses,” said Stan Zoller, a director for the Journalism Education Association, a national organization for teachers and advisers of journalism. “I think kids load up on AP classes, and in some cases, they don’t have time to expend energy to do electives like journalism.”

Still, interest isn’t waning at all local high schools.

At Huntley High School and Johnsburg High School, print newspapers still come out of in-school courses – courses that are at high capacity this year, advisers said.

“I actually have more kids this year than any other year,” said Dennis Brown, longtime adviser at Huntley High School.

It’s not that kids in Huntley are necessarily more interested in one day writing for a major daily, he said. In fact, while lessons on the inverted pyramid and writing are emphasized, Brown said he doesn’t think of his course as a place for lessons specifically on journalism.

“Ninety-five percent of the kids in this program do not pursue journalism as career,” he said. “But that’s not the point – it’s the other skills you can pick up, like writing, layout, collaboration and leadership.”

Despite some local schools losing tangible newspapers, a 2011 survey conducted by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University in Ohio found a majority 64 percent of schools surveyed do still have newspapers.

However, the study was the first of its kind and, therefore, does not provide perspective on whether the percentage is higher, lower or in line with years prior.

For Hester at Cary-Grove, his ideal version of the program would revert back to a print edition.

“But you’ve got to meet the kids where they’re at, and they’re digital,” he said, adding that doesn’t mean necessarily mean the foundation of journalism isn’t there. “The element of asking good questions, telling good stories – that’s still there. They’re still responding to that in a powerful way, so if you’re a traditionalist like me, that’s something to hang your hat on.”

And while the future of journalism as a profession doesn’t appear promising – employment of reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts is projected to decline 13 percent by 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – proof of that response is still evident in some McHenry County students, albeit, apparently not an overwhelming number.

Eighteen-year-old Abbey Nimrick said enrolling in Johnsburg High School’s Intro to Journalism course is one of the best decisions she has ever made.

“It’s because of that I know what I want to do,” said Nimrick, the sports editor of the Johnsburg Weekly News. “Next year, I want to be at St. Ambrose majoring in journalism ... I think I’d like to be writing for a newspaper some day.”