By Sharon Schmidt, Star adviser
Playboy editor Hugh Hefner’s generous donation to his alma mater Steinmetz was featured in a page one, April 13, 2015, Chicago Tribune article on scholastic journalism, “At schools, a pressing issue.”
The complete text of the article, which is available online to Chicago Tribune subscribers, follows our commentary. Readers may also click open the images of the printed article to read the piece.
Reporter Vikki Ortiz Healy was accurate about Mr. Hefner’s desire to give back to a program that had inspired him; however, we think that Tribune readers might infer that without Mr. Hefner’s gift we wouldn’t have a paper.
The Steinmetz Star’s proud 80-year history has involved dozens of talented faculty members who worked with journalism students, as well as hundreds of student reporters like Mr. Hefner, who went on to careers in publications and communications.
Prior to Mr. Hefner’s donation, Steinmetz published a monthly paper that we printed in-house. We’re extremely grateful for Mr. Hefner’s financial support, which enables us to print a high quality, full color paper at a professional print shop, but readers should know that Steinmetz has always published and valued the Star.
We dislike the description of the Mr. Hefner as a “millionaire benefactor in a sailor cap.” Students said it sounded disrespectful. The occasion for Mr. Hefner’s last visit to Chicago was the premier of a documentary about his life as a champion of civil rights and freedom of the press. Mr. Hefner’s work in cutting edge journalism is an inspiration to many.
There was a slight inaccuracy in Ms. Ortiz Healy’s piece. She wrote that “educators are expected to prepare students for standardized tests that are tied to school funding.” In the Chicago Public Schools, funding is based on enrollment.
The relationship between test scores and money for schools exists, although the reporter did not spell it out.
Schools with the highest test scores have no trouble meeting projected enrollment numbers, as do neighborhood schools, which lose students to highly publicized selective enrollment, private, and charter schools. In addition, schools with higher test scores have students that generally come from wealthier families that sometimes help contribute financially to special projects.
We’re glad that the reporter noted that the “casualty” of a journalism program is an individual school administrator decision. We’re blessed at Steinmetz that the administration doesn’t have to make that choice now, thanks to Mr. Hefner’s friendship and financial help.
The text of the Chicago Tribune article follows:
For school papers, a pressing issue
Lack of interest, money forces many programs to fold
When there wasn’t enough money in the Steinmetz College Prep high school budget to cover the cost of printing a student newspaper, its journalism adviser made a desperate plea to one of the Chicago public school’s most successful former students for help.
Hugh Hefner, Playboy Enterprises founder, agreed to pay for five years of printing costs for the Steinmetz Star, which, through the end of next school year, will allow students taking a journalism class at the Belmont Cragin school to create thick, full-color monthly publications.
“Newspapers in school, all the way back to grammar school on the Northwest Side, and then the Steinmetz Star, they were major influences in school for me,” Hefner said. “I think that … papers, in particular, inspire students in that direction. Certainly, it was true in my case.”
Without their own millionaire benefactor in a sailor cap, many high school journalism programs across the state and country are struggling to stay afloat. In an era of tight school budgets, high-stakes testing and changing news-consumption habits, the once time-honored tradition of offering students the chance to be newspaper reporters has joined the list of school activities becoming obsolete for today’s students. Newspapers are forced to scale back, move online to save printing costs and often eventually dry up.
“I have seen a lot of papers in the state that have gone away,” said Stan Zoller, east region director for the Journalism Education Association, which hosts contests and offers teaching resources for high school newspaper advisers.
Some journalism advisers and school administrators argue that students’ waning interest in reporting on school affairs is a troubling trend at a time when social media allow students to publish their own thoughts and ideas more easily than ever.
“Journalism is a way to get out a really important message,” said Tom Davis, superintendent of Heritage School District near Champaign, where low enrollment in journalism courses prompted the layoff of the teacher who oversees the newspaper. “But maybe they feel like with blogs and Facebook and Twitter, they’re already media people.” In 1991, nearly 100 percent of Chicago public high schools surveyed in a study by Roosevelt University’s College of Communication had newspapers. By 2006, the number had dropped to 60 percent, according to Linda Jones, associate professor of journalism at Roosevelt.
More recent data and studies tracking similar trends in suburban Chicago and across Illinois are not available, but some journalism advisers and school administrators say it’s clear high school newspapers and organized journalism programs have continued to shut down, especially as educators are expected to prepare students for standardized tests that are tied to school funding.
And there’s a marked difference today in the way students view student papers and lend their time to publishing them, they say.
At Morgan Park High School, English teacher Keith Majeske used to have to hide stacks of newspapers in the school’s main office so students wouldn’t grab them before they were ready for distribution. Today, stacks go untouched for days — unless it’s an issue with prom pictures or Valentine’s Day personal ads.
“There isn’t that kind of buzz that there once was, especially among the underclassmen,” he said. “It’s scary because they don’t know what’s going on beyond their own front door.”
Similarly, in Bartlett, language arts teacher Jill Flanagan noticed a distinct decline in enrollment in her journalism classes in 2008, two years after Facebook became available to anyone older than 13 with an email address.
STACEY WESCOTT/CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Jill Flanagan, a teacher at Bartlett High School, saw her school newspaper canceled due to low enrollment.
This school year, her newspaper class was canceled because of low enrollment, and it won’t be offered next year. As a last-ditch effort to keep the newspaper alive, Flanagan recruited hard for her after-school journalism club, personally reaching out to 60 students who were good at writing, as recommended by fellow teachers and students.
While 30 students came to an informational meeting last year, only about 20 returned in the fall. Today, five or six students regularly meet after school to update the high school’s online-only newspaper or to appear on the school radio station.
“I think that it’s really a shame that journalism has taken such a hard hit,” Flanagan said. “It’s just such an important part of democracy to have an informed public and to have a public that can make responsible decisions for themselves and their communities .”
Yet with public school funding shortfalls, and school days often structured to focus on subjects covered on standardized tests, school administrators say they are forced to make tough decisions, and journalism programs are another casualty of tight economic times.
“When you see a state $6 billion hole predicted for next year, it’s going to filter to every level of government — and schools are part of that,” said Davis, of the Heritage District, referring to the $6.6 billion projected budget gap Gov. Bruce Rauner references in his budget proposal. “To me, this is just the beginning.”
Sally Renaud, executive director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association, noted that some journalism programs — especially in Chicago’s north suburbs — remain strong. But the loss of others across the state present potentially troubling consequences, she said.
STACEY WESCOTT/CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Senior Elora Venchus records a radio segment at Bartlett High. Venchus was editor in chief of the school paper.
“It offers a sense of a vibrant intellectual community in the school. The kids are thinking, they’re reporting what the other kids are doing, they get outside of themselves,” Renaud said. “It’s bad to lose that sense of community.”
Still basking in the popularity of their publication, students and the adviser at Steinmetz say they are hopeful.
Next year, Hefner’s five-year commitment ends, and students will be on their own to raise money or persuade school administrators to cover the costs of publication.
“I think we’re coming to the end of the initial $50,000 grant,” Hefner said in an interview with the Tribune. “But I suspect there’ll be more coming.”
Hefner added that he hoped alumni of other high school papers across the country would be inspired to help their former schools as well.
“They might think about helping out their own alma maters because it’s all connected to the beginnings,” Hefner said.
Even without Hefner’s continued support, Sharon Schmidt said she thought the school paper had a chance of surviving on its own in the future.
“People really appreciate it here now,” Schmidt said.
“When you’re publishing regularly, people realize what a benefit it is to the school. It’s such a nice place to focus on student and school accomplishments.”