Organization site - Winter 2001
Issue: 2/20/01

Publications Experience
By By Lyle Olson


Proponents of scholastic journalism point out that society in general and the field of journalism and mass communication specifically benefits from students who become involved in journalism in high school. The field of journalism and mass communication benefits as young people exposed to scholastic journalism later become employees at newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, print shops, public relations and advertising agencies, and so forth.

In addition, college and university journalism and mass communication schools and departments also benefit as students exposed to scholastic journalism enroll as majors or minors, helping to fill classrooms across the country, although there is little research documenting this transition. Becker, et al. (1999) reported, "Enrollments in journalism and mass communication programs in the United States increased 5.6 percent in the autumn of 1998, representing the fifth year of growth in enrollments and producing an enrollment total that is almost certainly unprecedented" (p. 5). This Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Enrollments does not, however, delve into reasons why the growth has occurred, other than the comment: "Enrollments are reflective of the national pattern of undergraduate enrollment growth and the consequence of the demand for higher education by the children of the post-war growth in population—a ‘baby-boom’ echo effect" (p. 20).

Even if students who participate in high school journalism do not pursue a college degree or a career in journalism or mass communication, proponents of scholastic journalism point out that such students are better citizens, having been involved with or at least exposed to the healthy give and take of public information exchange in a democratic society.

There is another aspect, however, of this triad (student publications experience, journalism and mass communication studies in college, and journalism and mass communication careers) that is unexplored. Is scholastic journalism experience also a stepping stone to college/university journalism and mass communication teaching careers? Common sense would indicate that yes, of course, many college and university journalism and mass communication educators most likely started as student journalists. But, there is no published research to document that assumption.

Purpose of study/research questions/assumptions

The purpose of this study was simply to survey journalism and mass communication educators (specifically, members of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication or AEJMC) about their high school journalism and their college journalism experience and to ask them to pinpoint when they decided to pursue journalism and mass communication as a career.

The following questions guided the study:

1. To what extent do current journalism and mass communication educators have high school and college journalism experience?

2. Do journalism and mass communication educators with high school and college journalism experience look back on that experience as being positive or negative?

3. When did journalism and mass communication educators decide to pursue a career in journalism and/or mass communication?

Based on a previous pilot study exploring the same questions, the researcher made the following assumptions:

1. One third to one half of journalism and mass communication educators will indicate they had high school and college journalism experience.

2. A majority of journalism and mass communication educators with high school and college journalism experience will look back on that experience as being positive.

3. One third to one half of journalism and mass communication educators will indicate they decided to pursue journalism and mass communication as a career while in high school.

Literature Review

Journalism Professionals

Linda Evanchyk shared the preliminary results of her survey of professional journalists who began as student journalists at the 1998 mid-winter meeting of AEJMC’s Scholastic Journalism Division. Later, in C:JET she published an article, listing nearly 50 such persons, including such well-known names as Dave Berry, Walter Cronkite, Katie Couric, Roger Ebert, James Kilpatrick, Allen Neuharth, Bernard Shaw, and Abigail Van Buren (1998, p. 11).

Her article included quotes from professional journalists who spoke in glowing terms about the value of their high school journalism experience. For example, CNN anchor Martin Savidge said,

Please! Let me be your poster child! If not for the journalism/communications class that I took back in high school, I can honestly say I would not be where I am today. It was 1975, the first year the class was offered. I signed up and it changed my life! The class was simple, even basic, but it opened my eyes to the exciting career that has now become a profession of which I am proud. (p. 10)

Responses like these were typical and many professional journalists described their work on high school journalism staffs as a life-changing experience.

Although various researchers through the years have surveyed journalism and mass communication professionals, Evanchyk’s study appears to be one of the only, if not the only one, to inquire specifically about the respondents’ high school journalism experience.

Weaver and Wilhoit’s advance report (1992) on The American Journalist in the 1990s published by The Freedom Forum and their later book (1996) by the same title with a subtitle of U.S. News People at the End of an Era covered a wide range of areas. Citing a previous study, Weaver and Wilhoit wrote that in 1971 "nearly 60 percent of all U.S. journalists were college graduates, and 34 percent majored in journalism" (1996, p. 29). In their own studies they found, "In 1982-83, nearly 75 percent of all U.S. journalists completed a college degree, and 40 percent majored in journalism. In 1992, 82 percent of all U.S. journalists earned a college degree, and 40 percent majored in journalism" (p. 29).

Weaver and Wilhoit did not ask questions specifically about the respondents’ high school journalism experience, but they did ask, "In looking back, why did you become a journalist?" According to the authors:

Their open-ended replies offer interesting "freeze-frames" of memories about career choice. The sketches of journalism’s attractiveness cover a wide range of categories, and more than one was cited in many of the answers. The most common themes, however, were an early "love" of writing [37 percent of the 1,400 respondents cited an aptitude for writing as their main reason for being a journalist], an aptitude for the "digging" of reporting, a desire to "make a difference," the field’s being intrinsically "interesting," a penchant for "current events" or immediacy, and college experiences. (p. 51)

Weaver and Wilhoit’s summary above did not identify respondents as specifically mentioning high school experiences as a reason for becoming a journalist. However, they wrote, "Particularly among newspaper journalists, the sense of being a good writer was linked to student newspaper experience or a high school teacher" (p. 52) and "The importance of a high school teacher or the high school newspaper was remembered by about 5 percent of our respondents" (p. 55). Given the enthusiastic response to Evanchyk’s questions, it is curious that only 5 percent referred to their high school journalism experience.

Weaver and Wilhoit also asked respondents how influential a number of people were in developing their ideas about what’s right and wrong in journalism. They found that 17 percent of the respondents mentioned high school teachers as extremely or quite influential in matters of journalism ethics, compared to 21 percent for college teachers and 88 percent for newsroom learning (p. 154).

Voakes (1997) conducted a national survey of daily newspaper journalists, finding that 29 percent cited the school newspaper or newspaper adviser as the most significant influence on their decision to work in journalism, but it was not clear whether they were referring to the college or high school newspaper. When asked when they first decided to choose a newspaper career, 25 percent said while in high school.

Journalism and Mass Communication Educators

A list of journalism and mass communication educators who began as student journalists similar to Evanchyk’s list of professional journalists who did so does not exist in the literature, but there are studies that document various other aspects of AEJMC members.

The Project on the Future of Journalism and Mass Communication (1984), which became known as the Oregon Report, was a solid start to the study of journalism education, but it focused mostly on curriculum rather than on the educators themselves.

Weaver and Wilhoit reported in 1988 that although several studies during that decade systematically examined journalism and mass communication educators, "much more has been written about these educators that is based on anecdotes and impressions." They reported that the "few systematic studies have focused mainly on the academic and professional backgrounds of educators, the issue of equity between men and women faculty members, and job satisfaction" (p. 7). Weaver and Wilhoit surveyed nearly 900 full-time journalism and mass communication educators at four-year colleges and universities in the United States, including those not listed in the AEJMC directory. Regarding these educators, they examined: the size of the workforce and geographical distribution, age and gender, ethnic and religious origins, parents’ occupation, rank, politics, education, media experience, various aspects concerning job conditions and satisfactions and the educators’ professional culture. The extensive study, however, did not ask faculty members about their experience in high school or college journalism.

Weaver and Wilhoit found that as undergraduates more than half (55 percent) of all mass communication faculties majored in journalism, radio-television or communication. These figures were similar to those for United States journalists in general, suggesting, according to the authors that "the undergraduate education of both journalists and faculty members is similar in emphasis. Faculty members are somewhat more likely to have majored in communication than are journalists (15 percent versus 7 percent), but otherwise the percentages are nearly identical" (p. 15). However, journalism and mass communication faculty were much more likely to have majored in communication in graduate school than professional journalists who completed a graduate degree were much less likely to have majored in journalism.

Winds of Change: Challenges Confronting Journalism Education (1996) by Betty Medsger surveyed three groups: 1,041 print and broadcast journalists labeled as "new journalists" with one to 11 years of experience, 500 newsroom recruiters and supervisors at print and broadcast media organizations, and 446 university journalism educators. The Freedom Forum commissioned this major study of journalism education. President and Chief Executive Office Charles Overby wrote, "The central skills of an excellent journalist—the ability to systematically gather, analyze and communicate information—are also central to higher education" (p. v).

The three groups were asked a wide variety of questions. A few questions touched on fringe aspects of college media experience; only one question dealt with high school journalism. The educators were asked: Does your journalism education program require majors to publish or broadcast stories? (56 percent yes, 42 percent no).

The newsroom recruiters and supervisors were asked how important six different areas were in preparing for an internship or entry-level job in journalism. One area was campus newspaper or broadcast experience (54 percent said very important, 40 percent somewhat important, 5 percent not too important, and 1 percent not important). They were also asked: Does your news organization sponsor or co-sponsor a summer high school journalism program in your area? (24 percent said yes and 76 percent no or don’t know). That was the lone question in the surveys of the three groups that referred to high school journalism.

The new journalists were asked: What was the single most important factor that made you want to become a journalist? At 28 percent, a love of writing topped the list, while only 2 percent said high school newspaper experience. The respondents were asked if they worked as a journalist on their campus newspaper (63 percent did), their campus radio station (25 percent), their campus television station (14 percent) and their campus magazine (13 percent). Overall, 78 percent reported that they worked in college media.

Winds of Change was critical of journalism education. In the preface, Overby wrote that (1) more emphasis needs to be placed on the teaching of writing, editing, and the history, law, and ethics of journalism, (2) "the pendulum has swung too far in favoring advanced degrees over professional experience in hiring and promoting journalism educators," (3) journalism educators impart too much gloom and doom about the future of newspapers and broadcast news, and (4) budget-conscious university administrators too often "lump everything from journalism to speech pathology under one roof."

Riffe, Salomone and Stempel III (1998) published the results of their survey of over 1,000 AEJMC members they described as currently active faculty. They obtained demographic data (gender and ethnicity by rank and teaching area, years of professional experience and AEJMC membership, highest degree earned, advising and service activities, scholarly productivity, salary) as well as ratings of institutional and colleague support, concerns with workplace issues, and job satisfaction.

In January 1999 AEJMC published a monograph follow-up of these authors’ 1998 article titled Journalism Educators: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow that included AEJMC members who were retired faculty and those who were graduate students. Their study’s six-page questionnaire with more than 100 items covered many important areas, but it did not include any items about respondents’ high school or college experiences in journalism and mass communication.

In summary, the literature reveals that various studies have examined a wide variety of enlightening aspects about journalism and mass communication educators in the United States, but their previous experience as a student journalist in high school is not one of those areas.


In 1998 the author conducted an informal pilot study of journalism and mass communication educators, asking a few Scholastic Journalism Division members to gather data on the number of full-time journalism and mass communication faculty members at their college or university who worked on their high school and/or college yearbook, newspaper or radio or television station. Later, SJD members received a survey form at a mid-winter meeting, plus a request for information was published in the March 1998 issue of Scholastic Source. In August 1998 the author reported that division members at 16 schools had responded, representing 142 faculty members. Of that total, 38 percent knew they wanted to make a career out of journalism/mass communication while in high school and 64 percent had worked on their high school newspaper, yearbook or both.

This study approached the topic in a more systematic, scientific way. The original questions were polished and revised with an eye toward convenience and conciseness so that the survey could be conducted via e-mail. In Mail and Internet Surveys, Dillman (2000) suggests various design principles for e-mail surveys, such as personalizing all e-mail contacts so that none are part of a mass mailing, keeping the cover letter brief to enable respondents to see the first question without having to scroll down the page, informing respondents about alternative ways to respond, and making it easy for respondents to mark answers (pp. 367-371).

The author followed those suggestions, as well as testing the survey and response options in different e-mail software. Each survey contained a personalized salutation (i.e., Dear Professor Smith). Respondents could answer by using the reply option in their e-mail program and by typing an "x" to indicate their response. Nearly all of the participants responded this way. A handful deleted the questions and listed their responses and two mailed their answers. Sacrificing the amount of data that could be obtained for the sake of respondents’ convenience, the survey contained only 14 items. The e-mail subject heading was "5-Minute JMC Educator Survey," and recipients were told in the introduction that they could complete the survey in five minutes or less. After the 14 items, respondents were told: "The 5-minute survey is over, but if you have a little more time, you could respond to part or all of the following" three open-ended questions:

  • If you have scholastic journalism experience, do you have any comments you wish to make about that experience?