Journalism: From the Classroom to the Real World

Hint: It’s not about the journalism!

If you’re a high school journalism teacher, you’ve probably faced a skeptic or two over the years.

“Why teach newspaper?” they ask. “Nobody reads newspapers anymore!” And while people surely do still read yearbooks, advisers are not immune to the classic, “Yearbook is a class?! What does one do in yearbook?”

The standard answer, of course, is simple: “Students in this class aren’t just learning how to create a [insert publication here],” we explain. “They’re learning real-world skills that they will be able to use beyond the classroom.”

This doesn’t just feel true; it’s something alumni come back and tell us all the time. But I’ve had the recent pleasure of experiencing this reality firsthand.

After advising a newspaper and yearbook program for seven years, I had an opportunity to take some time off from teaching and try out some new challenges. While life has been very different the past few months (instead of a classroom, I have a cozy office in a nondescript university building), I find myself repeatedly thinking back to the very skills I spent all those years sharing with my students.

Here’s one small example.

A few months ago, I found myself tasked with creating a “one-pager” to help demonstrate the impact of my team’s work. People in the real world don’t have all day, so this report would have to be brief, visually appealing, and (most importantly) convincing. Sound familiar?

I sat on this for days.

I had summoned up the spreadsheets, delved through the data, considered the conclusions. But what continued to elude me, when it came to designing the final product, was where to start. With a blank page in Microsoft Word languishing before me, I kept asking myself, “What should this report even be?”

That’s when I remembered yearbook camp.

“Don’t ever jump right into a blank page,” we told our students. “Go out into the world and look for inspiration.” My world at this moment consisted of that cozy office in a nondescript university building, so I started rummaging around for something inspirational. A few moments later, I found it: a brochure on IT security. Communicative gold, right?

Well, IT security on a large university campus is a big deal, and this pamphlet helped prove it with some bold illustrations laid out in a colorful grid. “Hey, that’s kind of cool,” I thought.

Now I’m not an illustrator, but what I soon realized was that the illustrations weren’t what held this pamphlet together. It was the grid! So that’s where I started. Remembering that we always tell our students to sketch their ideas first, I drew some dashed lines on a notepad and began to plan out the story I would tell in each box — a bar chart here, a by-the-numbers mod there, and so on.

With my inspiration and sketch in tow, designing the final document was easy. Sure, I was stuck using Word, but I also remembered that a working knowledge of contrast and the value of a repeated graphical element will take you far in any medium.

To my relief, the finished product left my supervisor relatively impressed.

…Except for one detail: a funky, color-coded donut chart that never quite seemed right but nevertheless always seemed necessary. My supervisor thought this piece of the handout might be more effective in a different (much simpler) format. But I had spent so much time on that!

Naturally, like so many of my students, my first reaction was to get a little defensive, attempting to explain why the chart did, in fact, work. Thankfully, I stopped myself just as quickly as I began, remembering another important piece of wisdom from the publications lab: we have editors for a reason.

No one does their best work the first time around. There was a better way to present the data, but I had allowed myself to get so caught up in my original idea that I had overlooked the alternative. Good editors don’t stifle your creativity; they help to unlock it by pushing you further. A good boss should be able to do the same — so long as you’re willing to listen.

This project was a great reminder of two fundamental lessons from the journalism classroom: good work requires a step-by-step approach, and great work requires a willingness to pay attention to the people and ideas around you. Not every job will require design skills per se, but after several months in the “real world,” I am more confident than ever that the practice our students get in problem solving, working with teams, and communicating (visually or otherwise) is the real takeaway from our teaching.

Editor’s Note (July 2019):

This article was first published while I was taking a one-year leave of absence from teaching.

At the time, I was serving as Manager of Curriculum Operations for SLATE (Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence) at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Prior to that, I had been the newspaper and yearbook adviser for seven years at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, VA.

I have since returned to the profession