Coverage ideas: Back-to-school supply shopping

It was tough enough to pivot quickly to distance learning in March as nearly every school in the country closed its campus. Many schools struggled to make the remote programs work while students lacked equipment to connect to the internet or to do work. Many families had insufficient bandwidth, or multiple children shared a device. In the months since, the pandemic has also caused a shortage of key parts because production has been slowed or halted, and the tensions on trade with China have further complicated the issue.

Furthermore, reopening schools for in-person classes — or starting via distance learning — meant that the traditional back-to-school supply list of pencils, glue sticks and binders looked different this year.

Focusing questions:

  • What is your school’s plan for ensuring students have access to online components of classes?
  • Did a shortage of equipment affect the plan for teaching and learning?
  • What problems have students experienced? These could include inadequate bandwidth/speed, software incompatibility, shared resources and more.
  • How was back-to-school supply shopping different this year? Did families spend more or less? What was easy or hard to find, and what was just skipped? What were some unexpected items on the list?
  • How did teachers reconsider what was essential and what might be needed in various contingencies?

Possible sources:

Students and families to share their experiences, teachers, school technology director, school budget administrator, managers of retail stores that sell traditional supplies or computer technology equipment

Possible sidebars:

  • Comparison of 2020-21 and 2019-20 supply lists, possibly with prices/amount spent, which could be compared among grade levels as well
  • Shopping list / receipt for expenses for back-to-school supplies
  • Case study: One student’s/family’s experience on shopping and finding (or not finding) needed items
  • Case study: How did students make do with missing, inadequate or shared items?
  • Explainer for the causes of the changes and/or shortages
  • Q&A with school technology director about how the school fulfilled needs, didn’t fulfill needs and/or changed plans to get by
  • Quotation collection: “I always buy ___, but this year I had to buy ___.”

Coverage ideas: QAnon

A group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles plotting against Donald Trump? The online conspiracy theory QAnon has moved from the dark edges of the internet to the mainstream. While it has existed in a space that was easy to ignore or dismiss, its adoption — or at least acknowledgment — by mainstream candidates and leaders make it a timely topic that can be explored in student media.

This could be a package all on its own, or it could be one example of a larger exploration of why people believe conspiracy theories (or why they believe certain sources and it’s difficult to change their mind). Of course you also want to treat sources with respect, so avoid coverage that demeans or ridicules people. When exploring a topic like this that is intertwined with a political issue, be careful to avoid perpetuating misinformation, and use language that places assertions and unproven statements in appropriate context.

A definition from The Washington Post: “Born in the aftermath of the Pizzagate debacle with two cryptic, anonymous posts published to the controversial message board 4chan in October 2017, QAnon has grown into a large and nebulous belief system. Its ‘leader,’ known only as Q, is ‘a purportedly high-ranking government official.’ At its heart is the baseless notion that President Trump is secretly working to bring about a ‘Great Awakening’ to expose an elite cabal of child sex abusers — including prominent political figures in Washington — that has been concealed by intelligence agencies, or ‘the deep state.’” Now, supporters of these theories have gained mainstream attention and at least one is likely headed to Congress.

  • What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory? (The New York Times): “QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. … According to QAnon lore, Mr. Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016 in order to break up this criminal conspiracy, end its control of politics and the media, and bring its members to justice.”
  • The Prophecies of Q (The Atlantic): “In the face of inconvenient facts, it has the ambiguity and adaptability to sustain a movement of this kind over time. For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it.”
  • The Week QAnon Went Mainstream (The New York Times): “For almost three years, I’ve wondered when the QAnon tipping point would arrive — the time when a critical mass of Americans would come to regard the sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory not merely as a sideshow, but as a legitimate threat to safety and even democracy.”
  • The QAnon Candidates Are Here. Trump Has Paved Their Way. (The New York Times): “More than two years after QAnon, which the F.B.I. has labeled a potential domestic terrorism threat, emerged from the troll-infested corners of the internet, the movement’s supporters are morphing from keyboard warriors into political candidates. They have been urged on by Mr. Trump, whose own espousal of conspiracy theories and continual railing against the political establishment have cleared a path for QAnon candidates.”
  • QAnon-supporting congressional candidate embraced 9/11 conspiracy theory (The Hill): “Marjorie Taylor Greene, who became the Republican nominee in a deep-red Georgia congressional district after a Tuesday primary, expressed support for conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.”
  • Asked about QAnon, Trump declines to denounce the conspiracy theory (The Washington Post): “Most presidents, it’s safe to assume, would have offered some cautionary words discrediting the theory, particularly if the theory suggested that the president himself was involved in its machinations, as QAnon suggests about Trump. He could also have offered a bold endorsement of the movement, which was the least likely option. Instead, Trump took the middle road of ignoring the question.”

Focusing questions:

  • Why do conspiracy theories gain traction and spread among the population?
  • How do these theories impact people’s beliefs and actions in other ways?
  • How is the QAnon conspiracy theory having an impact on the 2020 election and on American society?
  • What are some cautions people should keep in mind when encountering conspiracy theories? How can people avoid being misled by inaccurate or false information?

Possible sources:

University professors or other practitioners who are experts in human behavior or political science; students and others in the community who can share how they encountered these theories and why they choose to believe or not believe them

Possible sidebars:

  • One person’s opinion about QAnon, conspiracy theories in general, the impact of these on politics or society
  • Quotation collection about conspiracy theories
  • Listing of conspiracy theories that can be debunked
  • Listing of actions to take to verify information
  • Timeline of QAnon incidents from “Pizzagate” to this summer’s primary elections
  • Glossary of terms related to conspiracy theories and misinformation

 

Coverage ideas: Cancel culture

The practice of online shaming of people who have problematic behavior from the past or present continues to be a cultural force, particularly among people who identify as more liberal. This practice is not new. It was a summer of many open letters. The issue has evolved into an election campaign issue since President Donald Trump mentioned it at his July 4 speech, where he called it “the very definition of totalitarianism,” and “completely alien to our culture and our values.” Note that canceling something can be different from cancel culture. Its prevalence in the culture through several recent high-profile “cancellations,” and because it has become an election issue make it a timely topic to cover for any student media, including yearbooks.

Cancel by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

  • This 32-minute podcast from WNYC’s “On the Media” breaks down the principles of cancel culture and its effects.
  • The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who writes from a more conservative political perspective, offers “10 Theses About Cancel Culture
  • A letter published in Harper’s Weekly in July caused a stir when notable authors and writers pushed back against “cancellation” of ideas and individuals: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
  • The Harper’s ‘Letter,’ cancel culture and the summer that drove a lot of smart people mad (The Washington Post): “While the Harper’s letter doesn’t explicitly blame ‘cancel culture,’ many readers saw it as the subtext — a big part of the debate roiling elite cultural institutions. For some, ‘cancel culture’ is the specter of online mobs advocating for someone to get fired over anything from an old tweet to an innocuous statement that doesn’t conform to some emerging progressive ethos. Others argue there’s no such thing — that the phrase itself is an attempt to dismiss the young or minority or LGBTQ groups using social media to hold the powerful accountable.”
  • The New York Times podcast “The Daily” took a deeper dive through a two-part explanation Aug. 10 and 11. Part 1: “Where it came from” and Part 2: “A case study”

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • When it comes to calling out bad actions, what are the possible repercussions — both for those being called out and those doing the calling?
  • Is there room for redemption, particularly among younger offenders? Can people recover from a cancellation?
  • How do teens reconcile positive feelings toward people and things they enjoy (entertainers, performers, creators, products) with potentially problematic behavior by the people behind those things? In short, can you separate the art from the artist?

Possible sources:

Journalists, digital media and pop culture college professors, social media influencers that your audience follows, people who have been “canceled” and others who have expertise in this area

Possible sidebars:

  • Case study of someone who was called out or who called someone out
  • Glossary of terms
  • Timeline of “cancellations” or the life cycle of a “cancellation“
  • Quotation collection or poll with opinions about cancel culture
  • Pro/con debate

Coverage ideas: Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has come to affect every aspect of life: school, work, home, social. For a period of weeks in the late spring and early summer, nearly every story in media had some connection to the pandemic — only a few other stories broke through, and even they typically were presented in the context of a stay-at-home order, social distancing or health/safety.

The pandemic also provides student journalists with numerous coverage opportunities. Every school news outlet should have a regular beat related to the pandemic, and every yearbook should have at least one spread to cover these events. So much student journalism is reactive to planned events and spot news, and there is a disappointing lack of enterprise in most student media. Of course you will want to cover the daily or weekly events — changes in policies, cancellations. The challenge with coronavirus coverage is to find ways to cover the impact or the less obvious stories, most of which will not fit neatly in a daily news story. But part of the work of student journalism is to document not just events but feelings, opinions and trends as a way of capturing history of this time.

Below are two story ideas that relate to the coronavirus pandemic. There are more, such as lasting economic impacts and sports.

Social-emotional learning. One of the biggest areas for potential stories will be the social-emotional learning and wellness around returning to school after being isolated for so long. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued recommendations to reopen schools for in-person learning because of the negative effects of social isolation. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) also issued guidelines and tools to “Reunite, Renew and Thrive.” A related but distinct story that deserves coverage: gaps in equality and achievement that have been exacerbated through the pandemic.

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • What has the school done to assist students and adults with the transition back to school this fall?
  • How are students and adults in the school coping with the transition back to school — likely distance learning at first but eventually in person?
  • What are some ways students and others recognize that they have changed? What are they doing to accept that change or to try to counteract that change?
  • Are there new activities in school (through classes or advisory programs), clubs, lunch or afterschool activities that are designed to assist with this transition and to help people cope?

Possible sources:

Students and teachers, counselors, school psychologist, mental health professionals in your community or at a college/university

Possible sidebars:

  • Quotation collection about feelings of isolation or how sources have fought isolation or set goals
  • Tips from metal health professionals on how to stay connected or to deal with isolation
  • Listing of resources or of curricular/pedagogical changes
  • Profile of one person’s experiences
  • Compare distance learning with the revised in-person format or a hybrid plan

School opening and safety. Late summer was a time of much debate about whether and how schools should reopen. Soon after the first schools began the school year, among those that started in person were several coronavirus outbreaks. Schools likely spent a lot of time and funds on reorganizing school to be safe for distance learning or in-person classes.

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • How have people and the culture changed? Did people follow stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines?
  • Did students, employees and parents feel that the campus was safe for in-person instruction? What made them feel safe?
  • What is the budget impact from distance learning or to modify campus for in-person classes?
  • Even when social distancing was relaxed, how comfortable were people with “returning to normal”?
  • What role did the teachers’ union play in the decision about returning to school?
  • What are some of the longer-term impacts and lasting changes from the need for different types of instruction (revised in-person, distance, hybrid)?

Possible sources:

Principal or other administrator, school budget officer, school nurse, teachers and students, public health official in your community or at a college/university

Possible sidebars:

  • Profile or Q&A of someone regarding their experience recovering from COVID-19 — or their experience of having a relative with COVID-19
  • Listing of physical changes for safety such as modified water fountains or plexiglass partitions in the food-service area
  • Listing of other changes to the curriculum or teaching methods, such as an ability to work remotely and a desire for more group work (or continued independence)
  • Quotation collection on what made people feel safe or unsafe
  • Quotation collection about the first day that was unlike any other
  • Examples of individual safety routines
  • Gallery of face masks and how people balanced safety with personal expression
  • Timeline of school reopening decision and key events
  • Statistics list of expenses: distance learning (computers, wifi hotspots, software, training), in-person classes (plexiglass partitions, tape markings, new furniture), cleaning, transportation, operations (thermometers, masks, tests)

 

Story ideas from Summer 2020

Each summer, several topics emerge that are appropriate for including in student media with a localized angle. Some of them have cultural impact, while others are one-time news items that can be made specific through an interview at the school or in the community. I compile these into a list that I use in teaching summer workshops and to spark my own students’ ideas for coverage beyond the obvious.

The list reflects what I have read, heard and seen in my own media diet, so it comes from my perspective. It’s not meant to be comprehensive or exclusive of other ideas.

Many of the topics are related to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — school safety, economic impact and changes to learning. In many ways, the topics are intertwined as it is difficult to separate and isolate health, economy, education and civil rights. Main topics include: coronavirus and school; schools and sports; college and the application process; cancel culture and removing monuments or named spaces; Black Lives Matter, race and reckoning; journalism, media and objectivity; and of course the Nov. 3 election.

The full Summer 2020 list is here. It probably will be updated.

During distance learning, revisit goals and roles of student media

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made an impact on and changed everything about schools. Most schools are starting the 2020-21 school year in full or partial distance learning, and everyone has at least a plan to consider this possibility. The changes forced by distance learning can also be an opportunity to revisit the goals and roles of student media.

These nine concepts provide a foundation for you and your staff to think about, to which you can aspire, to measure how well you are doing in your school and community, and ways to improve.

This narrated a video (12:57), which I prepared for a summer workshop, explains the nine concepts. A slightly older version of the slideshow is available (without narration).

I have updated these from when I first encountered them several years ago from my friend and mentor, Bob Greenman, who by then had retired from a successful career as a journalism teacher and newspaper adviser in New York City public schools but who remained active through conventions, workshops and active networking with students and advisers around the nation. These and other concepts are presented on posters available for download from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

Advisers: Help students cover the world honestly, truthfully, transparently

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today from the Journalism Education Association.

“Is it really OK to be gay?” In the 2003-04 school year, that was the headline for my students’ newspaper cover story and double-truck package on their peers’ attitudes toward the increasing presence of LGBTQ people in media at the same time as LGBTQ issues were front and center in politics. I was teaching and advising at Wenatchee High School in central Washington state. It’s a couple hours’ drive through the Cascade Mountains from the progressive city of Seattle, but at that time, when it came to differences in culture and politics, it might as well have been in another country.

On TV, gay and lesbian people were moving from sidekick to center stage — “Will and Grace” had been around since 1998, but the summer of 2003 brought the debut of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” followed a couple months later by “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” State legislators debated same-sex civil unions and marriages, and Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2004.

The convergence of LGBTQ people in mainstream entertainment and in political news was an important news peg for my students to turn the lens on their school and examine the atmosphere their peers created and experienced. At my current school, 15 years later, editors found a perfect news peg for coverage: Results of the school’s comprehensive wellness survey included data about sexuality and identity.

It’s an adviser’s job to help students cover the world around them honestly, truthfully and transparently. We must help them to tap in to current sentiments and ask how national or regional stories affect them. So it made sense in 2018-19 to explore the role of the school’s LGBTQ+ student alliance in a more accepting school climate, where many LGBTQ students said they didn’t feel the need to join that club. Another story explored why relatively few male students were openly gay at school — fewer were “out” than the data showed — while female students were more likely to be comfortable openly expressing their sexual orientation (about half of the girls said they did not identify as exclusively heterosexual).

Advisers must hold students accountable for their coverage by asking editors and staff what motivates that coverage. Members of this community should be covered authentically, not just in June for Pride celebrations or milestones, or LGBT History Month, which is typically in October to coincide with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. And to be effective, advisers must also learn history and use accurate terminology to be able to coach and question students.

Whether in a print newspaper or yearbook, online or broadcast, journalistic work also documents these attitudes and experiences for history. Student journalists can help the audience understand and make sense of the world around them, and the audience needs stories that explain or show people’s lives and perspectives. If done thoughtfully and not with tokenism, sources will feel well-represented, and the audience will be enlightened.

Print versus online doesn’t have to be either/or.

With budgets tightened and not likely to recover soon, dozens of scholastic journalism programs have scrapped the printed newspaper in favor of a digital presence. Many reasons exist why developing a robust news website is a good idea, but the price should not rank high.

A post to the Journalism Education Association email discussion list in November 2013 discussed the possibility of eliminating most print editions and replacing with a news website and a few print publications. The teacher wrote that she struggled with what those issues might include — should they be oriented toward news or features? Maybe they should be a separate magazine?

It’s easy to scrap the printed edition and cook up a flashy website with a carousel of rotating stories — video and audio, too. But doing so does not maintain the best options for storytelling.

The key is finding the right balance among all platforms. The printed page is unmatched for large displays, especially of visual storytelling through photography, illustration and graphics. It also provides the serendipity of discovering stories simply by leafing through the pages.

If I were starting a scholastic news journalism program today, I would build it with three components in mind: a comprehensive news website with an online-first philosophy, a well-curated printed magazine for special coverage and a social media presence that encourages building community.

Start with news online. Focus there.
Develop and maintain an online-first mentality. Doing this means changing the paradigm from publishing that is restricted by quantity, dimension and frequency of the print edition. When news happens, be ready to cover it. When a story is ready to publish, publish it.

The website should be the source of daily news and information for the campus community. Frequent posts encourage return visits, which reinforce the position of the website as a news source. They also create opportunities for community engagement and increase traffic for revenue potential.

Though the website is a primary news delivery vehicle, it will evolve into a storehouse of information — sports scores archive, past coverage of long-term stories, and even a place to watch live coverage of events like sports games and graduation.

The website would also be a place to showcase the best multimedia work — slideshows, audio and video clips and comprehensive stories with contextual linking and related content. Take advantage of the unique aspects of the digital platform. Because of the new coverage opportunities, students will be engaged constantly — no more ebb-and-flow cycle where some reporters have no work because the editors are designing the pages.

Add companion special-interest printed publications.
With most routine news items pulled to the website for publication, the print edition’s role must be redefined. Topics with greater depth can be explored in print.

Develop a publication where each edition carries a single theme — music and other arts, sports, health and fitness, food, family, faith and spirituality, the environment. Take a broad topic and find ways to approach it that go beyond providing encyclopedic reports. Use the topic as a trunk from which individual stories sprout and branch. For example, one topic could be competition. Stories could come from sports, of course, but also from video games, sibling rivalries and the pageant world. Build in a community engagement piece with a contest before the edition, and publish the results — or post them online.

Keepsake editions are another great example of a niche print product. Repurpose older stories and photos into a new package with some additional context. Championship season? Best of the decade? School or community anniversaries? All of these provide opportunities for keepsake editions.

These print editions also allow for new advertising opportunities. A businesses or organization that might be new or an infrequent advertiser could be persuaded to participate in a special edition, especially if it relates to their mission or specialty. These themed print editions should be viewed equally as content production and revenue opportunity, though the advertising should never drive the content itself.

Build community with social media.
Social utilities — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and others — are useful not just for promotion but also to foster a community. Each platform has its own audience, so develop a strategy. Think about why the news staff is using a specific social utility and who the target audience is. If the students use Instagram, get on there, too. If you want to reach parents and families, Facebook is a better choice. Some special topics are great posts for Reddit, a social community whose users are highly engaged.

Engagement should be the goal, not simply followers, clicks, likes, retweets or upvotes. Engagement also means a back-and-forth conversation with members of that social community. When the community is established, the promotion will be authentic and easy. Since people tend to place trust in peer recommendations, social sharing and referrals are valuable to bring a new audience to your work and to grow the community.

You don’t have to start from scratch to get a great multi-platform journalism program going. However, restructuring might be challenge. It’s a challenge that’s worth the effort. Calibrate each platform to ensure that multiple coverage opportunities are available for students to tell the story of the school, and find the right mix that works.

Start a parent booster club. You’ll be glad you did.

I was in my 10th year of teaching when I finally moved forward on a thought I had for years. I needed some help managing the many tasks of being a publication adviser, and I wanted an organized parent group. If the athletic teams, the band — even the school’s sports medicine group and mariachi band — had boosters, so should the journalism programs.

Motivated by events at the National High School Journalism Convention, I gathered a group of parents in December 2006 to lay a foundation for a journalism booster blub. “J-Boosters” was born.

I was surprised by the enthusiasm and interest. The parents had been waiting to be asked. They wanted to be involved with the activities in which their children participated. In retrospect, I can’t believe I waited so long to launch the parent group. It remains one of the best things I was involved with at Wenatchee High School.

RATIONALE

Here’s what I wrote in a letter in January 2007 to parents of students on the yearbook or newspaper staffs:

A national survey sponsored by the Knight Foundation and released two years ago showed nearly three-fourths of high school students don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment or take it for granted. Support among teens for freedoms in the First Amendment is less than among adults. Students lack knowledge about basic freedom of expression, and some students even think the First Amendment goes too far in the freedoms it guarantees. But, students who participate in journalism classes are more likely to appreciate these freedoms, and a recent update to the initial survey shows some improvement in enrollment and in attitude. Clearly, now more than ever, we need to preserve opportunities for students to participate in scholastic journalism such as the newspaper and yearbook.

GOALS

When it launched, the group had four main goals:

  • to support journalism in the curriculum
  • to support journalism activities financially
  • to promote the journalism program and raise awareness
  • to recognize the effort and accomplishments of student journalists

WHAT HAPPENED

The parents agreed to the goals above and for their activities they determined to hold a kickoff fundraiser, a Quill and Scroll honorary society induction ceremony and an end-of-year banquet.

The kickoff event was Feb. 21, during the national Scholastic Journalism Week — a perfect time to launch a new endeavor. The parents wanted to raise awareness of the new organization and of the accomplishments and plans of the WHS journalism program.

They also wanted to raise money. By the end of the evening, through a silent and live auction as well as patron donations, several thousand dollars were raised, establishing the necessary seed money for first projects. The event has continued every year since.

One important aspect was to have a fiscal agent to collect funds. The parents worked with a local foundation to provide this service, so that donations could be eligible for an income tax deduction.

Two months later, the J-Boosters inducted the first students into the Quill and Scroll Society, and in May, the joint end-of-year banquet included students from both staffs and their parents.

In that initial letter, I closed with this paragraph:

The Apple Leaf newspaper and Wa Wa yearbook at Wenatchee High School have earned top state, regional and national award both as a staff and for individuals. J-Boosters is an opportunity to recognize excellence and to provide a foundation and support structure for new projects and even greater achievements. Becoming a J-Booster can help a student attend a conference to learn a new skill, provide new state-of-the-art equipment and recognize a job well done all while promoting the important role that student journalists have in the school community. As a J-Booster, you’ll help invest in youth who may grow up to be journalists or other related media professionals, and we all have a vested interest in developing citizens who support fundamental freedoms.

The J-Boosters are still active at that school several years later, and I could not be happier. The students deserve the support, and the parents want to help. The legacy includes not just a parent organization but also stronger and more vibrant journalism programs.

The value of an outside perspective

Each spring brings another set of passages to high schools: end-of-year testing, the Prom and graduation. The journalism program is no different with its year-in-review newspaper, yearbook distribution, selection of new editors and staff and maybe a farewell banquet. The adviser likely gives a final exam or asks students to turn in a portfolio of their cumulative work. Along with those important events and activities, each publication or media staff should take advantage of the annual spring renewal to seek an outside perspective for maximum benefit.

Unlike students in other scholastic activities, journalism students have an opportunity to gain a greater understanding about the work they do by participating in an annual evaluation. Producing a newspaper, yearbook, website or magazine is a specialized activity. Getting better at it requires a broader perspective than just the students and adults in the newsroom.

Fortunately, staffs have numerous options for just this kind of advice through one of the critique services at the national or state levels. NSPA has a longstanding program, as do the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and the Quill and Scroll Society. Many state associations also offer evaluation services. These programs provide two important aspects to success: recognition for the hard work and achievement of the publication over the past year and suggestions for how to improve the endeavor.

The critique can’t be done in isolation, though. It must be put to work. Improvement is a process. Because the staff composition changes each year, a critique evaluates the publication at that time. That’s why the rating or score must be secondary to the suggestions for improvement. Through evaluation, reflection and action, a critique will provide a path to build on the foundation.

Evaluation. The evaluation comes in two stages. First, the staff must evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. Some critique programs will demand more evaluation from the editors and staff, while others request only a letter of explanation. However, identifying the publication’s areas of strength and deficiency will help the evaluating judge provide targeted feedback. Second, the judge will apply the association’s criteria to the publication. The judge will write about what is working and what isn’t. He or she should provide a blend of praise and suggestions — ideally with specific tips for how to make the improvements — and a rating according to the criteria.

Reflection. Once the evaluation has been returned to the adviser and staff, it’s time to review the comments and reflect on the suggestions from the judge. This evaluation from an outsider may raise some important issues on which the staff can reflect. Some of the points might be reminders of more rigid rules of scholastic journalism, while others might be more in line with preference or taste. Regardless, the editors and staff ought to consider each point carefully and determine whether it should be accepted. If a suggestion is to be disregarded, the rationale should be clearly stated. Simply disagreeing or taking a defensive attitude does not help improve the publication. From there, the editors can work with the adviser to determine the best course of action for implementing the suggestions and making the most of the critique.

Action. The steps to be taken after an evaluation are best expressed in a set of goals. Some of the goals may be individual, such as an editor’s goal to have more of a certain type of coverage in each edition. Others may be staff goals, such as reducing the number of errors before submitting pages or teaching staff members how to improve their photography skills. The adviser and editor in chief should work with section editors to develop the individual goals and staff goals based on the suggestions from the evaluation. The action plan is up to the staff. For example, if the judge suggests including more stories about off-campus sports and recreation, how will the staff make this happen?

Evaluation, reflection and action can happen throughout the year, but the annual review is one way to create a benchmark. Periodically refer to the goals as a way to keep the staff on track throughout the year. The previous year’s critique can be referenced when setting goals and also when submitting for the next critique. It’s acceptable to miss a few goals. Make sure that staff identifies and reflects on the reasons for falling short.

So add a new rite of spring to the staff’s checklist: the annual critique. When the critique is returned a few months after submitting, the staff can set to work on implementing the suggestions for the publication or website. Celebrate the rating, but use the evaluation as a launch pad for improvement.