Peter West [email protected]
When a devastating earthquake killed more than 5,000 people in Kobe, Japan, earlier this year, reporters from around the world flocked to the scene to examine almost every aspect of the story. But only a few firsthand accounts spoke of the disaster from a young person's perspective.
One of the most telling of those stories wasn't found, however, in any professional newspaper. It appeared in the electronic version of The Sage, a monthly newspaper published by the students at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, Tex.
From Kobe, young Japanese students mailed English-language electronic letters about the quake's aftermath over CompuServe, a commercial on-line service, to Palo Duro High, an inner-city school with a large minority population. The raw, unedited letters were subsequently reproduced in The Sage, where millions of CompuServe subscribers could read them.
"Our school buildings received almost no damage," wrote Erika Isona, a student at Kobe High School, in one letter. "But sadly, one teacher and two students died. Also, many students lost their houses and left Kobe."
Craig Weiss, the newspaper's faculty adviser, hopes that the CompuServe version of The Sage will demonstrate the viability of an electronic high school news service that could link K-12 papers across the country--and the globe. He already has agreements with four other schools, including one in England, to contribute to such an exchange next school year and predicts that the service will grow slowly from there.
The Sage, and a handful of student publications like it, appear to be on the leading edge of a trend among K-12 newspapers and magazines. Following the lead of professional newspapers, many of which are dabbling in cyberspace, these high school periodicals are producing for an audience of millions sophisticated versions of the traditional newspaper that sells for a few pennies in the school cafeteria.
What Webs They Weave
Some, like The Sage, use commercial on-line services as their delivery vehicle. But others, like Hanabi, the student newspaper of the American School in Japan, an English-language school for Americans whose parents are working in Japan, publish on the global Internet computer network, using a state-of-the-art graphic interface called the World Wide Web.
"Using the Web enables us to get the paper out to people all over the world," says senior Adam Bjornholm via electronic mail. "It also provides a forum with which we can tell alumni about the recent goings-on at school."
Although it is difficult to track just how many electronic student publications exist, an electronic Web search yields a list of roughly a dozen. Most are electronic versions of high school publications of long vintage and are published in addition to the traditional newspaper.
They run the gamut from The Biotechnician, a colorful monthly publication of science students at West Valley High School in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the Horizon, published by students at Sidwell Friends School, the exclusive private school in Washington that President Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, attends.
But the list does not include, for example, personal accounts of the Kobe earthquake that students at Japan's Asukayama High School published on a Web page. It ignores The Sage or any other publications available only through commercial networks. Nor does it count such papers as The Digital Missourian, which the University of Missouri school of journalism sends by modem to about 14 local public elementary, junior, and senior high schools.
And new projects are appearing almost constantly.
Last month, WNET, the New York-based public television station, invited more than 50 student reporters across the state to interview Gov. George E. Pataki on live television, using biographical and other information about the Governor found on the Web.
Other students posted questions on WNET's Learning Link, an educational telecommunications network, which will later reprint some of the student's stories.
Advantages of the Digital Age
Journalism advisers and student editors believe there are several advantages to producing electronic versions of their publications.
"We are able to update the on-line version whenever we need to," Bjornholm, says, "while we are unable to do that with the print version."
And, adds David Stone, the faculty adviser to The Arrow, published by students at Flathead High in Kalispell, Mont., the new media appeal to technologically adept young people in ways that print does not. When Stone and some of his students saw a presentation on The Digital Missourian earlier this year at the annual meeting of the Journalism Education Association, they resolved to master a steep learning curve to produce an Internet version of The Arrow.
The transformation from page to screen is not altogether easy because to take full advantage of the Internet's ability to provide electronic links between documents--and to display images as well as text--means mastering Hypertext Mark-up Language, or H.T.M.L., a computer-coding system. Moreover, precollegiate access to the Internet, while growing, is still relatively scarce. Weiss argues that these difficulties make commercial on-line services a far more attractive medium for high school journalism.
Scott Dixon, the faculty adviser to The Vocal Point, a monthly newspaper produced by students at Centennial Middle School in Boulder Colo., knew that going digital would be tough. Still, he says, his staff simply waded in and learned by doing when they went on-line.
"We began by downloading technical documents from other people's Web pages," he says, "and taught ourselves H.T.M.L. through those until we were able to put the puzzle together."
Stone also believes that the Internet can be a powerful research tool for young reporters. When a rare earthquake struck northern Montana in April, for example, he immediately encouraged Eric Hines, The Arrow's student news editor, to interview the state's leading seismologist by electronic mail.
"The next day, he had a two- or three-page, single-spaced reply. Obviously, an impeccably accurate reply," Stone notes. "He got the same quality of interview that somebody from The New York Times would have."
The new medium, however, also is more demanding than the traditional broadsheet, according to advisers and student editors alike. "We feel that we have to be more selective with the articles that go on-line," Bjornholm says, "because it isn't just the students who are going to read them."
A recent issue of the American School's Hanabi, for example, featured student perspectives on religious "cults" that describe how a recent poison-gas attack on a Tokyo subway affected young people. A special issue of The Vocal Point tackled highly controversial water-use issues in the American West.
"The number one difference is content," Dixon says. "And the content, in some kids' opinion, was a little dry at first. You can't put song dedications 'from Mary to Sam' on the Internet."