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August 20, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

High school newspaper ink drying up

I was thumbing through my old “Class of 1965” high school yearbook one day when I was stopped dead cold by an autograph left by one of my teachers: “Dear Clarence: All I ask is that you mention my name when you win your first Pulitzer Prize. Don’t forget. Mary Kindell.”

I was stunned because it was 1989 and I had just won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. While I was getting over the shock, reporters were calling with the usual reporter questions: “How’d you get started?” “Who was your inspiration?” etc., etc.

That’s why I was looking at my old yearbook to refresh my memory. It’s embarrassing to blow facts, especially the facts of your own life.

My life in journalism began at our high school student newspaper under Mrs. Kindell’s supervision at Middletown High School in Ohio, where she also taught a one-credit-hour journalism class.

My initial media goals were modest. I didn’t have much of a social life. Journalism, a field that compensates articulate nosiness, was a good way for me to meet people. Mrs. Kindell encouraged me to pursue my media interests and, just as important, helped to pacify my alarmed parents, who wanted me to be a doctor.

I put down my yearbook and called Mrs. K. She didn’t sound surprised to hear what she had written. “I always knew you could do it,” she said.

I thought she probably issued that challenge to all of her young aspiring journalists, I said. Maybe, she responded, “but you’re the only one who has taken me up on it.”

I apologize to Mrs. K for tooting my own horn with this anecdote. She encouraged modesty and humility in her aspiring journos. Put the story first, she instructed us, not your egos.

But I have a couple of good reasons for this deep dive into my anecdotage. For one, Mrs. Kindell turned 99 in August and deserves this shout-out: Happy birthday, Mrs. K!

At a reception with four birthday cakes in her honor at Middletown’s First Presbyterian Church, she told me she feels fine. Her only complaint was a persistent numbness in her hands that makes it hard to type or use the telephone, a poignantly cruel twist, in my view, for someone who helped to improve my skills on typewriters and telephones.

My other justification for these memories is to sound an alarm for the endangered state of high school journalism. Opportunities for today’s aspiring or potential high school journalists to receive on-the-job learning like Mrs. Kindell offered are slim and getting slimmer.

Even in New York, the media capital, only 1 in 8 public high schools has a student newspaper, The New York Times reported in May, and many publish only a few times a year.

Nationally, about two-thirds of public high schools have newspapers, according to a 2011 media study by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University. But whether on paper or online, they tend to be absent from lower-income schools and lower-income students — like I was.

That’s sad because, as Robert Fulghum titled his best-seller, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” I often feel as though I learned all I really needed to know about journalism in high school.

Newspapers have been battered for decades by television and widespread illiteracy. At least the popularity of online news encourages kids to read, in between their views of Miley Cyrus videos.

But as they add to today’s explosion of Internet traffic, too few youngsters are learning good news literacy. As Mrs. Kindell taught, you need to be a good reporter before you start giving your opinion. Today’s world of blogging and tweeting encourages the opposite.

Too bad we don’t have more Mrs. Kindells to go around.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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