Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Let's Hear it for the Kids

In a previous post, we suggested that one of the local dailies publish a "PrepArts" section, similar to the N-S current PrepSports pull-out, to note the talented students in the area who don't happen to play sports. We stand by the idea (and hope that someone steals it), but we also should note that the N-S has been showcasing the work of local high school newspapers this year, and yesterday they selected the best three pieces of student journalism published in the N-S this past year.

A note: the editor of Media Notes was the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper during his junior year, but it only lasted a semester. Aside from a few dedicated students, most of the staff didn't much care about doing good work and improving from issue to issue. When he realized that the class advisor didn't care either (as long as everyone met their deadlines), he decided to save himself another semester of aggravation and resign at the end of the first semster. So we're familiar with some of the dynamics that affect high school newspapers, and that the students that genuinely care about the overall product are often fighting a losing battle with their fellow students.

So here are the winners, as chosen by the N-S editorial board. Third place went to South Side's David Burkhart for a column on being tall and not playing basketball. As any newspaper veteran could tell you, writing a good column is hard, especially when you're relatively new to journalism, as all these high school writers are.

And let's remember that these kids are (unconsciously) fighting against the style of writing that has been rewarded and reinforced since their very first creative writing class. What most of these kids need is to drop all the adverbs and flowery phrases and get to the point -- channel Hemingway, if you will. But seldom do they have an advisor or editor willing to hurt their feelings and break them of their bad habits. (That job is usually left to their first newspaper boss, or, if they're lucky, a college professor who cares.)

Burkhart's column, and the other winners to a lesser degree, suffer from this malady, but we can't really hold it against them. They're only writing they way they've been taught to write.

Michael Kramer, of Canterbury, takes second place with his column on Iraq's first reality TV show, an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-ish program that rebuilds Iraqi homes. A nice piece of reporting wrapped in a bit of light opinion.

First place went to Sonia Rao, also of Canterbury, for a column on child soldiers. Like Kramer, she does a nice job reporting the problem, but she loses momentum when it comes time for the opinion. That she's against the use of child soldiers isn't exactly a surprise, so she tries to beef it up by admonishing that the United Nations "should be more concerned." Okay...but how about something stronger?

If we were the editor (and let us relive our high school days for just a moment), we would have advised her that she buried the lede: that the United Nations has acknowledged that the use of child soldiers is wrong, but neglected to take action to do anything to stop it. Now there is a strong column -- reporting on the use of child soldiers in the opening, reporting the U.N.'s statements on the subject, and the fact that they have done nothing about it. Turn this into an admonishment of the U.N. -- that should be the focus of the whole piece, not just the final paragraph. She can still inform her readers about the tragedy of child soldiers, but instead of letting the the second half of the column wither on the vine, it would have some real bite.

Sonia is obviously passionate about this issue; we'd like to see her channel that into a rebuke of the U.N.'s failure to act. Righteous indignation has a way of energizing a person's writing. We think that in this case it would turn a good column into a great one.

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