Taylor Dancer, 18, stood in the hallway on the second floor of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media Friday morning waiting for a journalism session to begin during the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association State Convention.
Dancer, who attended the event with Madison Central High School classmates, was one of more than 500 Mississippi high school students who came to learn more about journalism. She said her school has a broadcast journalism class, a newspaper and a yearbook program. She works for the yearbook and enjoys designing pages and taking pictures.
“I had to take the intro to journalism class first,” she said. “It really helped expand my writing, and I love writing a lot more now than I did before. Doing that and the photography and layout is my favorite thing, and I’ve entered some competitions with my photography.”
Dancer credits her high school instructor with the program’s success. “We really try to be firm on deadlines,” she said, “and create a good book for everyone to see. It goes out in our community, and we want that to reflect us well. That’s kind of like the main goal throughout the classroom, and we all know that, so we are held to a high standard.”
Dancer said she wants to become a pediatric dentist, but she’s not ready to give up her yearbook activity. “I’ve talked to some people here (University of Mississippi), and I’ve thought about being on the yearbook staff here, because that’s something I’ve done throughout high school. I would really like to continue in college. I’ve heard that it’s really fun, and you can go to some cool events, and possibly get paid for your pictures.”
MSPA is the Mississippi high school journalism organization. The association works with high school staffs all across the state in four areas – school newspapers, including online-only publications, print publications and news magazines; yearbooks, which almost every school has; broadcasts, which have doubled in the last two years; and awards and sessions for literary magazines for creative writing students.
R.J. Morgan, MSPA director, said the organization includes about 80 high school member publications. Web only is a small part. Most are newspapers, yearbooks or broadcasts. He said high school journalism teaches students how to organize their thoughts and express them clearly and concisely. It teaches them how to communicate, talk to their peers and strangers, and interview someone.
“It teaches them the importance of deadlines, the importance of design, and the way you structure things for maximum utility,” Morgan said. “High school journalism teaches them to question society, to look at things around them, and to look at what is being presented to them on the surface and critique it, whether that is their school policy on dress code, or whether that is a bigger community issue.”
The convention offers skills workshops and education to help students better serve the communities in which they live and work. They also hold a number of journalism contests to honor and validate students and teachers.
Bill Rose and John Baker, Meek School of Journalism and New Media professors, led a session called “Enemies of the American People.” They discussed the idea that the media has been under attack and the journalism movie, “Spotlight,” about a group of Boston Globe journalists who broke a story about Catholic priests sexually assaulting young boys. He said the reporters began “knocking on doors and getting people to tell their stories.” Change happened when the truth was exposed.
“It came as a result of some journalists getting together and pursuing a story,” Rose said. “Was it easy? Did they run into resistance? Did the church use its political connections to try to shut them down? All those things happened.”
Rose believes it’s a great time to be a journalist despite polls that may indicate otherwise.
“When you’re attacked, if you don’t fight back, you go down in popularity for a while,” he said. “The interesting thing about this whole attack of the press is it comes because newspaper reporters are doing their job.”
The keynote speaker was essayist and Jackson native Kiese Laymon, who attended Millsaps College and Jackson State University before graduating from Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio. He earned a master’s degree in fine arts in fiction from Indiana University and is now a professor of English and African American studies at the University of Mississippi.
Laymon is author of the novel Long Division and a collection of essays called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, the UK edition released in 2016. He has written essays, stories and reviews for numerous publications, including Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Colorlines, NPR, LitHub, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, PEN Journal, Oxford American, The Best American Series, Ebony and Guernica, according to his bio at kieselaymon.com. He has two books in the works, including a memoir called Heavy and a novel called And So On, expected in 2017 from Scribner.
“He’s a native Mississippian, who has gone on to be a highly respected and published voice,” Morgan said. “He’s so nuanced and really does a good job of articulating a point of view.”
Laymon led a session called “The Joy of Failure.” The point was, you can’t learn if you don’t fail. He shared a story from his youth when he won a second place statewide award for an essay he wrote in 11th grade for his school newspaper. But when Laymon recently reviewed it for the first time in years, he realized how poorly he had written it.
“…When they asked me to come and talk to you all, I went back and read that thing,” Laymon said, adding that he couldn’t find one usable sentence in the essay that he wouldn’t edit now. That’s because he’s grown as a writer, a reader and a person, he said.
“What I want you to do is look forward to writing trash,” Laymon said. “You can’t write anything great unless you write trash first.”
Keywanna Rogers, 18, is a Tupelo High School journalism student who was found in the Meek School lobby between journalism sessions Friday. She said her school has a variety of journalism programs, and she is the sports editor of the school newspaper.
“We do a lot of writing,” she said. “If we’re not writing, we’re going out looking for stories. I mostly do sports, but I also write some opinion (columns).”
Rogers said she wants to major in journalism and minor in communications. She aspires to be a newspaper reporter. “I haven’t really had any experience with broadcasting yet, but I plan to, just to see how it’s different,” she said.
Jalysia Coleman, 17, also from Tupelo High, plans to join the Air Force after high school, but she’s now part of the school’s newspaper staff and enjoys writing stories.
“My English teacher last semester was a kindergarten teacher forever, and she became an 11th grade English teacher,” Coleman said, recalling one of the stories she wrote this year. “And my U.S. history teacher got Teacher of the Year, and I wrote about that.”
Connor Murphy, 17, of D’Iberville High School, said his school recently added a journalism program. Murphy is the student director of the school’s broadcast journalism class, WDHS. Broadcasts can be found on YouTube. Students also produce a weekly podcast called “Campus Connection” that can be downloaded from iTunes.
“We have 17 in the class at the moment,” said Murphy, who wants to major in journalism. He hasn’t decided which college he’ll attend, but the decision is between the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Mississippi.
Braxton Stone, 16, of Starkville High School, also attended the MSPA State Convention. He said he loves his high school journalism program and his teacher.
“She’s really interactive with our program,” he said. “Our yearbook staff editors know exactly what they are doing.”
Stone said this is his second year to be part of the program. He joined because he was interested in English and writing, and he wants to study broadcast journalism in college.
Reagan Leeper, another Madison Central student, said Madison Central journalism students are a team. “We all work together,” she said. “We use pictures in stories, and we share them so everybody has stuff. We try to support each other getting stories and articles. We usually come here and learn more about what we can do, what other schools do, and the best ways to do them.”
Corvokseya Jones, 18, of H.W. Byers High School in Marshall County, is a student journalist. “We’re still trying to get more people (involved),” said Jones, who is interested in attending the University of Mississippi.
Sarah Jent, 17, another Madison Central student, said she’s always loved taking photos. “As I got through middle school, I realized I really enjoyed writing and was good at it. Yearbook was a way for me to combine those two (interests), design pages, express myself and put my creativity into a page.”
Jent plans to study speech pathology in college and become a speech therapist for children with special needs, and she wants to minor in psychology.
When MSPA started in 1947, Morgan said the convention was similar to a camp. The role of school publications has changed a lot in the past 70 years, and the convention has been a one-day event since the 1970s.
“We are one of the older scholastic press associations and one of the best attended scholastic press associations in the country,” said Morgan. This is his fourth year to direct the convention, and he said students teach him more than he teaches them regarding language evolution and technology.
“This generation – they are really innovative storytellers,” he said. “I don’t think they necessarily see themselves that way, but the way they communicate with themselves and their peers through social media and print – through broadcast, shorthand, longform – there are so many different ways they can communicate and get information to their audience. They really just amaze me.”
Morgan’s goal for every conference is to give students seeds of knowledge in new areas.
“When they get back to their schools,” he said, “it is then up to them, their communities and their teachers to foster the growth of those seeds, to the extent that we, in five and six hours, can open their mind to a new way of doing things, a better or more professional way of handling themselves, covering an event or telling a story.”
To read more about the event and see a full list of awards, visit the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association website.
You can view photos and posts about the event on Twitter using the hashtag #MSPA17. Follow @MeekJournalism on Twitter and Instagram. You can “like” @MeekSchool on Facebook.
If you are interested in establishing a journalism program at your high school, Contact R. J. Morgan for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 662-915-7146.
- Story by LaReeca Rucker, adjunct journalism instructor