The Student News Industry

by Denis Rogatkin, Co-Chair, Education and Youth Working Group

In April 2015, a group of Russian education and youth politics experts, as well as a six high school students—correspondents for youth television programs from Petrozavodsk, Samara, Cheboksary, and Moscow—had the opportunity to attend the US Student Television Network (STN) Convention in San Diego. The high school students and the experts were familiarizing themselves with the organizational model of student television broadcasting in the US.

As members of the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange (SEE) Education and Youth Working Group, we primarily were on the lookout for opportunities to grow collaboration between Russian and American organizations that support youth and student television broadcasting.

Four days at the convention allowed us to get an in-depth understanding of the way that an uncommon subject like television broadcasting is taught in American schools, as well as of the important role that the non-profit organization STN plays in the development of broadcast journalism in schools.

A School of the XXI Century

15 years ago, a new subject appeared in American schools – television broadcasting. It was initially taught by informatics teachers, who had become qualified to do so by passing preliminary courses. The new subject quickly became popular among upperclassmen. It was not a required course – it was an elective. And when choosing from electives like “dance,” “ceramics,” “web design,” “automobile repair,” “woodworking,” or Latin, more and more often, upperclassmen would choose in favor of broadcast journalism.

One would think – how could you teach broadcasting in an ordinary class? The most you could do is teach the theory. The creation of its own TV production is an impossible task for an ordinary school. Many continue to think this way, strangely unaware of the democratization of television technologies, which occurred more than 15 years ago. With the onset of digital technologies, video cameras became quite accessible not only for schools, but for families as well. And as for editing video, it is now enough to have a standard computer or laptop, and not even necessarily a very powerful one.

Practically all American schools started teaching broadcasting from scratch. They would acquire a video camera, a tripod, and a microphone. Some more forward-thinking ones would get some green fabric – chromakey, a background for shooting the anchors in a virtual studio. But the teachers’ main problem would be not in their material inventory, but in the methodology.

The spread of the new subject—“Broadcasting”—in schools was a movement from the bottom up. The teachers had no syllabi, guidebooks, lesson plans at their disposal. While searching for methodological support, a group of teachers attended a convention held by the American Journalism Education Association. But there was nothing waiting for them but disappointment: it turned out that the Association did not deal with broadcast journalism at all.

So, what do you think these teachers did? Did they conclude their experiments with television and go back to teaching classes for advanced PC users? Such a decision would probably have been logical, but, for some reason, they did not want to return to their previous lives. And so, they made a decision: “Since there is no organization in America that can help us, let’s create our own!”

They—ordinary school teachers!—created STN, the Student Television Network. At first, this was a mutual aid network for teachers who were implementing courses on a subject that was new for them – broadcasting. Teachers exchanged best practices and received advice from others – for example, which camera would be most cost-effective given a modest school budget.

Five years later, in 2004, STN decided to hold their first student television convention. Over the course of a few days, upperclassmen and teachers gained experience in master classes taught by professional TV workers and participated in a series of creative challenges, competing against one another in various television genres.

Since then, STN conventions have been held annually. In 2015, the convention set another record: 2,700 upperclassmen from 150 schools came to San Diego. The Student Television Network is made up of approximately 400 US schools.

The Atmosphere of the Convention

San Diego is the home of STN. Its headquarters are located in a small resort town called Carlsbad, which is 50 kilometers north of San Diego.

It is quite telling that such a powerful and successful organization is located in a town that is on the opposite side of the country from the capital and whose population is a mere 100 thousand people. This countermands the existing belief that it is only possible to lead an organization with national reach exclusively from the capital. They say you can’t do anything without constant contact with government officials. But the Americans did do so!

Carlsbad is the home not only to the STN office, which is led by executive director Nancy Held Loucas. The current STN president works there as well – Doug Green. Doug is a school teacher and teaches broadcasting in two schools in Carlsbad at once – a high school (9-12 grades) and a middle school (6-8 grades). Under Doug Green’s direction, upperclassmen produce a program that is broadcast live daily. The school is equipped with a studio that offers the students the opportunity to work both in front of the camera and behind it in conditions that are not unlike those of professional television studios. The model of school broadcasting that was developed by Doug Green in Carlsbad has spread to many schools in the US. Teachers also use a textbook that he has authored. It is unsurprising that the school delegations from Carlsbad were the most numerous at the convention – almost 50 people from each school!

The convention was a fusion of a celebration mixed with everyday work. The students from a high school in Texarkana (a town in Texas with a population of 36 thousand people), whose television studio bears the name Tigervision, had a mission of great responsibility – they were providing live coverage of the all of the convention’s ceremonies. And they did so at a very professional level! Just imagine: the impressive hotel’s auditorium held 2,700 people. The auditorium was several times wider than it was long. Only people sitting in the middle section could see very well what was happening onstage. The rest watched the ceremony via live stream on large screens that were affixed in front of each section. This was the very live stream that the Texarkana upperclassmen were providing.

Upperclassmen from various schools also served as the ceremony hosts. A couple—a young man and woman—would lead the audience through their part of the show, after which they would pass the baton on to the next pair. Sometimes, different parts of the script would be mixed up, but as soon as this would happen, the organizational team would instantaneously replace them.

The live stream, the professional lighting, the charismatic and uninhibited hosting – all this created the atmosphere of a grandiose show.

Of course, this atmosphere would have been impossible without the audience’s colossal energy. The upperclassmen yelled, whistled, applauded, and jumped in joy – especially when their school was mentioned. This flow of emotion indicated a desire to assert themselves as clearly as possible, and it demonstrated pride in their school and delight from participating in such a grand-scale event as the STN convention. The atmosphere was exclusively friendly, without a hint of aggression or enmity.

The audience reacted to Nancy Held Loucas, STN’s executive director, like to a superstar. And Nancy held herself like a first-rate star, deftly controlling the audience, evoking the appropriate reactions. At the same time, she did not fail to remind the upperclassmen: “Guys, follow the safety guidelines!” This was probably the only time during the whole convention that an adult asserted herself as a teacher.

People who have experience organizing conventions with such a large number of attendees know: it is impossible to avoid injuries or disciplinary infractions when you have so many high schoolers in one place. We heard that, during the convention, someone was sent home for breaking the safety rules. Somebody else ended up in the hospital because of an injury. Observing Nancy, we saw that she didn’t forget the weight of her responsibility even for a second. But not once were there any public reprimands that were directed at all participants of the event because of the misdemeanors of one or two goof-offs. In general, there wasn’t really a pressing sense that there were teachers present: the teachers never gave off any commanding overtones, never began intrusively ordering the students around, and nobody ever grabbed somebody else’s camera out of their hands; there were no arguments in raised voices, no scandals with the event organizers… During a lunch that was held specifically for the teachers, we were quite surprised by how many were there. And we saw on multiple occasions how the teachers would joyfully jump up and down and hug their students when their school finally won one of the manifold competitions.

Convention Structure

The convention structure was as follows. The first component was the creative challenges. The list of challenges and their rules is made public ahead of time, and each school chooses (before the convention) which challenges it will be participating in. The school has to pay a fee when registering for each challenge, which it must also do if cancelling its participation in a challenge or for altering its roster of participants. Every challenge involves making a finished television product from scratch – this can be a news segment, an interview, a clip, or even a commercial.

A special challenge, which is simultaneously beloved and despised by the convention goers, is “Crazy Eights.” The teams don’t know the challenge ahead of time. Beforehand, they can only choose the genre in which they will be creating their work. The teams receive their assignments at 8 in the morning and are expected to have a finished product on a flash drive by 4 p.m.

Nancy Held Loucas is convinced that meeting a deadline is one of the most important skills for a journalist to have. The convention uses rather elaborate technologies: there are bins standing in a large hall, and a volunteer stands next to each one. All participants know that the baskets will be taken away as soon as the deadline is reached. And if something goes wrong for you in the last possible second, no one will be able to accept your work.

Editing of what was filmed for the challenges takes place in an enormous common hall. Each team has its own round table. The teams themselves bring everything they need for editing – laptops, monitors. In the final minutes, when the video file is moments away from being on the flash drive, each team begins to jubilate. The kids let out yells of victory, capture everything on their phones and cameras, and then head out to the main hall as one, not letting up their victorious whoops. At this point, the show hits its climax: the flash drive is placed in a plastic bag and, accompanied by an identifying note and the tumultuous celebration of the team and its fans, finally makes its way to the bin.

We also saw the restrained tears of those who did not manage to finish in time. However, we did not see any hysterics or scandals.

The challenges conveyed an unequivocal idea: journalism requires passion, creativity, involvement, and quick reflexes. It does not suffer sullen, downcast individuals, and it is unforgiving towards stupor when faced with a problematic situation.

What was probably one of the most difficult challenges was the “Live Broadcast,” in which the Russian delegation was involved. The challenge: attend the press conference of the Russian guests and then “start broadcasting live,” i.e. record a two-minute report on-site with no editing. According to the rules, clips that are longer than two minutes are not admitted. A submission must include an introductory stand-up by the journalist, an interview, and a concluding stand-up.

The budding correspondents had an unenviable job: because of the fairly general nature of the press conference, it was difficult to come up with a way to make the material live and interesting. However, throughout the press conference, we tried to give the kids as many hooks as possible. Once the press conference ended, the correspondents had about two hours until the deadline. Some literally started filming right away – they must have had a plan in place, which remained unaffected by our half-hour-long discussion. There were also a few who did pseudo-interviews: they would take a person from their team and ask them questions, as if they had been in Russia on a SEE fellowship. And, of course, things didn’t always work out on the first try. The team from Carlsbad High School, which was conducting an interview with me, got it on their third or fourth take. That said, the cameraman and journalist worked as a team and managed to endear me to them – they paid the interviewee due attention.

Focusing on the results of the challenge, one interview really stood out,which, by the way, got second place, not first. The correspondent from a high school in the small town of Southern Pines in North Carolina (population: 12 thousand people) did a wonderful “live stand-up” with a fledgling journalist from Cheboksary, Ekaterina Kuzovikhina. What techniques did he use? First of all, aside from simply introducing the audience to what was going on, he also justified the choice of interviewee – he cited something that Katia said during the press conference.

The first question that the young journalist Brad asked required not just general musings, but a concrete answer: “How does this program help bothRussian students and American students like me?” The answer that he received, however, was not quite concrete, but—giving credit where credit is due—he didn’t lose his bearings! Before asking his second question, the journalist provided the audience with some new information: “At the press conference, it was said that Americans know very little about Russia, including its location on the map. Can you believe it!” he exclaimed, addressing Katia. “How can your program help Americans acquire a more adequate understanding of such an influential country like Russia?” This time, Brad received a lively and charismatic response from Katia about how if high schoolers could speak with each other more often, then they would inevitably acquire an interest about the home countries of their interlocutors. “Now you definitely know where Russia is on the map!” concluded Katia. “Now, of course!” Brad responded and moved on to his closing stand-up.

During his wrap up he noted that, thanks to SEE, high schoolers from Russia and the US are already exchanging experiences in the field of broadcast journalism. “You can help spread word about the program simply by discussing it with your friends and teachers once you go back to school.” The cameraman also did an excellent job – and this is despite the fact that cinematography was not evaluated in the challenge. But therein lies professionalism – possessors of this precious attribute are unable to work as dilettantes.

And what about the clip that got first place? The journalist in it stated that there were high schoolers from Russia at the convention and posed a question to one of them… From there, you can easily guess where things were going: “What did you like the most in America?” The second question was in the same vein: “What did you like the most about the press conference?” I’ll remind you that the question was addressed to one of the people who was giving the press conference.

So, the first component of the convention consists of creative challenges. The sessions and presentations given by professionals make up the second one. Convention goers have the opportunity to listen to lectures on various subjects – everything from how to dig up interesting news in your own school to how to use video editing software. The majority of the lectors masterfully managed their audience, transforming their presentations into mini-shows. One of the orators took apart common mistakes made by camera operators, using news bits from the main news networks as examples. In stills from different videos, he would show every time the cameraman’s shadow edged into the shot: “Wait, what’s this? Is that the cameraman again???” The audience, which was made up of some hundred people, responded to each quip like that with a collective exclamation of surprise.

The third component of the convention is the award ceremony for the annual STN competitions, which highlights the best works of television. The ceremony, during which fragments of the victorious works were show, confirmed that student television in the US has already achieved a very high quality and has excellent potential for development.

Broadcasting in School

The award ceremony for the best programs of the year clearly demonstrated that broadcasting in schools in the US has, over 15 years, grown into an enormous industry. The advent of a powerful technological base—even if it is not present in all schools—should not be surprising: the installation of new informational technologies in US schools has always been among the key priorities.

Many schools’ television programs have managed to extend beyond the boundaries of the schools – they are broadcast on local TV channels. Another entity that has become interested in student television is the channel PBS – America’s Public Broadcasting Service, which can be compared with Russia’s Channel 1. PBS has launched the project “Student Reporting Labs.” PBS journalists curate the work done by school studios that are participating in the project, placing their videos on the PBS site, while the more consequential, interesting, and successful pieces have a chance to get onto PBS’s “News Hour.”

Consequently, upperclassmen produce competitive works in broadcasting classes that have real worth. This is a very atypical phenomenon for our school, both Russian and American! While we think that nothing like this can exist in a school by definition, this phenomenon already does exist, and it is developing remarkably! Which means that it deserves some of our undiverted attention.

“Broadcasting” as a course is, like mentioned previously, an elective. The class is usually a mixed group of students from different grades, all of whom wish to take the course. Does this mean that the secret of high-quality education lies in the students’ level of interest, in their motivation? Only partly, I think. The most important aspect is the volume of work. Broadcasting takes up 4-5 academic hours per week. For comparison, I can say this: the young correspondents of the program “After School,” which we produce in Petrozavodsk, can’t even imagine such a high volume! But without it, it is impossible to develop key skills: without constant reinforcement, they quickly wither.

Owing to the work of our American colleagues, an obvious strength of their students’ work is the high picture quality. At times, their productions resemble films more so than television. The kids have a wonderful sense for shot composition, they constantly work with mobile cameras, and, most importantly, they do it cleanly!

The second important advantage is in the field of communication. American students that are involved in TV productions demonstrate excellent communicational competence. Onscreen they appear earnest, uninhibited, intelligent, and charismatic. And the reason behind this is probably not any sort of fabled “mindset” so much as the way the process is organized.

If we examine Russian high school TV programs, we can see that their scripts are often based on a traditional news format: a series of news pieces with lead-ins by the anchors. The search for good anchors becomes some daunting task for us! Our upperclassmen can’t even read the text properly on their first try off-screen! If they have to do so onscreen during a live broadcast and simultaneously hold a conversation with a partner, coming up with the right words on their own, rather than just reading the words from a teleprompter, then this will require them to do some serious work. And what is this if not education?! There is a good reason behind Nancy Held Loucas saying that the subject of broadcasting helps develop “21st century educational competencies,” including teamwork, communicability, the ability to work with information, mastery of modern digital technologies.

Carlsbad High School’s daily TV program is broadcast live in the mornings. The 11-minute morning show might have maximum 1-2 short pieces that were completed ahead of time. Everything else is school news that is read by the anchors and live interviews with guests in the studio, like with, for example, a new English teacher. Live standup also makes an appearance in the show, done similarly to what we saw at the STN convention during the “Live Broadcast” challenge. An example: an interview from the baseball field with the baseball team, which had recently played a successful game.

The most interesting part is the distribution of roles. Every upperclassman works both onscreen and off. One day, you’re the anchor, tomorrow – you’re in the director’s chair. Doug Green, the broadcasting teacher at Carlsbad High School employs an original method. All the students’ names are written on popsicle sticks, which are kept in a mug. During the morning meeting, he takes out a stick, reads out a student’s name, and the student says which role he or she wants to fill that day. The list of positions is on an interactive board, where the students immediately sign their names. Meanwhile, Doug puts the stick into a second mug and moves on to the next student. There is a limit: you cannot be in the same position more than four times in a single semester.

Broadcasting and Educational Standards

If we look at the broadcasting class from the position of new educational standards, which are currently being implemented in Russia and the US, then we can only be amazed at how new, progressive methods, which even yesterday seemed unachievable, are reflected in this new subject of study.

We can observe a shining example of a practice-based approach to education, which allows students to increase their competence via practical work. In the organization of students’ work in broadcasting, it is possible to notice the manifestation of the ideas of John Dewey’s progressive education and its derivative – experiential learning, which is currently so popular in America.

Thanks to broadcasting as a subject, school walls are now pierced by the powerful flow of informal education, which causes learning to become an imperceptible process: it’s as if it isn’t there – it’s not on the surface. But by being hidden in the depths, this kind of education turns out to be significantly deeper and more stable than the traditional, formalized way of learning while sitting behind a school desk.

It is also important that broadcasting class actualizes and integrates competencies that are formed by the school via required courses of study. This class is a shining example of establishing inter-subject connections. In order to work in the editing room, a student needs many skills. On one hand, these are skills that are crucial for success as a journalist: the ability to write appropriate and interesting texts, good oral speech, the ability to retrieve and “package” information, resilience to stress, quick reflexes, and the ability to establish a rapport with other people. On the other hand, On the other hand, to work as a camera operator, a student needs to possess a certain level of visual culture: the ability to appropriately structure a shot, the ability to see interesting details, to tell a story with an image, to sense lighting and color… Some have already had such competencies, at least partly, from drawing classes in elementary school. Others will have to build them up from scratch. And, finally, technical literacy. Work with video cameras, directors’ remotes, and video editing software actualizes IT competencies, the foundation for which should have been laid in informatics and tech courses.

We must also note that television journalism is a great way of getting to know the world. The same high schoolers from Carlsbad had live broadcasts not only on sporting or cultural events – they also covered the San Diego district elections. In 2008, broadcasting was augmented in the school by the additional subject of documentary filmmaking. Soon after, 16 students set off to Europe in order to make a film about the Holocaust. They filmed in former concentration camps, interviewed prisoners and witnesses of the time. After such an experience, one is unlikely to say that they have no idea as to what is happening on the other side of the ocean.

Youth Movement?

Traditional youth organizations are currently experiencing a decline. Whereas before, kids and youths would eagerly attend their meetings, they have stopped doing so. Not many are still in the fight for youths. The Scouts are still holding, but the age of the kids is gradually decreasing to include elementary school children.

Organizations that are based on membership and active participation on the part of the youths were born more than a hundred years ago and were an answer to the problem of teens having too much free time during the industrial epoch. In the post-industrial world, teens can very easily determine what to do with their free time on their own: they go to the mall with friends, sit in comfy cafes, and, of course, browse the Internet.

Under the influence of these tendencies, youth politics are forced to develop in the direction of the school: “If teens no longer go to organizations and clubs, then at least they have to go to school. Maybe that’s where we can organize, involve and direct them!” The experience that youths would previously get in out-of-school organizations is becoming more and more necessary for society. Only now, nobody can help them acquire said experience other than school.

STN’s experience gives us an optimistic prognosis. The Student Television Network is a modern modification of classic, living youth organizations, which previously helped youths actively participate in community life and influence it. Similarly, in the STN, kids have something that they cheer for and for whose success they feel personally responsible. The 2700 upperclassmen that were gathered in San Diego seemed like a community that was united by mutual interest, mutual values, and a similar attitude towards the world.

Every youth movement had its own broadcasters. In older times, books served as broadcasters. Once they read Baden-Powell’s “Scouting for Boys,” boys all over the world overwhelmingly started created scout patrols. Once they read “Timur and his Squad,” Soviet children started creating Timuresque squads. The Communard movement had as its broadcasting agent not the book “The Frunze Commune,” so much as it was the Russian children’s camp “Orlyonok,” which Communard academics observed for a time. If we examine student television in America as a youth movement, then its broadcasting agent is the STN convention.

Nancy Held Loucas says that newcomer schools attend the convention for the first time to meet people. Sometimes, only one teacher attends, sometimes the group of students isn’t very large. It is very difficult to resist the infectious atmosphere! Once they return to school, the teacher and the students start passionately telling everybody about it. The school starts a broadcasting class, and in two-three years, an impressive group of 30 people come to the convention.

The most interest thing that still deserves some study is the degree of influence that TV production has on the conditions of a school environment. Obviously, having a significant number of students take such a course and having them constantly be on TV screens throughout the school forms certain cultural paradigms, which, one way or another, serve to reorient the students. It becomes cool in the teen environment to become earnest, confident, well-meaning, clever, and quick-witted, instead of standing in the corner with a mopey expression, chewing some gum.

My colleagues and I tried to come up with a characterization of the type of culture that is promoting American student television, and we came to the conclusion that the following phrasing works best: “a culture of modern business people.” And if this is achieved at least in some degree, then the effect of broadcasting as a class can already be deemed impressive.

And what about Russia?

Though student television programs exist in Russia, their range of activity is currently much more modest. As a rule, they are small groups of upperclassmen, who produce a show under the guidance of an instructor with varying degrees of regularity. The quality of the product meets minimal television standards only in isolated cases.

The history of the development of broadcasting as a class in the US vividly demonstrates the advantages of a school system divided by stages. In Russia, an STN model would become a reality only if our country also made separate elementary, middle, and high schools. This idea is on the table in Russia, but it does not appear to be in the mainstream in education politics, which is why it is not taken seriously.

Meanwhile, only 15 years ago, when the decision was being made to have specialized, field-specific education in upper classes, experts pointed out that it would impossible to implement field-specific education if a single track has 1-3 classes, like now. For effective field-specific education, it is necessary for a track to have 7-10 classes. Then, students will be able to individually choose the subjects that are more interesting and relevant for them, while the school will have the opportunity to grant the teachers of these subjects a sufficient pedagogical load.

The story of implementing broadcasting as a subject in American schools is a weighty argument in favor of schools split by stages. And this is one more reason for learning from the experience of our American colleagues and adopting the elements that would make our educational system better and more modern.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SEE or Eurasia Foundation.