By: Prof. Adrian Ma (MJ ‘09), RSJ Recruitment Lead

They do things big in Chicago. The city’s world-famous skyscrapers look like they stretch up to the stratosphere. Public sculptures at Millennium Park are visible from blocks away when seeing the city from one of their many rooftop bars. A “small” deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s? These cheese and sausage-filled pillows could feed a family of four. That Chicago was also the setting of the largest student journalism conference I have ever been a part of seems all the more appropriate in retrospect.

The Windy City played host to the Journalism Education Association’s annual fall conference Nov. 1 to 4 attracting 6400 participants.  The JEA is America’s national organization of teachers and advisers for high school journalism.

I had been invited to present a workshop on personal branding at the conference, which I teach at the Ryerson School of Journalism, and also to host an exhibitor table at the vendor fair to introduce the RSJ to US students who may be interested in studying ‘up north’.  I travelled down with my colleague Laura Howells (MJ ’18), who had just come from organizing a high journalism conference at Ryerson.

Some people did a double take when they walked by our booth (“Canada – what are you doing here?”). And yes, I would say many of the conversations we had with students started with them asking, “Is it really that cold up there?” But I can safely say that Laura and I were both blown away by the experience.

There is such a robust culture of high school journalism in the U.S., far deeper than we have in Canada at the moment. We spoke to students from all across the country, including Arkansas, Kansas, California, Mississippi and Utah. They all proudly discussed their roles in putting out their school newspaper, describing professional challenges that would make them feel at home in any newsroom: one student told me she was sick of all the “fluff” in news and wanted to push her school paper to write more about the issues; another wanted to pursue stories about sexual misconduct incidents at their school but felt hamstrung by the school administration. As I listened over the weekend to hundreds of American students, I became inspired.

I felt there was a collective sense of pushing forward among these young people. They were being galvanized. In the face of authority figures and, in a few cases their own parents, being openly hostile towards the idea of journalism and a free press, many students told me this just made them want to double down on becoming a reporter.  

I’ve always believed that most journalists have a touch of the rebel in them, a little voice in the back of your head that’s always asking, “Yeah, but why?”

The teachers leading high school journalism programs were incredible as well. In many respects, they’re facing the same kinds of problems and asking the same kinds of difficult questions j-schools and even professional organizations are grappling with. They’re trying to figure out how to produce more content on lean budgets. They’re wondering about the role of social media in reporting and how to do it ethically. They’re looking at the social and racial aspects of their own news coverage and, in some cases, also finding the diversity wanting. We can’t wait to apply everything we’ve learned from the JEA to help grow networks of high school newsrooms here and perhaps introduce some of the U.S. students to Canadian-style journalism.