When the Detroit Free Press was looking for a partner to take over management of its High School Journalism Program, it found MSU’s School of Journalism ready to help a program that for nearly three decades has given aspiring journalists from Detroit Public High Schools their first taste of what it’s like to work in the news business.
At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, the Detroit Free Press reached out to the School of Journalism, which agreed to take over management of the highly successful program, now called the MSU/Free Press High School Journalism Program. The J-School was a logical choice with its Michigan Interscholastic Press Association (MIPA) conferences and camps. In addition, the school for years has given scholarships to high school students in Detroit to attend high school journalism activities.
“MSU’s School of Journalism is always looking for ways to help students who aspire to become journalists,” said Lucinda Davenport, Director of the School of Journalism. “This program enhances the experience of high school students in Detroit to become critical thinkers, writers and visual communicators. What a great opportunity to share in the dream that Neal Shine started years ago.”
Established in 1985, the High School Journalism Program, which runs during the school year, helps shape the next generation of journalists by giving students an opportunity to hone their skills and gain hands-on experience writing, editing and taking photos for print and online news, with the goal of helping them sharpen the skills they need for successful careers in any industry.
Since its inception, the program has brought students from Detroit Public High Schools into the Detroit Free Press newsroom to work alongside seasoned professionals to edit and lay out their school newspapers. Today, the program prints twice a semester a 12- to 16-page newspaper with a section for each school. Students continually post stories on FreepHigh.com and learn how to research and publicize their stories through social media.
Besides learning the fundamentals of journalism and digital media, covering issues and events within their community, and building the skills necessary for successful journalism careers, students of the program also develop lifelong mentor relationships with Free Press journalists.
Former Detroit Free Press Publisher and Managing Editor Neal Shine created the program because of his concern that budget cuts were reducing journalism classes at Detroit high schools. He saw the program as a way to support and encourage future generations of journalists. As a result, decades of Detroit students have become better writers and thinkers regardless of the profession they pursued.
Several graduates of the program have come to study journalism at Michigan State and have gone on to successful journalism careers, including ESPN commentator Jemele Hill, who served as MSU’s 2014 Homecoming Grand Marshal.
“It changed my life,” said Hill, who attended Mumford High School. “This was a career I never knew was possible until I was shown just how possible it was.
“That experience of being in the newsroom, I just thought it was fascinating and so high energy…I felt like these people were doing such important work and important stories and I wanted to be a part of that. Then once I started getting exposed to covering sports and writing about it, I was hooked and I knew it was something I wanted to do the rest of my life.”
Thirteen high schools in the Detroit Public Schools system participate in the program, which continues to run much like it did. Joy Visconti, an MSU journalism graduate, serves as program director and visits the schools every day, the Free Press opens its doors for student visits and production work, and the Ford Motor Company continues as corporate sponsor, helping with production and equipment costs. The Ford Motor Co. also awards a $24,000 journalism scholarship each year to the best high school senior journalist from the program.
In the years past, the High School Journalism Program had financial backing from several sponsors, but support diminished and the Ford Motor Co. has become the sole financial sponsor of the program. This year, in addition to funding from Ford, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Knight Foundation made a combined, one-time donation of $50,000 to help support the program for one year. Long-term funding sources are being sought to supplement the support by the Ford Motor Co. so the program can continue to benefit high school students in the Detroit area with research, writing and visual communication skills for print and online media.
Michigan State University has been the school of choice the last three years for recipients of the Ford Free Press Journalism Scholarship, which awards $24,000 each year to the top high school senior from the Detroit Free Press High School Journalism Program.
Two of these scholarship recipients are journalism majors – freshman Gabrielle Johnson, the 2014 winner, and sophomore Sierra Searcy, who received the award in 2013. Omari Sankofa, the 2012 recipient, is a junior studying psychology.
“This program gives people who come from nothing the chance to make something of themselves,” Searcy said. “It’s not easy coming from Detroit and paying for school because most of the time your parents can’t afford to pay your tuition, even with FAFSA and all the other scholarships. Without this scholarship, I would not be here at MSU.”
Since 1989, the Ford Motor Company Fund has awarded the journalism scholarship with the goal of encouraging development of future journalists through participation in the Detroit Free Press High School Journalism Program. The scholarship is open to all Detroit Public Schools seniors enrolled in that program.
Freshman, journalism major
Born and raised in Detroit, Gabrielle Johnson is the third consecutive Ford Free Press Journalism Scholarship recipient to attend Michigan State.
“It was the only scholarship I applied for,” she said. “I was excited when I won because I had worked really hard. It is helping with my schooling, but it also made me realize I have a lot of potential to become a good journalist.”
Johnson participated in the Detroit Free Press High School Journalism Program her junior and senior years at Cass Tech High School and was co-editor both those years. Her junior year, she worked alongside 2013 Ford Free Press Journalism Scholarship recipient Sierra Searcy, who was editor-in-chief.
“When I first started at the newspaper, it was just a fun class,” Johnson said. “I then came to the MIPA (Michigan Interscholastic Press Association) camp at MSU my 11th grade year and that really helped me, too. That’s when I started taking journalism seriously.”
One of the reasons Johnson chose to attend MSU was because of the experience she had at the MIPA camp.
“I really liked it here and heard so many good things about the journalism program,” said Johnson, who is taking her first college journalism class this semester.
Sophomore, journalism major
As a senior in high school, Sierra Searcy promised her mom she wouldn’t have to pay for her college education, not knowing where she would come up with the money, but wanting more than anything to study journalism at Michigan State. Thanks to the $24,000 Ford Free Press Journalism Scholarship, she was able to keep that promise.
“Receiving that scholarship was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life,” Searcy said. “It enabled me to come to Michigan State. Without it, I wouldn’t be here; I don’t know where I would be.”
Searcy joined the Detroit Free Press High School Journalism Program (FreepHigh) her sophomore year at Cass Tech High School. After her first article was published, she knew she wanted to be a journalist and went on to serve as editor-in-chief her junior and senior years.
“The FreepHigh gave me so much. It helped me to understand what I wanted to do with my life,” Searcy said. “A lot of people come into college not knowing what they want to do, but I came in already knowing exactly what I want to do.”