Chadron State College’s award-winning, weekly student newspaper, The Eagle, is teaming up with community newspapers in Nebraska’s northwest panhandle to host a high school journalism conference Sept. 17 to celebrate Constitution Day and the First Amendment.
Titled, “We the Journalists,” an obvious play on “We the People,” the first three words to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, the half-day conference has three primary objectives, said conference organizer Michael D. Kennedy, instructor of journalism and adviser of The Eagle.
“Our objectives are to celebrate Constitution Day and the First Amendment; to open the doors between our journalism program and the regional high school journalism and yearbook programs; and to help build bridges between high school media students and their community newspaper professionals,” Kennedy said. He added that those objectives fall under a broader umbrella of educating young people about the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment, in fact our entire Constitution, belongs to everyone in the United States,” Kennedy said. “There’s no doubt our First Amendment is under attack today. Consequently, several media groups nationwide and statewide are defending against that assault on our First Amendment freedoms, using the tools we know best – education and knowledge.”
Kennedy noted that Media of Nebraska, a non-profit organization composed of the Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal Star, the Nebraska Broadcasters Association, the Nebraska Press Association and the Nebraska Daily Publishers Association, launched its “THINK F1RST” educational campaign on July 4 to raise awareness about the First Amendment’s five freedoms. The campaign, which runs through Sept. 30, features a series of print, television and radio advertisements, educating the public about each of those five freedoms. As a member of the Nebraska Press Association, The Eagle is actively participating in the campaign, publishing the print advertisements in its weekly edition.
Kennedy also noted that “THINK F1RST” is an element of “We the Journalists.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, 57 students and eight advisers from seven schools had confirmed attendance, Kennedy said. We invited 16 high schools,” he said, “so seven is just shy of a 50 percent response rate, which is pretty good for our first time out.”
Scheduled from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday in I Student Center, “We the Journalists” features four sessions – three are practical, how-to sessions about key topics that the high school students and their advisers can use almost immediately. The fourth is an open discussion on the broader topic of the Constitution and the First Amendment. Regional community newspaper professionals will present two of those morning sessions, while Kennedy will present the third.
The morning sessions are: 1. “Photojournalism: Tips for Instantly Improving Your Pictures,” presented by Brad Staman, editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald; 2. “Journalists and the Law,” presented by Kennedy; 3. “What’s the Difference: How News, Sports, Feature and Editorial/Opinion Pieces Differ,” presented by four area professionals – Kerri Rempp, editor, The Chadron Record; Spike Jordan, editor, the Hemingford Ledger; Janelle Kesterson, editor, the Bridgeport News-Blade; and Preston Goehring, sports writer, the Star-Herald.
In the afternoon, Scottsbluff Star-Herald Publisher Greg Awtry will present the fourth session, 1-2 p.m. following a noon luncheon. A recipient of the prestigious Omaha World Herald Francis L. Partsch Award for Editorial Leadership, Awtry, a staunch believer in the First Amendment who has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press Great Plains Bureau for his editorial writing, will open an interactive discussion about the First Amendment’s five freedoms, with focus on the free press guarantee.
“The Constitution of the United States is one of the greatest documents ever drafted by mankind,” Kennedy said. “But it also is one of the most difficult constitutions for mankind to live by, because it requires citizens governed by it to actively participate in their government in an informed manner.”
Kennedy also said that the First Amendment is one of the brightest stars in an array of bright stars contained in our Constitution.
“In creating the First Amendment, our forefathers, notably James Madison, drafted 45 words and gave us five freedoms – religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly and petitioning our government for a redress of grievances,” Kennedy said. “Can you imagine anyone today drafting something so meaningful, so powerful, in only 45 words?”
Kennedy added that despite its simplicity, the First Amendment also is one of the most misunderstood amendments.
“Unfortunately, as simple and direct as the First Amendment is, many people don’t fully understand it, particularly when it comes to free speech and free press,” he said. “The First Amendment is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, entitling an individual to freely walk away after speaking, publishing or broadcasting something. It says only that government won’t stop a person from speaking, publishing or broadcasting. Once a person speaks, publishes or broadcasts something, that person now owns those words and the consequences, good or bad, that follow. We in the media already know that, and we want to teach it to the next generation.”
In addition to celebrating the Constitution and bringing together high school students and advisers, CSC journalism students and community newspaper professionals, Kennedy said “We the Journalists” also is intended to explain the first amendment, adding that the conference itself is an example of it.
“We are gathering peacefully on our campus for the purpose of engaging in the free expression of ideas in a civilized, responsible, mature and meaningful way,” he said. “For those six hours, we will be exercising, living, the first amendment. What greater learning experience is there for these young people, indeed all of us?”
Kennedy said it was no accident that The Eagle’s “We the Journalists” conference is scheduled on national Constitution Day.
“Our conference is a celebration of the Constitution and the first amendment,” he said. “Scheduling it on Constitution Day was an obvious and appropriate fit.”
He said journalism and yearbook students and their advisers from 16 high schools within a two-hour drive of Chadron, and the community newspapers serving those school districts, were invited.
“We limited ourselves to high schools within a two-hour drive of Chadron because we knew that may students who participate in school newspaper and yearbook programs also participate in athletics, the band or other school activities,” he said. “We did not want to ask them to get up too early to get here, and we wanted to be sure they arrived home early enough to tend to their other activities, if needs be.”
Kennedy also noted that “We the Journalists” is not open to the public, but added that Humanities Nebraska is presenting such a public forum in the form of a community discussion at the Midwest Theater, Scottsbluff, in October.
“Ours is an academic conference about the journalism discipline, and admission is open only to those we’ve invited,” Kennedy said. “But the public is absolutely invited to attend a first amendment community discussion presented by Humanities Nebraska, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff.”
Kennedy, said the Oct. 18 presentation, titled, “An Issue of Trust: Democracy and the Future of Journalism,” will feature Clark Kauffman, an investigative reporter for the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, and a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Kauffman will be joined by two key regional journalists whose selection is still pending.
Scottsbluff’s forum is one of six first amendment community discussions presented statewide by Humanities Nebraska of Lincoln. The other five sites are Lincoln, Omaha, Norfolk, Kearney and North Platte.
The planning participants for the Scottsbluff community discussion are, Christopher Sommerich, executive director, Humanities Nebraska; Awtry and Staman, publisher and editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald respectively; Kennedy; Craig Larson of KNEB radio and general manager of the Nebraska Rural Radio Association, Scottsbluff; Barb Schlothauer of Gering, a member of Humanities Nebraska Board of Directors; Gretchen Peters of Gering, and Tom Holyoke of Scottsbluff, both past members of the Humanities Nebraska Board of Directors; and Billy Estes, executive director, and Katie Bradshaw, development director, both of the Midwest Theater, Scottsbluff.
“An Issue of Trust: Democracy and the Future of Journalism” is presented by Humanities Nebraska in partnership with the Federation of State Humanities Councils, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and The Pulitzer Prizes. Nebraska partners include Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, the Nebraska Press Association, and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
More information about the Humanities Nebraska “An Issue of Trust: Democracy and the Future of Journalism” community discussions will be forthcoming on the organization’s website humanitiesnebraska.org.