When I headed off Thursday to talk about column-writing to high school journalists, I felt a little like a seafarer commissioned to give a workshop on how to fly the space shuttle.
I could offer some general tips on the nature of exploration and navigation, but, really, what did I know about the ship that 16-year-olds would be riding into the future?
General Tip No. 1: If you always wait to be sure of what you have to say, you may never say anything.
So I lectured a little and answered some questions.
Do your editors tell you what to write? (No.) Have they ever refused to print what you write? (No.) Where do you get your ideas?
Tip No. 2: Ideas lie everywhere—in the news, in the streets, in your private experience, in the people right in front of you.
The people right in front of me Thursday were two dozen students who had come to Roosevelt University for the annual conference of the Scholastic Press Association of Chicago. And I wanted to hear what they had to say.
Tip No. 3: Whether you're writing for print or the Web, you'll have more to say if you ask people questions.
Did they read newspapers? No surprise—these were journalism students—almost all the hands went up. But I was surprised that about half preferred reading a paper paper to reading online. Why?
"I like the feeling of a newspaper in your hand."
"You can take it with you."
"Online makes everything generic."
"Newspapers are more in-depth."
"Online newspapers don't take time on the writing style."
"There's a culture of it, of sitting down at breakfast and reading the paper. I think there's more people than you think that want to sit down and read the paper."
(My colleague Rex Huppke reports that in his session on how the Internet is changing journalism, most of the students were online readers.)
Which papers did my students read?
"The Wall Street Journal. I like the condensed news on the front page."
"I like the Trib because it's very opinionated, not just hard news."
"The New York Times. My dad was like, 'You've got to read the best writers in the world.' "
"The Sun-Times. My dad writes for it."
"The Trib. My dad was very angry about the new layout, but I like it."
Then the tough question: If they had to write a column that day, what would it be about?
Several mentioned schools. Why are kids from certain schools but not others killed? What's the story of the parents whose children have been killed recently? Does making it easier to become a teacher make for inferior teaching?
Those are great ideas, though hard to execute in a short time and space. One student proposed this simple, worthy idea: What's with the ads that have popped up in the Jackson tunnel between the Red and Blue Lines?
"Are people angry about this too?" he said. "Because I am."
Tip No. 4: "I'm angry-and-wonder-if-you-are-too" is a formula guaranteed to get response.
We were almost out of time when a student from Whitney Young H.S. raised his hand and said, unprompted, "The future of journalism rests on our shoulders."
I asked if that was exciting or scary.
"A little bit of both," he said.
Tip No. 5: The future always turns into the past, and whichever end of the change you're on, it will be exciting and scary.