Illinois JEA

IJEA’s Partnership with IHSA

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How the IJEA and IHSA Worked Together to Create a State Journalism Tournament

By Dr. Sally Renaud
Professor Emeritus, Department of Journalism, Eastern Illinois University
Former Executive Director, Illinois Journalism Education Association
This article was originally published in the summer 2007 issue of the Dow Jones News Fund’s Adviser Update. Cathy Bayer, journalism major, Eastern Illinois University, provided additional reporting.


At 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, 2006, amid a packed auditorium of about 250 anxious students and their advisers at Eastern Illinois University, Brandon Louro clicked through his phone in a hurry, finally dialing the entry “Dad.”

While the phone was ringing, he adjusted his blue-and-white striped necktie, which was now accompanied by a medal.

“Hey, I got second in state,” he said calmly, while the rest of his friends cheered his name.

Louro, a senior from Schaumburg High School, took second place in advertising at the first Illinois High School Association Journalism State Final.

And surveying the auditorium, advisers saw their dream becoming a reality.


The Beginning

Illinois is a big state, 381 miles from north to south, with distinct regions. It is sometimes hard to get high schools together, even in a common cause — and scholastic journalism was one of those common causes.

But the spirit was there. Although there were regional competitions, for many years, a group of high school advisers wanted some kind of statewide competition recognizing journalism excellence. So the group began to look for help.

The state’s athletic and activities association, the Illinois High School Association, seemed a natural fit. It already had in place in Illinois high schools a governing body with experience and tradition in handling statewide contests. And such a contest fit with IHSA’s mission of “… providing leadership for equitable participation in interscholastic athletics and activities that enrich the educational experience.” Everyone in Illinois high schools knew the IHSA.

“Most people think sports (when they think of the IHSA). We offer 35 tournaments,” said Susie Knoblauch, an IHSA associate director. “But with activities we see them as extensions of the classroom. It lets students see where their work is compared to the entire state.”

Jim Flynn, a longtime IHSA associate director, had been working with the media in Illinois for years with the News Media Advisory Committee, a group that made recommendations about the way news is disseminated from IHSA events, from press releases to press credentials. In addition, Flynn had known James Tidwell, Illinois Journalism Education Association executive secretary, from his time on the campus of Eastern Illinois University, the site of IHSA’s state track meets. Tidwell is a journalism professor at EIU.

“IJEA had been talking about some sort of statewide event for several years,” Tidwell said. “We wanted to do something to bring all the regional groups together.” He noted that regional onsite competitions had been held for several years at EIU, at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and at conferences of the Northern Illinois Scholastic Press Association.

“There was no reason not to have the contest,” Flynn said. “There were already regional contests, and it was curriculum oriented; it lent itself to an IHSA competition format.”

But the IHSA board voted to table the idea, so Flynn, Tidwell and others went back to the drawing board.

Cathy Wall, an IJEA member and newspaper adviser from Harrisburg High School who was on Flynn’s media committee, wrote the original terms and conditions using the state’s speech competition as a guideline and with help from journalism educators from around the state who met to help formulate the contest’s 15-category structure.

Wall remembers the excitement.

“There were heated discussions,” she said. “Everyone wanted something, and everyone had such good ideas. We tried to get input from everyone and as much information as we could from all over the state.”


Behind the Scenes

As with almost everything, it was the students who kicked in and made this happen.

Inspired by their adviser, Harrisburg High School journalism students did what they could to rally other publication programs in Illinois to commit to a statewide journalism competition. They needed to show that at least 15 percent of IHSA-member high schools would be interested in competing at the state level.

They posted a big map of the state on the wall and began to mark with pushpins where the IHSA’s 790 schools were.

Then they went to work, creating a massive email and letter campaign to find out just how many programs would be interested.

“It was like a war zone,” Wall said. “For anyone who didn’t respond via email we did a snail mail.”

And Wall tried to keep the IHSA informed. While she and her students were working on the commitment campaign, Tidwell was rallying support among the state’s regional high school organizations and the professional press through the Illinois Press Association, whose director, Dave Bennett, urged the papers in the areas where IHSA board members lived to lobby for support.

“We were emailing all the time,” Wall said.


Getting the Word Out

Just as everything seemed to be coming together for the second try, Flynn retired from the IHSA, and the IHSA appointed Knoblauch, a former high school broadcast adviser among other things, to work with the group. Soon a journalism contest advisory committee was formed, and a schedule was set when the IHSA approved a contest to begin in the 2005-06 school year.

Getting the word out about the contest was a challenge, and Knoblauch hit the road, talking with advisers at regional conferences and workshops. Athletic directors and activities directors who had access to the IHSA website were not always aware of the new contest, and sometimes information was not handed down from the director to the newspaper or yearbook adviser.

In addition, not every school thinks of its publications as journalism. Some schools with no newspaper program did not realize they could enter their yearbook students or their photography or art students. The contest was designed so that schools can enter as many categories as they have qualified students.

But there was some good buzz, too. Barry Temkin wrote a futuristic satirical piece in the Chicago Tribune after the announcement of the contest, with “Metaphor Academy” winning the 2012 contest “amid allegations and acrimony” of illegal recruiting.

And the IJEA and some of the state’s regional high school organizations promoted the contest to their member schools. The Southern Illinois School Press Association even moved the date of its annual competition so it could act as a practice for the state contest. A new world of potential seemed to be opening for student journalists in the state: recognition for their talents.


The Tournament Becomes a Reality

In the end, 755 students participated in the first contest. Six regional sites (Joliet Township High School, Northern Illinois University, Rolling Meadows High School, Roosevelt University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) were used on Saturday, April 15, to select those who would advance to the state contest the following Saturday, April 22. The top four students from each of the15 categories at sectionals went on to the state competition at Eastern Illinois.

“We jumped in the deep end with 15 (categories),” Knoblauch said. John Hudnall, executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, shared prompts used in KSPA’s regional and state competitions in past years, which then were modified to relate to Illinois schools and issues.

The biggest challenge was technology, as all 15 contests were held onsite. Computer issues were a challenge, especially for the design and photography categories, where all work was done on computers new to the students. Schools were notified ahead of time about which software programs would be available at each site. And while it was a hurdle, it was a good learning experience. Sectional managers reported that students helped one another with basic technology questions to keep the process moving.

Tidwell said he was worried at first about whether he and the other tournament organizers were trying to do too much.

“After we decided to do 15 categories, I began checking around the country and discovered the states that were doing similar contests were doing only three or four categories or were doing some as carry-in contests or were doing paper-and-pencil design,” he explained. “Still I was very adamant that everything be done onsite and that we use computers for headline writing, design and photography. The computer logistics were my biggest worry, but we got through it with only minor glitches.”

Each contest category was given 90 minutes except for photography; there students took pictures around the campus for the first 90 minutes and used the digital process to load photos and write cutline information during the second block of time.

Then the judges took over. Using rubrics, judges from professional media and university journalism programs ranked the work and provided comments, sometimes conferring on the entries. For the design competition, judges were looking for a clean layout, said Norma Klingsick, a designer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In that category, students designed one front page and one inside page, choosing content from a list of 12 stories and photos.

“A lot of design is trying to direct the reader,” Klingsick said. She looked for clean pages.

The editorial cartoon judges also had criteria.

“If it makes you laugh, it must be a pretty good cartoon,” said Peter Voelz, a journalism professor at Eastern. “Of course, then you question what they’re laughing at.”

Judges were fed, paid a small stipend and enough to cover their travel expenses. In return, they had fun. Bill Ward of the Decatur Herald & Review, judged at the state finals:

“I had enormous fun. In particular, it was great to hear the students scream and cheer as their classmates won awards. What a thrill to hear cheers for copy editors!”

New Trier and Naperville Central, both large schools with a combined enrollment of about 7,000, tied for first place in the contest. But Oakwood High School, with fewer than 300, came in tied for third. And it worked that way with individual awards, too. Students from small schools competed head on with students from large schools.


The First Act Is Over

Were there kinks to work out? Sure. Although the speech contest was a good model for the terms and conditions template, some obvious differences soon became apparent, especially in terms of prompts and judging.

For example, judging speeches on the fly is quicker than reading and critiquing lengthy feature stories. In addition, advisers who met informally during the sectionals and state finals provided feedback and suggestions. So the contest went back to the advisory committee for revision, and a few changes were made.

Knoblauch sees potential. She eventually would like to see three finalists in each event advance to the state competition from seven sectionals, with about 250 schools participating.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Knoblauch said. “People are hearing and watching what we do.”

Other associations realize that as well. At a summer conference, Knoblauch discovered that seven other states use their athletic and activities associations to host and/or recognize journalism competitions: Mississippi, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.

Knoblauch sees the interest in the competition growing:

“What a great opportunity to recognize students who work tirelessly. You do good work and we recognize what you do. We know the hours these students put in and the challenges they face.”

And Flynn is pleased, too.

“You’re the best at what you do that year,” Flynn said. “The future is a bright one.”

Brandon Louro, the young man who placed second in advertising, planned to graduate and attend Depaul in the fall – and pursue accounting. His advertising skills will give him an extra kick in the business, he said.



Knoblauch’s vision of three finalists in each event from seven sectionals came true a year later, and in April 2007 the IHSA crowned a new state champion. Thomas Jefferson High School in Rockford, Ill., took top honors. It was a wonderful swan song for adviser Barbara Erickson, who retired at the end of the year.

Once again, the advisory committee met immediately following the contest and listened to more suggestions for change. Knoblauch sees these changes as fine-tuning. In addition, members of the IJEA, which runs the adviser meetings at both sectionals and state, will continue to use these events as a time to celebrate free speech, great publications and adviser fellowship, bringing the large world of Illinois advising a bit closer.


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IJEA’s Partnership with IHSA