Filmed by Alexis Simmons. Edited by André Rowe, Jr.
Kay Phillips has been involved with NCSMA since the 1970s, serving as an adviser, Institute faculty member and as the first full-time director from 1994-2002. Her longtime service to the association led to an honor named after her: The Kay Phillips Distinguished Service Award. In this interview, conducted by email with NCSMA Assistant Katie Schanze, she discusses her time as director of NCSMA.
To what do you attribute NCSMA’s longevity?
From its inception sponsored by the UNC School of Journalism as the N.C. Scholastic Press Association, the organization had the good fortune to be led by dedicated professors in the School who believed the life of professional journalism itself depended upon keeping its ranks filled with dedicated, well-taught young journalists. As we look back at all NCSMA’s leaders, we recognize that vital insight in all of them. NCSMA’s excellent summer Institutes — filled with skilled journalism professionals and teachers — keep teachers and students from across North Carolina returning year after year to prepare themselves for publications, broadcasts, photography, etc. year after year.
How did historical events/events of the day shape your tenure as director?
From the beginning, historical events were destined to shape me as a teacher and my tenure as director. When I moved from elementary education to high school English teaching in 1972, teaching a journalism class came with the job. The year before I began high school teaching, 1971, a student story, “Death By A Cheeseburger,” had caused the shutting down of the student newspaper at the school at which I would be teaching, and the adviser (though later called “untrained,” he was formerly editor of a small professional newspaper) was “let go.” Also in ‘72, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial had convened a “Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism.” And in 1973, that Commission’s Report came out: “Captive Voices: High School Journalism in America,” spelling out problems and further shaping the director I would become.
Of course, I knew nothing about the importance of that timing as I began teaching my first class of high school journalists. My principal had greeted me as journalism teacher with the words, “That newspaper is nothing but trouble,” and said I should teach the class without producing a newspaper. After a few conversations with me, he capitulated so far as to allow a newspaper that must be pre-read by a committee of faculty members (The principal named it the “Censorship Committee”!) and printed on a school duplicating machine. To print for our 1,700 students, no school machine’s paper master would last; so a second bar was lifted: The principal granted me the privilege of having a long-lasting metal master made at a local print shop. Finally, I took our first few issues to be critiqued by the N.C. Press Women in Chapel Hill in a summer meeting at the UNC School of Journalism and began learning more about what students “could” and “could not’ be allowed to write.
What is one lesson or memory from the job that has always stayed with you?
So many lessons and memories flood my mind…. The best ones are of great journalists and teachers agreeing to teach in the Institute or to judge publications submitted for critiques. I was so grateful!
Why did you accept the job, and what were you expecting going into it?
I didn’t just accept the job. I worked to prepare for it. For several years I worked in the J-School with Dean Richard Cole and Director Bill Cloud, as well as with hard-working members of the NCSPA Advisers’ Association, to find a way to create and fund a permanent Director’s position. Director Cloud and I surveyed all the journalism teachers on our rolls and wrote a paper about the need for training for them, which we presented at a college professors’ workshop in Nashville. I was working on my master’s degree in the School of Journalism, and during the day, teaching journalism to high school students, who were the perfect vehicles to ensure I received the best education a director could get. Through diligent work by Dean Cole and friends of journalism, the position of North Carolina Scholastic Media Association Director became reality. The job was newly created and funded when I was hired, but I already knew, from working in the School of Journalism for years as assistant to NCSPA directors Richard Cole, Bill Cloud and Rich Beckman that an outreach program for high school teachers — to take education to them — was a major need, so, regional workshops became realities early in my tenure.
What were some of the challenges you faced on the job? What did you learn from them?
The desire of administrations to control student voices and censor any negative views of the school was the ever-present challenge. Lack of proper funding by most high schools for moving into the computer era was also a major challenge. For instance, the high school I was teaching in was in an area of our state that was being forced to move from an agricultural economy to an economy without a major thrust; poverty grew, and schools suffered. I learned from those times to dread having to work so hard to have the basic tools the student journalists needed to put out a product that represented them and their school well. That part of the job detracted severely from my work as their teacher.
I especially enjoyed going out to high schools across the state, meeting principals, journalism teachers and students. It was rewarding to help them on the spot with problems; in many cases we worked through “knotty” problems with principals while I was there.
How did your time as director of NCSMA shape your views on student expression?
Working across North Carolina and with journalism teachers and students across the nation has taught me that my experiences were universal, and I worked to become a major force for student freedom of expression, not only in my school, but across North Carolina and in the United States. Because of my broad journalistic education and experience, I realized that to be an effective journalism teacher, a person must be hard-working, knowledgeable and able to convey their ideas to others. A well-rounded director needs to work in all areas of journalism, a field that has expanded today into much more electronic and visual expression than I was prepared to work with. Journalists cannot afford to express themselves poorly if they expect to influence their readers, listeners or viewers. Teachers must also read and understand everything they can about current topics and encourage ideas that stretch their students’ minds, broaden their perspectives and help them become journalists who feed their readers needs.
Please describe the community you found in scholastic media when you were director.
The Scholastic Media community when I was director was warm, helpful, very smart and generally wonderful. Across the United States, the community of scholastic media encompasses some of the smartest, most innovative people alive and the most likely to see a job through to the end.
When it was time to leave the job, what was the most difficult part?
I’m still feeling the most difficult part: When we’re no longer working together, many of us don’t see each other, except on rare occasions. As usual, the best part is always working together to accomplish one goal: the pleasant chore of turning wonderful young people into even more wonderful young JOURNALISTS!
How did the Summer Institute evolve during your tenure?
Because of the hard work of so many wonderful teachers and students, the Summer Institute made great strides while I was director. Numbers increased so much that we outgrew several venues at the University. But some of the major growth was in the depth of what was taught, absorbed and demonstrated by students in all areas of journalism.
Please share your thoughts on the value of scholastic journalism in North Carolina. I’ve probably covered this idea in the answers above.
It can never be said too strongly: Scholastic journalism in North Carolina and throughout the nation, should be for young people the most highly valued educational endeavor, because it not only allows but encourages them to investigate every area of the human experience.
What is your hope for the future of NCSMA?
Even in its early years when its name included the limited “Press” term, the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association was strongly supported as the educational vehicle for high school journalists. As such, I hope and foresee its work to be steadily growing, as long as it has the continuing support of its parent, the UNC School of Journalism, which today is stronger than ever.