For Student Journalists in N.Y.C., News Gathering Hits Close to Home

By Rhea R. Borja — October 03, 2001 8 min read
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The Rest of the Series Project SERV Funds Directed to Attacked Areas College Scholarships Planned for Children of Attack Victims Urban Districts Review Crisis-Response Plans in Wake of Terrorism For Student Journalists in N.Y.C., News Gathering Hits Close to Home Safety Concerns Prompt Schools to Curb Travel Terror Touches Schools

When Stuyvesant High School journalists Laura Krug and Ben Magarik walked into their school here on a recent Saturday morning, the first thing they noticed was a dog barking. It was a rescue dog, trained to find bodies. Then they saw tables of medical supplies, a sign that said “Hot Food 2nd Floor,” and a city policeman asleep on a chair. Nearby, a fine white dust coated a stairway.

Government officials closed down Stuyvesant High, only a few blocks from the site of the devastated World Trade Center, the morning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack here. Since then, the school has been used as a command center for relief efforts.

So it was no small feat for Ms. Krug and Mr. Magarik, both seniors and editors of the school newspaper, to return to the building. They charmed and pleaded their way past several police barriers, walked by scores of emergency vehicles, and steered clear of grim-faced rescue workers. They were determined to get inside their school.

“It was the basic journalistic instinct to understand and to convey to other people what you saw, what you heard, what you felt,” Mr. Magarik said, explaining why he and Ms. Krug did everything they could to get back inside Stuyvesant.

Thrust Into the Real World

Professional journalists are often called to cover disasters and other dangerous or emotionally charged situations. But high school reporters usually write stories of a more benign sort—about dances or club events, sports and academics. Not terrorist attacks, mayhem, death.

But on Sept. 11, student reporters, editors, and photographers across the country were suddenly initiated into the real world of journalism. Many school newspapers published special issues focusing on the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while others produced television news shows.

But nowhere was the sense of gravity more pronounced than among students from schools in Lower Manhattan. School officials evacuated Stuyvesant High and relocated students to neighboring Brooklyn Technical High School on Sept. 20. And so, Ms. Krug, Mr. Magarik, and other staff members of the biweekly school newspaper, The Spectator, covered what happened to their city and their school much like war correspondents.

Besides observing their school itself, student reporters interviewed Stuyvesant administrators and the school’s parents’ group to describe the evacuation and relocation process. They reported on students’ volunteer efforts, learned the fears of Muslim and Arab- American students, and tried to make sense of rumors swirling around the school of missing students and bomb threats.

Normally, the school’s newspaper would be writing about the Halloween dance or student plays, said senior David Getsoff, The Spectator‘s layout editor. “But this is not for entertainment, like other issues,” he said. The most serious story written in a previous issue, which came out the day of the attacks, was the obituary of a beloved Stuyvesant teacher.

Although school was suspended for more than a week, the small cadre of editors and reporters spent the days, nights, and weekends since the attack creating a special 24-page color magazine. They hope to distribute it not just to their school, but also throughout the city. The special issue of The Spectator is supposed to come out this week.

The tragic events scared and saddened the teenagers, but they said they felt they had an important job to do.

“The media has a serious responsibility in times like these, and that includes the student press,” Ms. Krug said. “We have the responsibility to tell people what’s going on. ... If we didn’t cover this to the best of our abilities, we’d be shirking our duties.”

Deadline Pressures

Stuyvesant Principal Stanley Teitel said the staff of The Spectator has a reputation for being committed to news and providing a high-quality product. The newspaper is editorially and financially independent of the school, though a teacher advises the students on news coverage. “The kids really run the paper like a regular journal or newspaper,” Mr. Teitel said.

It was the students’ idea to produce the special issue, said Spectator adviser Holly Ojalvo, an English teacher. “They’re doing it to give voice to the students, to give them information to give them comfort.”

The next day, Sunday, Sept. 23, the 21st-floor offices of an energy company, Keyspan Inc., in Brooklyn offered a sunny, clear view of Lower Manhattan. But The Spectator‘s staff was focused on other things.

The students had set up a makeshift newsroom in the company’s offices, arranged by a Stuyvesant parent just for the weekend, and the hours were quickly ticking closer to the paper’s deadline.

Managing Editor Candace Nuzzo, a senior, bit into a powdered doughnut as she and Ms. Ojalvo discussed changes on a story about how Stuyvesant students’ obsession with academics had changed since the attacks. A few feet away, Photo Editor Ethan Moses, also a senior, bent his lanky frame and peered through a magnifying glass at photo negatives of an imploding tower of the trade center.

Meanwhile, Editor in Chief Jeff Orlowski, a senior with a laconic air, designed the issue’s layout on a computer, the glow of the monitor reflecting off his glasses.

One cell phone rang. And then another. “That’s mine!” Mr. Orlowski said, reaching behind to grab the phone.

Next to him, Copy Editor Robyn Steiman shook her head. “This is so pretentious,” said the senior as she read a first-person account filled with emotion and flowery prose. “I’m going to have to cut it.”

In the week- and-a-half since the terrorists struck, the students had finished the bulk of the work for the special issue. Now, they were painstakingly editing and fact- checking the stories and fine-tuning the issue’s layout. Some had rings of fatigue under their eyes. Several said they had done nothing since the attack but concentrate on the newspaper.

“This has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” said Mr. Orlowski. “It’s been nonstop.”

Ms. Ojalvo, the adviser, said: “It’s like we’ve gone through a whole year in two weeks.”

The copy-editing process was cumbersome and inefficient because several versions of the same stories were circulating to a myriad of editors in the room, wasting precious time, several students said. At the same time, a story on how some students were evacuated from their homes was scrapped because there weren’t enough sources.

Someone also noted that freshmen were underrepresented in the issue, and a flurry of last-minute calls went out for more quotes.

Seeking Outside Help

The work began Sept. 12, when students brainstormed story ideas by e-mail from their home computers. They met a few days later in a conference room donated by a local company to figure out how to pull together a special issue of the student newspaper without equipment, facilities, or money.

Staff members started reporting and writing while Mr. Orlowski, Ms. Ojalvo, and another student made dozens of phone calls to friends, family, and businesses. They asked for help finding a temporary office, computers and scanners, and $8,000 to print about 8,000 copies of the paper.

Help came. Several New York-based foundations committed the money to print the extra copies, according to Mr. Orlowski, the editor in chief.

But the students still had to deal with perhaps the hardest part of the publication process. Besides the 8,000 copies for Stuyvesant students, staff, and families, the student editors wanted to print an additional 850,000 to insert in The New York Times. The idea had seemed pie-in-the-sky. But Mr. Orlowski and Ms. Ojalvo recently met with representatives of the “Newspapers in Education” program at The Times, and the two said discussions were under way.

“I told [the students] the chances of that happening were slim to none,” Ms. Ojalvo said. “They’ve been laughing at me ever since.”

Mr. Orlowski and Ms. Ojalvo then met with Ann Moore, an executive vice president at Time Inc., who is also a Stuyvesant parent. She agreed to help them lower printing costs. After making phone calls to several printers, Ms. Moore estimated the cost at about $85,000—a lot of money, but still far less than the $500,000 Mr. Orlowski had originally estimated.

Ms. Moore helped the students because she wants to encourage the next generation of journalists, she said. She added that Teen People magazine, which she oversees, may use some photos by Mr. Moses in an upcoming issue.

“I have a vested interest from my position,” Ms. Moore said. “I want to see a strong newspaper at that school, and I’m more than happy to pitch in. I want us to document what they saw and how they coped with it. It’s important to hear it in the kids’ voices.”

The leaders of The Spectator were still trying to figure out last week how to pay their printing costs. “We’re all doing this by the seat of our pants,” Ms. Ojalvo said.

Meeting the challenges they’ve faced in the past few weeks has made the staff feel more unified, several students said. By stretching themselves, they honed their reporting and writing skills and got a better sense of what it takes to put out a real newspaper.

Most important, they felt they were on a mission—in a unique position to inform and educate their classmates, teachers, and families about a wrenching but history-making event that will remain part of their lives.

‘So People Won’t Forget’

Ethan Moses was on the school’s second floor on the morning of Sept. 11. He stared through a window at the disaster unfolding near his school. Fire and white smoke from the World Trade Center billowed against a clear blue sky.

The photo editor stood mesmerized for a few moments. Then he grabbed his camera, sneaked out of school through a fire exit, and ran toward the flames. After calling his family to make sure they were OK, he came within a few blocks of the twin towers that had been rammed by hijacked jetliners.

A boom filled the air. One tower was crumbling, collapsing on itself. The debris and dust threatened to engulf him. Shaken and panicky, Mr. Moses knew he had to leave.

His eyes blurring with tears, he pointed his camera and clicked four quick shots. Then he ran as fast as he could.

“It’s important to record history,” he said, “so people won’t forget.”

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