Hard News

By Mark Walsh — June 07, 1995 19 min read

The editors of the Wessex Wire stare blankly at the big dry-erase board hanging on the wall. The two dozen or so stories for the upcoming issue are scrawled--in no particular order--in color-coded magic marker. The one about a student’s battle with depression was turned in weeks ago and has already been edited. The articles on fast food and on the Internet have even made their way to the final proofreading stages. But a few stories have yet to be turned in. And others will have to hold for future issues.

It’s nearly 6 P.M., and the six student editors have been at it since about 2 this afternoon. That is, when they weren’t daydreaming about heading home.

Tina Lane, the adviser and mother hen to this group of weary students, is doing her best to move things along.

“On the affirmative action pro and con, we only have one side,” she says. “That’s one I think we should hold.”

“But Meghan will flip out if that doesn’t run,” News Editor Salliann Muth says of the author of the anti-affirmative-action essay.

“We’re going to run it, but it may be next issue,” declares Lane, a longtime teacher at West Essex Senior High School in this suburb some 25 miles outside of New York City.

Lane suggests holding a story about student gambling until the next issue as well. “That should really be developed more,” she says. “It’s a big problem here.”

As the after-school story meeting drags to a close, the editors are starting to get punchy. They seem eager to leave for dinner, but Lane is pushing them to work longer.

“Why do I feel like everybody’s mother?” she asks.

“Because you are our mother,” jokes Muth.

Other articles in the works for this issue will take a serious look at such topics as teenage suicide, aids, the school’s new computer network, and concerns over students’ steamy displays of affection in the hallways.

And the editors are still waiting to get a look at the story that’s likely to raise the most hackles around campus: the one about the newspaper’s latest skirmish with the school administration. But, as Lane reminds them, there’s plenty to do until then.

Welcome to high school journalism in the 1990’s. Like many other high school newspapers these days, the Wessex Wire isn’t afraid to tackle challenging and controversial topics. In fact, many high school newspapers are as aggressive in their reporting as their professional counterparts in their communities.

The Wire staff eschews or downplays news about the prom court or the French club in favor of tough reporting about the social problems today’s teenagers face. Recent issues of the Wessex Wire have featured stories about sex education, student alcohol and drug use, segregation in New Jersey school districts, toxic waste, school prayer, and interracial dating.

Of course, not all of the coverage is so serious. Other articles have highlighted interviews with West Essex students who attended Woodstock ‘94, a feature on the unusual number of twins at the high school (seven sets), and regular takeoffs on David Letterman’s Top 10 lists.

Students in the 90’s don’t shy away from technology either. Most have to master complicated word-processing and graphic-arts software to produce the paper on computers more advanced than those used at many professional publications.

Sophisticated computers do more than make working on the school newspaper more fun for students. The advanced skills give them a leg up in college and the job market, too.

Research also shows that students who study journalism in high school or work on their school papers perform better academically than their peers on Advanced Placement tests.

A majority of high schools now rely on some sort of desktop-publishing equipment to publish their papers. One 1993 survey of 185 schools showed that 89 percent of them had such systems in place. The Journalism Education Association conducted another survey indicating that Apple Macintoshes account for three out of four computers used to produce high school papers, while nearly nine out of 10 newspapers report using Aldus PageMaker as their primary desktop-publishing software.

But in some ways, these changes have made the job of putting out a high school newspaper harder. It no doubt takes a reporter less time and thoughtto write a profile ofthe homecoming queen than to take a critical look at the school’s policy on condom distribution. And editors must work even more diligently to help staff writers choose their words carefully when treading into uncharted territory.

What’s more, students don’t just write and edit copy. Desktop publishing has brought with it the added responsibility of the design and look of the paper. So in addition to learning how to draft a strong lead and write an accurate headline, students must now also master the mechanics of Power Macintoshes and pagination.

Ultimately, much of this added pressure comes to rest on the shoulders of the faculty adviser.

At West Essex, for example, Lane admits that the computer systems are both a blessing and curse.

“We all thought that when we got computers, it would make things easier,” she says. “But it made things more time consuming. Now, in addition to teaching my students the fundamentals of journalism and journalistic writing, I’m also teaching them to do layout and design and desktop publishing.” Despite these demands, Lane strives to keep the focus on strong writing and good journalism.

The Freedom Forum points to the faculty adviser as a key figure in any high school newspaper’s success. In its exhaustive report issued last year, the Arlington, Va.-based foundation dedicated to press freedom concluded that the adviser must act as a writing coach, editor, publisher, financial whiz, and counselor to harried student editors, not to mention First Amendment advocate and buffer against administrators.

In theory, advocates of high school journalism profess that the newspapers should be able to operate freely. But, in practice, more and more advisers have to battle administrators to run their papers as they see fit.

And even if they don’t face meddling principals, many have to contend with dwindling financial resources and competition for students’ attention from school television news shows and other extracurricular activities.

What’s more, the Freedom Forum report (titled Death By Cheeseburger after a censored student review of cafeteria food) warned that administrative censorship is just one of the challenges high school newspapers face today. High school journalism in the 1990’s, the study suggests, “is being threatened by budget shortages, community indifference, poor teacher training, and occasional outright hostility from school administrators.”

Many newspaper advisers, the report concludes, have to devote much of their time to insuring the financial health of the enterprise. Many school districts, especially urban ones, have cut funding for student-run publications.

These are both good and bad times for high school newspapers.

From the outside, West Essex High looks like an unremarkable assemblage of yellow-brick wings connected at odd angles. But inside the 33-year-old school, both teachers and staff boast a strong academic program with a heavy emphasis on computers and information technology.

The majority of the school’s 600 students--some 95 percent of whom go on to college--come from one of four largely affluent suburban communities in northern New Jersey. Most take part in several extracurricular activities. About 35 of them join the newspaper staff every year.

The students produce the Wessex Wire in what is known as the Mac Lab, two rooms full of about 20 Power Macintosh computers. Reporters draft their stories usingMicrosoft Word, a popular word-processing program. Editors use Aldus PageMaker to lay out the pages on desktop.

After school on a recent day, Sripal Mehta, a senior, was using Adobe Illustrator graphics software to develop artwork to accompany a story about discrimination against teenagers by retailers. Mehta’s title is computer systems supervisor, and editors shout his name whenever computer screens freeze or other glitches pop up in the sophisticated technology.

“My computer folder is titled ‘Legal action taken if erased!’” he says. “Nobody better mess with it.”

The Wessex Wire resembles many high school newspapers with its mini-broadsheet format on heavier-than-newsprint white stock. Its clean layout features crisp photos, lots of graphics, and the occasional use of a second color.

Despite the diligence of the editors, a misspelled word or an out-of-register photo does sometimes slip into print. Still, all the hard work seems to have paid off.

The Wessex Wire has won a slew of journalism prizes in recent years. Last year, the judge who critiqued the paper for the Columbia Scholastic Press Association called the Wire “exceptional,” adding that it “could easily stand in competition with some cities’ newspapers.” And the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, a foundation of The Wall Street Journal‘s corporate parent, has recognized Tina Lane as one of the nation’s top student newspaper advisers.

When Lane took over as adviser in 1979, the New Jersey native was an English teacher with no formal training in journalism. The paper averaged about eight pages an issue back then. Now, it’s not uncommon for the Wire to run 24 pages or more.

Her credo has been simple: “I said I would make myself available as long as they want to work on the paper.”

Lane is known for being demanding of her students. Students in the school’s introductory and advanced journalism courses help generate stories for the paper. But a core group of 15 or so staffers do most of the editing and design after school as an extracurricular activity.

One recent afternoon, Lane pushed some of her editors to work late to try to put the current edition to bed. Several of them stayed. But one young woman eventually stormed out, saying that her mom needed her at home.

“She’s very well liked, but everyone knows she is hard,” says Jamie Schwartz, a former news editor at the Wire who is now studying journalism at Northwestern University. “People said, ‘She’ll suck you in.’ She does want commitment.”

In her advanced journalism class, while students bang away on their Macintoshes, Lane calls students forward to go over their writing assignments one-on-one.

She explains to one student that he cannot refer to a faculty member as the “school shrink.”

“She’s the student-assistance counselor,” Lane reminds him.

Lane comes across as strong-willed and bent on teaching students the fundamentals of good writing. “My goal is always to teach these kids how to write well,” she says. Consequently, her journalism students and staff writers are used to turning in countless drafts of their stories.

“I would hand in an article and think it was fine, but she would give me another rewrite to do,” Schwartz remembers. “Some people got frustrated with all the writing and rewriting. But because of all the time we spent there, we got very close to her.”

Her mantra to the students is, “Maximize content, minimize words.” She shows them how to tighten their lead paragraphs--which she insists must grab readers right away--and how to paraphrase basic information from news sources while using stronger comments as quotes.

But her students joke that while Lane preaches brevity in writing, she doesn’t always follow that advice when it comes to conversation. She makes most of her points with an animated, almost dramatic flair. She occasionally finds work in professional theater. (For that reason, she says, she’s reluctant to divulge her age.)

Once she has someone’s ear, it isn’t easy to escape. Lately, the topic she wants to discuss most is the importance of a free student press.

“What I teach about the First Amendment, I have to be able to back,” she says. “I oppose prior review because it is against what we are all about as a democracy. The danger in prior review has to do with self-censorship.”

Fear of censorship has been percolating among student journalists and advocates of high school journalism ever since the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In that landmark case, the Court ruled 5 to 3 that a high school principal had the right to delete articles about divorce and teenage pregnancy from the student newspaper.

The ruling made clear that school officials have ultimate editorial control over school-sponsored student publications. “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” Associate Justice Byron R. White wrote for the majority.

But student independence has not suffered as much as some had feared. In fact, the Freedom Forum report concluded that student papers have continued to address controversial and sensitive topics--even though many school principals have cited Hazelwood as the basis for implementing prior-review policies.

Meanwhile, six states have passed laws that guarantee the press rights of public school students, according to the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. Those states are California (whose law predates the Hazelwood ruling), Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, and, most recently, Arkansas. In April, Arkansas passed a law that prohibits school officials from censoring student publications unless the material is obscene, libelous, an invasion of individual privacy, or disruptive of school activities. A number of school districts across the country have adopted similar provisions.

“Our perspective is skewed, perhaps, because we hear the bad cases, but the situation is bad,” says Michael Hiestand, a lawyer with the student-law center, which helps student publications fight censorship battles. “Calls come in every week from students trying to write meaningful stories who are prevented from doing so by administrators.”

In Indianapolis, a high school principal withheld an article about gay students just as an edition of the school paper was to go to press in May. The article, written for the Pike High School Hi-Life, profiled two unidentified gay students who had approached a writer on the paper because they wanted to tell their stories.

Jill Strawder, the adviser to the Pike High paper, said school administrators had instructed her not to discuss the incident. The principal did not return a phone call.

In Everett, Wash., the editor of the newspaper at Mountain Lake Terrace High School has refused to turn over photographs of a student melee to the local prosecutor’s office, where investigators are trying to identify the students involved. The editor, Stacey Burns, has appealed a judge’s order to turn over the photos to a state appellate court.

In Dade County, Fla., last year, a school principal asked student editors to include a counterpoint essay to an editorial that criticized the scheduling of an important test on a Saturday. The controversy prompted the Dade school board to strengthen its policy on student press rights, which was already considered a national model. Under the new policy, principals are prohibited from reviewing student publications before they go to press. A task force developed guidelines that make students and their advisers responsible for avoiding libelous, obscene, or disruptive stories.

The Wessex Wire had largely avoided any First Amendment battles until last year. Up to that point, West Essex administrators hadn’t seemed too concerned about content.

Last year, however, problems arose when Wire staff members were preparing an article about guns in school. The article focused on an incident in which a West Essex student allegedly brought a gun to another suburban high school and showed it to students. He was arrested the next day.

Schwartz, the Wire‘s former news editor, recalls how administrators sought to downplay the incident and discourage the staff from writing about it. They later sought to review the article before it went to print, she says, and the principal asked whether the names of the high schools mentioned in the story could be deleted.

“This wasn’t anything that people didn’t already know about,” Schwartz says about the gun incident. “It had already been covered in the local newspaper. I think they were worried about the public relations of the high school.”

The students refused to submit the article, which ran in the Wire last June. The story noted that guns were not a major problem at West Essex, and it did not name the student accused of carrying the gun because he was a minor.

When the students took the prior-review issue to the West Essex school board, it backed publication of the gun story. “The position of the board was an article like that can and should be reported,” Charles Goldberg, the board president, said of the decision.

But the board kept intact a policy that allowed administrators prior review of the paper--even though they don’t seem to resort to it regularly. “We reviewed with the administration the criteria for administrative review,” he said. “We feel that administrative review should go on.” In conclusion, Goldberg added, “There is certainly no concerted effort on the part of the board to quash any responsible journalism.”

West Essex Principal Joseph B. Garvey, who is retiring at the end of this school year, speaks about the incident as if it was only one of many minor headaches he’s had to deal with in his job. Still, he says he does prefer to have prior review of the student newspaper and other student productions.

“I’d be concerned if the paper printed something that hurt someone,” he explains. He goes on to cite a recent instance in which he asked the writers of the senior talent show to eliminate several references to homosexuality that he deemed hurtful. “Now is that censorship?” he asks. “It probably is,” he answers, adding that he wouldn’t want any gay students at West Essex High to feel ridiculed.

This year, students say they have run into problems because school officials have restricted their access to the Mac Lab at a key time, from 4 to 7 P.M. on three weekdays. The school day at West Essex ends at 2:30 P.M., but many newspaper staff members have sports practice or other extracurricular activities right after school. The time constraint, the students contend, has made it difficult to get the paper out.

Administrators say the school needs the lab for after-school adult-education courses several times a week. But newspaper staffers tell a different story. They believe the change comes as retribution for their resistance to the administration’s attempt at prior review last year.

“It’s been hard for us this year,” says Editor in Chief Ingrid Manevitz. “I think the administration doesn’t like us because we print the truth.”

West Essex Superintendent Gary J. Vitta and other officials denied taking retribution against the paper, saying the newspaper staff simply can’t have the unrestricted access to the computer lab it wants. He suggests that Lane, in her lengthy tenure as the newspaper adviser, has grown accustomed to doing things her way and may feel threatened by the legitimate changes in the school schedule.

After all, he says, the journalism students have access to the Mac Lab for 23-1/2 hours a week. And when students asked for access to the computers that were going unused in the lab during the adult-education classes, the administration tried to accommodate them. But, Vitta says, the students were too disruptive to the classes.

Although they take pride in the newspaper’s journalistic endeavors and its awards, West Essex administrators didn’t hesitate to voice complaints. For starters, they say, the paper doesn’t come out often enough. As of early May, only two full issues of the Wire had appeared this school year, along with a handful of single-page mini-issues.

“There’s no question that this is an excellent publication,” Vitta says. “However, we feel it should come out more frequently.”

Principal Garvey agrees that the paper should be published more often, adding that he would also like to see the newspaper feature more specific school news instead of focusing so much on the major social issues that affect teen life in general. “I would rather they put out six eight-page papers rather than two huge ones,” he says. “Critics might say that the huge issues are only to win awards.”

Another thorn in administrators’ sides is the Wire‘s “Board Notes and Quotes.” The regular feature highlights short news items from school board meetings and public comments from board members accompanied by short quips from student reporters.

“Two or three years ago, it was quite funny,” Garvey remembers. “Now, we have people who go to board meetings almost looking for things. I have seen things taken out of context, like they are working too hard to find humor. It’s almost sarcasm.”

Vitta, whose district headquarters office is right at the high school, seems to hint that Lane’s position as newspaper adviser may be under review, but he declines to discuss it.

“There are some personnel issues we can’t get into,” he says.

Lane defends the larger, less-frequently published issues of the Wire. “Big issues allow students to get more in depth, which is the trend at high school papers,” she says.

And she adds that the restricted access to the Mac Lab has bogged down the editors, reducing the number of issues they can realistically produce.

But the students are rallying parents to their side and plan to make a presentation at an upcoming school board meeting. Richard M. Schwartz, Jamie’s father and a lawyer who has been advising the students, thinks the computer-lab restrictions are a potential legal problem. “It seems to me they are taking an activity and making it more and more difficult for the students,” he says.

In the meantime, Lane has heard rumors that the powers-that-be may dictate a publication schedule next year. She’s also heard the one about being replaced as adviser.

She recalls the one time she considered leaving education and her position as a high school newspaper adviser. A few years ago, she spent a summer working for the television commentator John McLaughlin for his show on the cable channel CNBC. But she turned down a permanent job because she thought it would eventually mean a move to Washington.

Back at the story meeting, Lane and the editors are still figuring out what needs to get done for the current issue. Next week’s deadline is fast approaching.

“You better double check the percentages on the condom and sex survey,” Lane tells one editor. “Oh, sports is a disaster.”

“No, I think we’re a lot closer to finishing than we think we are,” says Manevitz, the editor in chief.

“On Thursday and Friday, bring money,” Lane tells her editors, as they finally decide to leave for the day around 6 P.M. “We’ll probably be ordering out.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 1995 edition of Education Week as Hard News