Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Story Told, Part II: Early Success and Controversy

Before I go on, I want to reiterate that I'm writing this mostly from memory, so the sequence of events may be off, and I may not remember who exactly said what, but the essential facts are all here. Furthermore, I have hard copies of all the old issues and saved memos and emails from the principle (pun intended) players.

I knew putting out the first issue would be tough. I had zero experience working with the computers, the off site printing company, or the staff. Very few of them had any idea what they were doing, either. I focused on controlling what I could control: creating a storyboard with page layouts, editing as much of the copy as I could, and imbuing the paper with a new attitude.

Find out what students are worried/talking about, and write to that, I told them. Don't worry if it will upset people. Furthermore, even the most "boring" stories have something that makes them interesting. If they're fixing the potholes in the parking lot, find out where the money came from to do it and who's upset that it wasn't spent on another problem. It's one of the oldest tenets of journalism: Find the angle.

Oh, and one other thing: I stressed that there would be no more making up quotes for stories. I knew for a fact it was rampant in the years preceding me. I demanded reporters take notes with citations.

As I recall, we had planned to have 16 pages that first issue but had to cut down to 12 (because of the way it was printed, the paper had to come in four-page increments) due to several stories being too short, poorly written, or just not handed in. As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, there was a lot of dead weight on the staff. I quickly learned which reporters/editors were reliable and who should not be counted on.

Cutting down pages on the last day of production would become a recurring theme. So would staying until after the street sweeper went by on Viking Drive, at approximately 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday nights. That first issue, some of us were there until well after that.

When the inaugural issue came out that Friday, I had mixed feelings. It sure wasn't much to look at. There was too much text and not enough art. It contained a lot more typos than I was comfortable with. The stupid falcon illustration was bleeding into the top headline. After distributing the edition, I had the class spend an hour-and-a-half combing the paper for any errors they could find and noting them on the board. I made it clear that we were striving for 100% perfection.

At lunch, quite a few teachers told me they were really impressed with the paper. One said, "Just from looking at the headlines, I can tell it's better (than previous years)." Looking at it now, I'm proud of lots of the stories.

We led with the controversial teacher decision not to write letters of recommendation for students as part of the faculty's contract dispute with the district. Ali Saragoza, who would become our star reporter, also scored an interview with then-Superintendent Gary McHenry about the negotiations. Managing Editor Tomo Hirai wrote an editorial critical of the teachers' stance, while the talented Angelica Bell wrote a counterpoint. There were stories about aggressive enforcement of parking rules, student complaints over "fat testing" in P.E., MTV's sway over teenagers, and a feature that asked the question whether the cross country team was simply a very dedicated squad of runners or some sort of demented cult of personality. We even managed to make a traditional homecoming story interesting by pointing out that the dance and football game overlapped, forcing students to choose which to attend. We were learning to find the angle.

Editor-in-Chief Robby Sutherland also wrote a "Welcome Back" letter where he told the readers that The Claw would no longer be covering national news stories that would largely have to be lifted from other publications. We would focus on local stories that affected our readership directly. He also encouraged any feedback, criticism, or suggestions.

After the first issue came out, I received a letter of congratulations from the Principal. I thanked her for it and told her the next one would be better. She looked quizzically at me and said something like, "I thought since you were new, you were just going to do two or three a year." That was the end of the good times.

After the second issue came out, I got called into the principal's office, where I was met by the Principal and senior Vice Principal (an excellent administrator and great guy), along with the first two issues of the paper, covered in yellow hi-lighter. It seems they had some concerns. Mostly what I recall from this meeting was that they didn't like "focusing on the negative," in particular campus violence.

The V.P. pointed to one hi-lighted headline that read "Violence Increases With New Term" and asked, "What do you mean by increases? From when?" I explained that there seemed to be more fights than last year, as evidenced by the quote within the article from another administrator which read, "I think that there have been more fights simply because there are more students this year." I also noted his own quote in the story, where the Veep commented "Usually, I've noticed there are more fights in the beginning of the year because of the heat" in addition to the fact that the freshmen were still "getting used to each other."

The school discipline issue became a point of contention throughout the rest of the year. Administrators would often decline to comment on these matters, citing student confidentiality. They would get upset that names of students were used in the paper, saying that those matters were private.

What they failed to (or refused to) understand is that the newspaper's job is not the same as theirs. If a fight happens in front of 50 witnesses, it is a public event; therefore, it is newsworthy. It is on the minds and lips of the student body. Our job was not to sweep it under the rug. Furthermore, The Claw used only the names of kids who would willingly talk to the paper and didn't mind being quoted. We never named the "victim" in a fight (although most students could've told you who they were).

Since we relied on students for quotes, there would often be inconsistencies. One fighter claimed he had to go to an expulsion meeting for his actions. The Principal denied this and was upset that we had allowed his quote to appear as such. The problem was, she couldn't verify to the reporter (because of the aforementioned confidentiality) whether his stance was accurate. I told her we'd do our best to make sure kids we interviewed knew their facts, but any newspaper is going to have misinformation, and that's quadrupled when you're dealing with students and student journalists. It's the price of free speech. The best we could do is run corrections and letters to the editor.

It should be noted that I had to eat some major crow in this first meeting. One of the items they had hi-lighted was a staged photo of two journalism kids fighting (at night, no less) to illustrate the school violence story. It was stupid, bad journalism, and I never should've let them take the photo or run it. Being up at two in the morning on a weeknight and desperate to fill space makes you punchy. Still, it was bad judgment on my part, and I admitted it right away and swore nothing like it would ever happen again. Nothing did.

We left the meeting amicably. They believed they had gotten their concerns through to me. They had. Other than the stupid staged picture, I didn't share their concerns. It wasn't my job to produce a newspaper for the administration. It was my job to teach journalism. Unfortunately, those two interests often collide. It's the nature of the game.

I went back and told the class what the school officials had said, and assured them than other than the ridiculous photo, we wouldn't be changing a thing. One edition later, I was back in the office.

This time, there was no hi-lighter. Their main concerns were twofold.

The first was that they felt the tone was "too negative" and that we should try to "focus on the good stuff that goes on around here." This is about a clear example as you can get of the powers-that-be trying to control the content of the newspaper.

In particular, they were upset about a story claiming students were apathetic about a long-running senior experience project. I assured them that these were student reporters who understood the pulse of the campus much better than their wishful thinking did. Besides, I pointed out, although the thrust of the piece was that most seniors weren't excited about the project, I had made sure the story included a quote or two from some who were. That's called balance, another journalistic attribute.

They were also frustrated about perceived "inaccuracies." The two that I can recall them bringing up are difficult to categorize that way. Our lead story in the third issue dealt with the sorry state of technology at CP. We cited the teacher who used to be the on-site tech guy as having resigned over what he claimed was a lack of support from the administration. They debated that claim. I tried to explain that this wasn't an "inaccuracy" but a matter of opinion. They should feel free to write a letter explaining their position.

Next, we entered the Twilight Zone. The Principal pointed to an article which stated that she needed to hire extra biology teachers because biology was being moved from sophomore to freshman year, thus, the need for twice as many bio teachers for that year only. I asked her how that was untrue. She admitted that it wasn't, but she "didn't want them to think they would lose their jobs at the end of the year." Isn't that a possibility, I inquired? "Yes, but I don't want them to know that" was her answer. This actually happened.

To be fair to the Principal here, she wasn't being malicious. It was her job to keep everybody happy and on board, and this is why she disliked that year's version of The Claw. We pointed out the school's dirty little secrets and aired its dirty laundry, without resorting to tabloid tactics.

In that same issue, we published a groundbreaking article about being gay at College Park. We turned out a special eight-page issue for Winter Break where we managed to report on a bomb threat that took place on the day we went to press. We were doing good work, and people were starting to notice. Issues of the paper no longer littered the hallways. There was a buzz around the school when the newspaper was delivered. We got more letters than in all the past years I'd been there combined. I got compliments from other teachers and emails from parents. One read, in part: "First of all, let me tell you that the newspaper seems much improved over the past years. It seems so much easier to read and the articles very interesting. The articles written seem to have more depth to them than in previous years."

Furthermore, in the words of Lou Brown, it was startin' to come together. We'd worked out a lot of the kinks. We were still there late into the night, but every issue was better-looking and better proofread than the one before. For the first time in College Park history, we put the paper online, starting with the third issue. You can view the articles here, but be aware my tenure only extends through issue #11 of 2006.

There's a special bond formed on a newspaper, replete with stressful nights, drama, craziness, tantrums, laughter, cursing, and most importantly, lots of burritos, KFC, and pizza. One editor quit; another had to be replaced because his heart wasn't in it. Unexpected stars rose: The precocious Angie Barber (and her ever-peeing puppy, Mamba) vaulting into Co-News Editorship, the entirely-too-energetic Dan DiMaggio stepping up as Sports Editor, the invaluable and tightly-wound Ron Lee as Layout Editor, the just as invaluable and even more tightly-wound Managing Editor Tomo Hirai, Jessica "Teddy Bear" Shea as the relentlessly positive Business Manager, Chelsey Clay, the reliable and grounded Entertainment Editor, the often "sick" but loyal and talented News Editor Erica King, and the more-interested-in-watching-sports-but-usually-at-least-there Editor-in-Chief Robby Sutherland.

If you don't know these people, that paragraph was probably pretty tedious, but they all deserve mention for putting the work in for me that year. I challenged them to do something great, and by and large they responded. I can still hear Tomo playing "The Internet is for Porn" on the computer, followed by Ron softly crooning a medley of "Hey, There Delilah" and "Hands Down," accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The fact that they're most likely the only ones still reading this is also key.

I think it's time for a break. Tomorrow, s*&t gets major.


Chiaki Hirai said...

Yeah! We did stuff. Want photos Nolan? Expect photos on Facebook soon enough.

Anonymous said...

Is this the wire, season 5?

Jessica said...

"There's a special bond formed on a newspaper"

Ain't that the truth.