Few Upper Valley High Schools Continue to Produce Student Newspapers

  • Ninth-grader Hannah Reed photographs classroom doors decorated with holiday themes for the essay "Doors Demonstrate Holiday Cheer" that was posted later in the morning on "The Buzz," Woodstock Union High School's online newspaper in Woodstock, Vt., on Dec. 14, 2018. Meeting as a club at the school, "The Buzz" has a staff of a dozen students. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • "The Buzz" Editor Anna Hepler, a 12th-grader at Woodstock Union High School, left, speaks with writers and ninth-graders Maria Sell and Hannah Reed and advisor Michelle Fountain about plans for upcoming stories during one of their twice-weekly meetings at the school in Woodstock, Vt., on Dec. 14, 2018. The school newspaper has been online-only for the past two years -- stories are posted as they are ready. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • On Dec. 14, 2018, Woodstock Union High School ninth-grader Maria Sell gets feedback from advisor Molly Fountain about her story on the school's dress code during a gathering of The Buzz Club, which is responsible for publishing the Woodstock, Vt., school's online newspaper. Fountain has been involved with the school newspaper for the past 11 years. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ninth-grader Hannah Reed works on a story for "The Buzz," Woodstock Union High School's online newspaper in Woodstock, Vt., on Dec. 14, 2018. In its 11th year, the publication switched from print to digital two years ago. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/18/2018 8:21:59 AM

Editor’s Note: This story is the first of two parts. Part 2: Hanover High School students continue to produce a vigorous newspaper, in print and online. Coming Jan. 1.

Take a sampling of clubs available at area high schools, and you’ll find plenty of options, from standards such as student government and drama clubs, to unconventional offerings including a grill club, a kung fu club and a rock climbing club.

What you won’t find at many schools? A newspaper club.

Once a staple of high school life, school newspapers, perhaps not surprisingly, have faded in number, size and influence alongside their community counterparts. Just a handful of Upper Valley high schools currently publish a student newspaper, and these are arguably humbler affairs than school papers of generations ago.

“It’s much trickier than it used to be in some ways,” said Michelle Fountain, faculty adviser for the Woodstock Union High School newspaper, The Buzz.

Once a 16-plus-page publication printed four times a year on the Valley News’ press and created by students in Fountain’s journalism class, The Buzz now publishes directly to the web and operates as a club with a bare-bones staff of four or five who meet twice a week for 30 minutes. Last year they produced just one print edition, a special issue on climate change created by a ninth-grade class. This year they might not produce any print copies.

“I used to have 10 to 20 captive writers who were taking the course,” said Fountain, who has served as adviser for the past 11 years. “Going from a class to a club has presented the largest challenges in terms of producing a regular paper.”

At other schools, the newspaper has gone the way of the floppy disk.

Kesstan Arnesen, attendance secretary for Mascoma Valley Regional High School, remembers working on a small school paper during her time there as a student.

“It was kind of like a little flier type newspaper,” said Arnesen, who graduated from Mascoma in 2002. “We tried to highlight different things that the students were doing.”

It’s been several years since the school stopped offering a journalism class, and with it a school paper, Arnesen said.

Thetford Academy also has no journalism class or newspaper club. “It’s still on the books. We hope to bring it back,” said head of school Bill Bugg. “I think it’s an important class to offer ... in a small school you can’t offer everything.”

At Hartford High School, students sometimes choose to produce a newspaper as an independent project, said principal Nelson Fogg, but there is currently no journalism class or newspaper club.

Some School Papers Persist

That’s not to say that student journalism has gone entirely extinct.

In the coming weeks, students at Woodstock High will get to read all about changes to the school dress code in The Buzz. Across the state line at Lebanon High School, students can learn about plans to replace the school track and why those plans have been slow in turning into action in the upcoming issue of the LHS Times, due out in the next week or two (the production schedule varies).

The Times is currently produced four times a year in both digital and print versions. Ranging from four to eight pages, it includes round-ups of school events, essays, opinion pieces, comics, horoscopes, movie reviews, recipes and an advice column.

In comparison to what’s on offer elsewhere in the region, it’s a pretty robust publication. But poking back into the archives of the Times, it’s not difficult to see that its glory days are behind it. During the 1988-89 school year, 27 students worked on the paper, producing seven editions and selling — yes, selling — about 400 copies of each edition, at 25 cents apiece, according to a 1989 Valley News article.

These days, it’s difficult to give away the papers, admits newspaper adviser Anthony Caplan. “There’s a lot of questions about whether to keep (printing) because half the papers just get recycled,” he said.

The lack of readership and resources has affected the content as well. Articles in today’s editions trend toward light-hearted fare and opinion pieces reflecting staff members’ interests, said Caplan, who has served as adviser for the past 10 years.

“Once in a blue moon we’ll actually have a real news story about a change in the curriculum ... or some kind of debate that’s happening at the school,” he said. “Very few hard-hitting stories ever.”

The production schedule means that news stories tend to get stale before they go to print, Caplan said. Nor are students always equipped with the expertise they need to navigate tricky topics. “It’s difficult to impart journalistic standards on the kids in a club setting,” he said.

Students Have ‘The Last Say’

School newspapers still get scoops from time to time, though — and with them, firsthand lessons in the rights and responsibilities of journalists.

In September, Burlington High School’s student newspaper, the BHS Register, broke the news that school guidance director Mario Macias had been charged with six counts of unprofessional conduct. Under pressure from a school administrator, the paper’s adviser removed the article from the website until newspaper staff members fought for — and won — the right to put it back up.

Despite their shrinking stature, it’s important for school papers to continue taking themselves seriously, said Fountain, who worked for the Vermont Standard before she came to Woodstock High.

“We talk about what our ethics are,” she said. “We mainly focus on the idea that the truth is your defense.”

One of The Buzz’ former editors testified at a hearing for the “New Voices” legislation that was signed into Vermont state law in 2017, giving explicit authority to students in deciding what they choose to print and prohibiting administrators from reviewing content before it’s printed or posted.

“The students know that they ultimately have the last say in whatever goes in the paper,” Fountain said. “They know they need to take responsibility for that.”

Whether that knowledge functions to liberate or intimidate student-writers is difficult to say. Will Tanski, co-editor of the LHS Times, said that his decision to cover something touchy or potentially damaging would depend on a number of factors. “If it’s something that needs to be discussed even though it’s controversial, we would cover it,” he said. “But we try to avoid inciting undue controversy.”

While exposés and investigative pieces are rare, articles that analyze a hot topic or highlight something edgy are definitely the ones that get attention in this era of faltering readership, staff members say.

A recent article on the pros and cons of weighted GPAs, for example, got people talking, Tanski said. “I think people did read that one because it had a direct impact on them,” he said.

Similarly, co-editor Sarah Ball hopes her piece on the status of the track will fire people up. “Being a track athlete myself, I thought it was a little irritating that track tends to go to the bottom of everyone’s list,” she said.

The piece that created the biggest buzz at the Buzz this year was a photo and long caption highlighting a “No Girls” sign that had been taped to a student hangout called the solarium, said editor Anna Hepler, a senior.

“It was exciting actually because we published pictures of it that said, ‘here’s what happened,’ and we got a response, which we published,” Hepler said. “I thought that was kind of cool because I wasn’t sure if people were actually reading.”

A Paper’s ‘Unique Benefits’

Of course, there are other ways to keep people informed and engaged. School websites, newsletters and social media pages perform some of the same functions as school newspapers. And while many schools lack a journalism elective, some social studies teachers are incorporating media literacy into their lesson plans.

There are other ways for students to express their ideas as well. For example, Thetford Academy has a very active, student-run assembly program that allows students to announce and discuss important information and events, Bugg said. “It’s a pretty egalitarian student culture. I think the student voice is an important part of who we are,” he said.

But students who work on school papers recognize the unique benefits they provide.

While offering a more complete picture than an official newsletter or, on the other end of the spectrum, a Twitter rumor, newspapers also deliver information in a more democratic way, than, say, the student council, which generally represents the higher achieving students, Tanski said.

“Getting the message out about the issues is important so that we can get the perspective of other people,” he said. “If they don’t know what’s going on, they can’t make their voices heard.”

School papers can also familiarize both readers and newspaper staff members with the functions of journalism, preparing them to be informed citizens in this era of fuzzy truth and mistrust in the media. “I think there’s more attention to the news than there used to be,” Hepler said. “Things seem pretty high stakes right now.”

A Reporting Revival?

School papers come and go. Often linked to student interest and faculty expertise, they’re modest ventures that can fold and revive without a lot of hoopla. That’s the beauty, perhaps, of the student newspaper: With no salaries and little overhead, it can measure its success by quality rather than revenue.

And it’s possible that this time-honored tradition is due for a revival.

At Kearsarge Regional High School, in North Sutton, N.H., a new school paper has just rolled off the presses, produced by students in the school’s new journalism class.

After a hiatus of several years, the school decided to bring back the elective, partly as a way of beefing up its writing program, said Lisa Cicoria, an English teacher and department chair at the school.

“It was actually at the request of the students,” she said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.

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