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Restart the presses: Despite challenges, student publications revived throughout mid-valley

Restart the presses: Despite challenges, student publications revived throughout mid-valley

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Cheers, whoops and applause drowned out the thud as Michelle Balmeo hefted a stack of bound news magazines Oct. 24 onto a classroom table at West Albany High School.

Students in Balmeo's journalism class crowded around to get a look at their first publication of the year — and the first student publication to bear the name of The Whirlwind in the past decade.

"I want to cry. This is so beautiful!" crowed junior Jordyn Lockwood, 16. "I think the cover turned out super well." 

Formerly a student newspaper that dates to at least 1916, The Whirlwind went out of print 10 years ago when a national recession prompted budget reductions and elective cuts throughout Greater Albany Public Schools.

Balmeo's students brought the publication back this year as a 32-page news magazine. They hope to publish at least seven more issues through the school year. 

"There are things that kids need to talk about and need to share with a larger audience, and issues they’re kind of hungry to dive into and discuss," said Balmeo, who created a new journalism class to produce the publication. "That was the push for kids to come to my classroom. And now they’re hooked. ... They're excited to see it grow and get better and to see their work in the hands of students."

With 11 years of experience teaching journalism and a passionate belief in finding ways to give students a voice, Balmeo, now in her second year at West, was dedicated to reintroducing some form of student media.

She's not the only one. Schools in Lebanon and Corvallis have also resurrected student publications in recent years.

Advisers at the mid-valley schools that maintain student publications, new or continuing, say they're noticing a trend: Even as the professional media industry is assailed by shrinking budgets, dwindling readership and cries of "fake news," increasing numbers of students are looking to join its ranks.  

National organizations that support student journalists say they don't have hard data to support that conclusion — and, in fact, they differ on whether it's the case everywhere.

But representatives say anecdotally, they are seeing at least continued interest from students, some of whom are finding creative ways to get their message across.

It's not clear why. Some of the interest might be driven by attention to the media industry as a whole, which has been both a focus and a result of the Trump presidency, said Kelly Glasscock, executive director of the Journalism Education Society. "Simply, news is in the news."

In Sweet Home, where Jim Costa oversees The Huskian — a student newspaper that has been in continuous print production for 78 years — the paper is almost a reaction piece.

"I think there is a growing dissatisfaction with the crassness and unreliability of social media and young people are looking for a more traditional, and responsible, form of expression and dissemination of news," Costa said.

Trend or not?

Statistics aren't readily available on the number of high school publications in the nation, nor how many might be in the process of being reborn.

Mike Hiestand, senior legal adviser at the Student Press Law Center in Virginia, said he doesn't think the mid-valley's experience with resurrected publications is a trend across the country. 

"I wish that this were a trend that we were seeing. Honestly, I think this is kind of an anomaly," he said. "Schools tend to be zeroing out budgets, and student media are among the first to go."

Hiestand said he is seeing students take more advantage of social media and alternative media outlets to produce a message. "But typically that's being done more on an individual basis, or a small group of students getting together, as opposed to sponsored by the school."

Laura Widmer, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association, said she agrees. But she believes student interest in the message is on the rise, regardless of the delivery method.

"We’re starting to see that more and more," she said. "What has been great is that we have so many opportunities — even if they can’t afford a print publication anymore, they’re learning how to go online, and they’re learning how to take care of the news that way."

That's partly the case at Corvallis High School, which lost its student paper, the High-O-Scope, to budget cuts in 2007-08.

First published in 1919, the paper was once known as the longest-running continuous high school publication in Oregon, according to research by Kari Gottfried, its current editor-in-chief.

Two students, Clark Schimeall and Brian Cebra, who both graduated last year, brought the High-O-Scope back as a student project in 2015. Gottfried, now 17, joined the staff that same year and took over editing duties as a sophomore halfway through the past school year.

Officially, the High-O-Scope is a Corvallis High School club, and it has a faculty member as an adviser. In practical terms, however, it's all students, all the time.

Gottfried has a staff of about seven reporters and editors. They work at home or on computers in a school classroom, pitching stories to Gottfried via a shared Google drive toward the end of each month and having them in and ready to publish by the beginning of the next. 

"It's entirely student-run," she said.

The newspaper is available online at and is printed at the high school's library — usually 150 to 250 copies, for which the school does not charge the club — on sheets of white paper, 11 by 17 inches. Students fold the pages and stack the publications in newspaper bins donated by the Daily Barometer, Oregon State University's online and print student publication.

The High-O-Scope does sell ads, which bring in a couple hundred dollars, Gottfried said. That's used for any incidental supplies: T-shirts, this year.

In contrast, the reborn student publication at Lebanon High School, like West Albany's, is an official part of the campus.

Adviser Steve Twomey created an Introduction to Journalism class this year, which produces the LHS Express.

The publication is printed on a series of 8 1/2 by 11-inch sheets of paper, usually about 100 copies at a time. The third issue is due out this month.

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Lebanon High had a traditional student newspaper until at least 2010, but by 2013 it was gone. Twomey brought it back this fall after a conversation last spring about ways to strengthen the "culture" at Lebanon High.

"Students don’t have very many good ways or easy ways to have their voice heard," he said. "I want them to feel that empowerment; that they can actually have a voice."

Money concerns

A key to success for Lebanon and Corvallis high schools may be that thus far, their publications cost nothing to produce but ink and a couple of reams of paper. It gets tougher when schools like West decide they want an actual news magazine, or even just a few pages of newsprint.

Money is an ongoing concern, and West doesn't provide a budget. Balmeo had 1,600 copies published of The Whirlwind's first issue, which had full or spot color on a handful of its 32 pages, at a cost of $948.

Balmeo had an online "wish list" and a crowdfunding campaign to get the program going. Together, those bought the class two Nikon DSLR cameras, a couple of handheld recorders and a tablet to help with illustrations.

Her 29 students have been asked to raise $300 each, through ads, subscriptions or sponsorships, to get The Whirlwind through its next seven issues and to cover a few contest entry fees.

The situation is similar at South Albany High School, which has published a student newspaper, The Sentry, since 1971. Adviser Trisha Farver said South makes her class possible but the paper itself is responsible for the $300 to $400 it costs to produce eight issues a year: four print and four online. Ad sales and fundraisers pay the bills.

"Nine years ago, I became the adviser and the economy wasn't doing very well," Farver said. "We published most of our papers online and only had one print issue because it was very tough to get business ads at that time."

It would be cheaper, of course, to be online only, Farver acknowledged. But  she's dedicated to a print product. 

"My editors always have a look of joy and anticipation on their faces when they come back from picking up their newspapers from Oregon Web Press," she said. "There is a powerful moment when they see their name in a byline: This leaves them longing to write their next article."

A colleague recently told Balmeo something she found profound: "There is zero novelty to our kids in online publishing. It ain’t no thing," she said. "They publish online all the time. Their lives are online."

Print, in contrast, is new to them, she said. It exists physically and conveys permanence. It can't just be deleted. And on distribution days, every kid on campus gets a paper at the same time and can sit down and sift through each page.

"There is still a really good audience here, kind of a captive audience, for a print publication," she said.

Kari Gottfried said she reads news stories on her phone and almost never picks up a print edition, nor does she know anyone her age who does. Yet school papers need to be physical copies to reach a wider audience, she said — and that's why she prints the High-O-Scope, in addition to maintaining a website.

"I think for high school, honestly, it's the most successful," she said. "If it's lying right there, they're going to pick it up and read it." 

'Words are powerful'

The challenges to producing a student publication don't stop with money. Skilled advisers are in short supply, and schools are still directing much of their resources to getting students to pass state assessment tests and fulfill stricter graduation requirements.

Plus, many administrators are leery of giving students a school-sanctioned free speech platform. The 2007 Oregon Student Free Expression Law provides student journalists attending Oregon public high schools with protection against administrative censorship — and a claim to monetary damages if someone tries.

Wendy Wallace, director of advancement at the Poynter Institute, ran a high school program at Poynter for 10 years. "To my knowledge, there is no surge in interest and in fact the opposite, as legislatures tighten graduation requirements around STEM and other core skills. Journalism programs have been falling by the wayside," she said. "Plus, principals are nervous about free speech issues."

But Kelly Glasscock at the Journalism Education Association said his member numbers are continuing to grow, which indicates to him that interest is growing, too.

“I think students are still quite engaged in creating that print product," he said. "Despite what you might hear about readership, when you're in a school, you're a community. It's easier to reach and engage with, and your distribution model is right there in front of you, which makes it more conducive to those publications."

Some students in Balmeo's class say they signed up for The Whirlwind because they're interested in pursuing journalism as a career. Co-editor-in-chief Will Randall, 17, said he wants to be a war correspondent.

"Journalism is one of my biggest passions," he said. "I think it's important that the news is out there."

Curtis Allen, a managing editor, said he plans to study communications in college and sees the journalism class as a good way to get started.

"We live in a world where it's so much more of a global community than it's ever been," he said. "It's more important to know how to communicate effectively; to understand other people's ideas." 

A student publication is great career training, Balmeo agreed, but the skills her students develop go far beyond how to put together a print product.

Journalism students learn how to ask questions of strangers; how to sift information; how tell a story effectively; how to conduct themselves professionally, she said. 

Perhaps equally important, they become more media literate: critical readers who can differentiate between fact and opinion and determine what is and isn't a credible source.

They also learn to exercise their own free speech rights in a credible way, Balmeo added.

“My kids are 15, 16, 17 years old. They’re almost adults," she said. "If they don’t get to practice now, when do they practice? When do they get to exercise that voice? They’re expected to come out as adults and participate, be engaged critically with the rest of society. If they’re not practicing that here, where do they learn how to do that?"

Leading a student publication is much more than job training, Balmeo said.

"You're teaching them what you say matters. Words are powerful," she said. "They have the power to effect change."


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