Stevenson High to j-students: publish or perish

Because I’ve been in the newspaper racket for decades, folks will assume that I’m on the side of the Stevenson High School students who are fighting with the administration over what they can publish in the school newspaper.

I’m not.

How can I say this with the obligatory amount of sensitivity so I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings? The newspaper doesn’t belong to the students; the school is the publisher. The school pays for the printing and the instruction. The school decides what goes on in the classrooms. A publisher gets to decide what goes into his paper and what doesn’t. Editors (employees) who refuse to follow policy can be disciplined and fired.

That’s the reality of it. If the journalism teachers at Stevenson are teaching their students anything different, then they are, to be kind, mistaken. At worst they are ignorant and deceptive.

This is the administration’s right and duty, but did it make the right decision about the stories involved? I haven’t seen the stories, so I withhold judgment about their journalistic value. But here is my impression from what I’ve read. Using anonymous sources, the stories reportedly disclose behavior by National Honor Society members that does not conform to its standards. Frankly, it sounds like one of those gotcha stories (“see those suck-ups in the honor society aren’t any better than the rest of us.”) Whether or not it is true, I find  that the use of anonymous sources to disparage fellow students is unprofessional. In this, the students are following a practice that is becoming increasingly common and regrettable among professionals.


Leave a comment
  • I'd never expect
    That Dennis Byrne would take sides
    With the powerless

    Hiaku barbs aside ... the original Trib article about this story states that the students were willing to put out a paper without the offending story, using a front cover that was blank except for a note to readers explaining (from the students' perspective) why a story was missing. If the administration thought they were doing the right thing, why wouldn't they agree to the blank front page and then defend their position?


    Instead, the students now claim they were threatened with failing grades if they didn't, within two hours, produce a newspaper without the controversial stories. Wasn't their blank-front-page issue, which the administration refused to print last week, a newspaper without the controversial stories?


    My reading of the original Trib report does not make the spiked story sound like "the use of anonymous sources to disparage fellow students." The anonymous sources were reportedly students who admitted to violating the rules. These students did not have to speak to the reporters and, in the event the school forces the reporters to name their sources, they were only putting their own reputations at risk.

    I believe the primary interest of the administration was to avoid embarrassment, not to teach journalism students about the use of anonymous sources.

  • In reply to EdNickow:

    Mr. Byrne says in his article, "The newspaper doesn't belong to the students; the school is the publisher. The school pays for the printing and the instruction. The school decides what goes on in the classrooms."

    On page 33 of the school's course description for school year 2009 - 2010, the Course Book states in part as follows:

    Students do all the work necessary to produce the school newspaper, the Statesman. ... Because this is s student publication, all responsibilities, from planning of the content to the design of an issue to the processing of photos and the completion of pages, are handled by the students. Afterschool work is necessary to the completion of each issue..........

    So which is it - the school's paper as Mr. Byrne suggest? or the student's paper as the school itself inducates in its course book?

  • In reply to EdNickow:

    Dennis Byrne is not the only pro journalist who gets it wrong about student press rights. He should do his homework before (1) taking sides without first acquiring all the facts, and (2) equating a private publisher (newspaper OWNER) with a State actor (the principal).
    Most folks do not want students to have unbridled control of the school paper, but they also don't want principals to have unchecked authority to arbitrarily censor articles.
    Byrne admittedly did not read the student articles that were censored, yet he suggests it doesn't matter what was in them because the publisher can censor ANYTHING!
    He doesn't seem to know that federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have made it clear that, as State actors, public school officials CANNOT arbitrarily censor a student newspaper and suppress student expression without a constitutionally valid reason. He doesn't seem to understand that "The Statesman" student newspaper is recognized as a "public forum" by policy and practice and thereby falls under the parameters set forth in "Tinker v. Des Moines Board of Education" regarding the amount of control student journalists have over even their curricular school newspaper. I urge Mr. Byrne to check it out and do the ethical thing pro journalists do when they make a major mistake: print a retraction.

  • In reply to RandySwikle:

    A Byrne retraction?
    He ignores most comments here
    So don't hold your breath

  • In reply to RandySwikle:

    Someone suggested that if the students really want their own newspaper, set something up on line. It will reach more people and there will be no questions about "censorship," etc.

    As far as who "owns" the paper, I think that would be settled if the school suspended its operation, cut off funding or removed the journalism class from the curriculum.

    I know what the courts have ruled, but if the students leave this course believing that reporters and editors aren't subject to the publisher's decisions, then they aren't prepared for the real world.

    By the way, being required to put out a newspaper in two hours is not a cause for whining. At a real newspaper (e.g. the Chicago Daily News and the Sun-Times where I worked) we had constant deadlines all day long.

    Happy Thanksgiving, folks.

  • In reply to RandySwikle:

    A school district is not in the publishing business. It students are not unpaid employees. The school district is an educational institution and the students are who it serves. A school newspaper exists to provide an educational resource. Working with a faculty adviser, students plan the paper, do all the research, reporting, writing, rewriting, page design, photography and art, and almost all the best school paper staffs sell ads. Many of the best papers exist on the basis of ad sales with no financing from the school. Students learn from both their successes and errors and learn what to do if they commit an error. They also study press law. If administrators are acting as editors, deciding what stories will appear and how, then the school is not providing students with a high-quality program. The school district does not pay for the paper if the district indeed is at all involved in financing it; the taxpayers do. And what they are paying for is a quality program giving students in the district the best advantage in a quality program to benefit from both during high school and after. As for journalists being subject to publishers' decisions, I've been a working journalist for more than 50 years and even in my first job at a paper in St. Louis the publisher never told me what he wanted me to do. We would discuss projects and goals for them but I was never censored, and had I been I would have quit. When you're good at what you do, in my experience, your bosses don't want you to quit. In everything I've written both in news publications and for best-selling books I've had--and wanted--editors but no one has ever said "You have to do it my way, I'm paying you." As for comparing what high school journalists do--a small group producing the publication end to end--, and professional journalists do, a specific task as part of a multidepartment effort involving large numbers of specialists, there is no comparison in either workload or pressure. Every professional journalist who began in high school journalism will tell you getting a quality high school paper out at ground level is much more difficult than getting a professional daily out. I'm in my 45th year as a high school journalism teacher and newspaper adviser, I'm also a publisher, I'm also in the music business, and I've never stopped being a journalist, so I've seen it all and can make a reasonable comparison. Beyond that, at Stevenson High students and advisers and now parents have been publicly insulted, privately threatened and lied to. The case, now involving students being coerced to sign their work and get out a publication or take an F in coursework, is now moving from the sector of press rights to civil rights. There's also a much bigger and disturbing picture at Stevenson, which in time will be the big story. Your references to the Statesman stories which were censored is pure assumption and not accurate. As for the newspaper business being a racket, well, not the one I've been in for five decades.

  • In reply to waynebrasler:

    Sorry, professor, but you lost your credibility when you said, "As for comparing what high school journalists do--a small group producing the
    publication end to end--, and professional journalists do, a specific task as part of a multidepartment effort involving large numbers of specialists, there is no comparison in either workload or pressure."

    I don't see the kind of daily newspaper experience in your background that qualifies you to make that sort of judgment.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    I worked on a daily in Missouri two years doing every thing from general assignment reporting to film reviews to a music column. I then edited a weekly two years doing everything. I've been consulted by dailies on design and reader appeal. All you had to do to find all this out was google my name. Education was actually my second career and I am not a professor.

Leave a comment