November 2, 2010
Homer student newspaper celebrates 80 years
Olympian now publishes only online as students deal with changing media landscape
HOMER — The staff of the Olympian student newspaper at Homer High School gathered Friday to discuss story ideas, which meant discussing sports, events and sensitive stories that might get them in trouble.
News editor Alexis Clark and Editor in Chief David Harris, both seniors, sat at the front of technology teacher John Steedle’s classroom with the other 16 students in rows. They talked about who could cover a sectional soccer game, elections for state Assembly and for Congress and the district’s finalists for superintendent of schools.
Clark said students wondered why the teachers have been wearing black armbands. English teacher Lori Andersen, co-advisor with Steedle, said the reason was the teachers’ union has been working without a contract and there are tensions with the Board of Education.
“I don’t know if anyone will talk to you about it, or whether we can write about it, but we should try,” she told the students. She said the students must be careful because what they write can affect other people and, if it angers the administration, could cause the newspaper to be suspended.
In other words, this year — the 80th anniversary of a newspaper at Homer High School — the responsibilities remain as they always have.
Homer High School’s paper has published even through lean years where not many students worked on it.
Other than being published totally online now at the district website, for the third year, the Olympian remains a place for students to learn how to research and write articles, how to photograph events and design pages, and how to document their school for the public both inside and outside the school.
Long-time challenges remain, such as what the staff can and should write about, balancing potential controversy with text and images that celebrate their school.
“Usually a lot of stories are about events like dances and games, and we try to cover club activities,” Harris said. “We also get people to write about relevant economic topics, like the school budget.”
“We’ve written about hydrofracking and the oil spill,” Clark said, referring to a controversial method for drilling for natural gas and last spring’s BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. “We cover things people know about but don’t know much about.”
Principal Doug Van Etten said he understands the students must learn what they can write about, and how, but does not worry about limiting them. He cannot see ever shutting down the paper.
“The kids are sensitive to what would create controversy and to what is private information, such as a student getting arrested, which they should not print in a school newspaper,” he said.
One editor, senior Kim Brown, researched the origins of Halloween. She called that her favorite story so far. Harris said he was proud of an article about the 2008 presidential election. Senior editor Jenae Withey said she likes to write book and movie reviews.
They said interviewing people is a difficult skill to learn.
“I interviewed our Chinese teacher,” Withey said, “and it was tough.”
Harris said he struggled to ask questions of Shiho Awamura, a Japanese exchange student who arrived this fall, because it was difficult to decide what to ask. Clark said she loves interviewing, so she does most stories that require it. A few of the students said they are interested in writing as a career, although maybe not journalism.
Homer does not have a newspaper class, so students meet once a week and fit their work around everything else they are doing, such as not just school but musicals, AP courses, clubs. Andersen said they have to learn by doing, getting instruction from her as they go.
She said she has pushed them to write with less opinion and take a more professional approach. She also knows that even if students get interviews and insights into school issues, they might not be able to publish them.
Andersen wrote for her high school newspaper, was features editor of her college newspaper and later was a speech writer for Cornell University’s president. Steedle designed his high school and college newspapers, and decided a few years ago to advise the Olympian because he wanted to incorporate graphic design and publication layout into his technology courses.
“The Olympian is still evolving as we decide what to keep from a traditional newspaper layout,” he said.
The Olympian’s roots date to October 1930, when it began as the Homer Academy News. It was published once a week and sold for 2 cents.
Superintendent of Schools Doug Larison said there was a newspaper before that but it was not produced by students.
Joan Robinson was the Olympian’s advisor for over 30 years.
The latest issue showed images from now alongside images from the 1950s and 1960s, such as the manual typewriters students used to write articles that were then put in type at a printing press, when the newspaper was produced on newsprint.
Homecoming had a whole page of images, some submitted by staff and some by any student who wanted to offer one for publication. Like the yearbook, the Olympian will consider photographs by any student.
Harris assigned a story about the boys’ sectional soccer game to a freshman boy who knows the players and the sport. She and Andersen asked a freshman girl who is taking a course from Baldwin to ask him for an interview.
“But we can’t always publish what we gather,” she said. “Part of learning about publications and journalism is weighing what the impact could be, for us teachers as the ‘publishers’ and for the students.”
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