At Large : A quarter century of stories
At its annual conference May 4, at Boston University, the New England Scholastic Press Association recognized The Martha's Vineyard Times and me for 25 years of support for the High School View. It was a very proud moment.
Presenting the award, Helen Smith, the association's executive director, said some kind words and described The Times effort as a model too seldom copied by other combinations of community newspaper companies and the students in the communities they serve.
The idea for the High School View began with a student, Molly Ann McClain, who wanted Martha's Vineyard Regional High School to publish regularly a school newspaper, and would The Martha's Vineyard Times help? It was 1987, and The Times, then just four years old and the smaller of the two newspapers on the Island, saw her proposal as an opportunity to grow our connection to our readers and add others. And we saw another opportunity also.
Molly, who graduated in 1988, had in mind a student newspaper that would be distributed within the high school. But, as we talked, she and I thought confining the journalism the students produced to an audience of students and faculty would miss an opportunity. In The Times, the weekly student newspaper could benefit from regular publication and distribution to the newspaper's entire readership, which included students and faculty, of course, but also voters and taxpayers who would be responsible for supporting all of the high school's activities. The theory was that showing this larger audience what student journalists could do would strengthen the ties between the school and the community as a whole. And that's exactly what happened.
At first the students did their work in The Times office each week, using reporters' terminals and phones, asking for and getting suggestions and advice from professional journalists, photographers, production workers, and technicians. For the first few years, the student journalists and The Times staff worked together to create the weekly student newspaper. Ultimately, the quality of the work done by successive student newspaper staff members and the consistent year-to-year stability of the student newspaper effort, at first unsupported by the high school administration, led to the creation of a journalism curriculum, led by an energetic and talented student advisor, Dan Sharkovitz.
The Times is proud of its now 25-year sponsorship of the High School View. We think the effort has done precisely what we thought it might.
Before the association delivered the handsome award into my hands, they gave me a job. It was to lead a discussion with student journalists and their professional advisors. On the program, my hour was entitled "Systems for local news coverage." Had I understood what was intended by that title, I would certainly have talked about it. But, untutored as I am in such systems, I did all I could responsibly do. That was to discuss journalism in its elementary form, which is the form with which I'm acquainted. None of them fell asleep, or walked out before the hour ended, or threw things. I judge that a success.
That surprised me because casual observation of the student species prowling their academic haunts reveals symptoms of exhaustion, impatience, and maybe a little latent anger. You did not want to disappoint these people.
BU is a city university whose stolid, functional buildings – the architecture has a federal, bureaucratic heaviness that suggests Washington D.C., without the monuments or the cherry trees – ranges along both sides of Commonwealth Avenue. Students bend beneath heavily laden backpacks as they hurry along from Subway to the burrito place to Starbucks, which serves as their study hall. There's WiFi and $5 skinny lattes, and wearing the sweats they wore to bed the night before, they drowse over their laptops, hard at work. The two girls at the table near mine paused in their online researches, but only briefly, to discuss the failings of their respective boyfriends, who apparently have displayed a callous indifference to the interests of womankind. Or at least they had done so the evening before.
I worried that what I had to say might similarly provoke the members of my audience, given its remedial, not to say regressive character. I was wrong. It was just like when Gap came out with the khaki trousers look a few years ago. It was what I've been wearing since the mid-century, but it was all new to Gap customers who gobbled it up. And apparently, my comments, so last century as they certainly were, struck my audience as fresh.
I told them I wanted to consider what journalism actually is. To get at the answer, I begged them to put aside for the moment most of what they'd been learning. Don't think about platforms, don't think about the web, the internet, the social media, Twitter, Facebook, the print on paper, the software, the ink, don't think about sites, or smart phones, or netbooks, iPads, laptops, video, audio. Put it all to the side for a moment, I said.
What's left? Storytelling is what's left. Journalism is storytelling. It doesn't matter how your audience gets the story, it's the story that is the heart of it. It's stories about people, space flights, politics, animals, actresses, ordinary folk, athletes, games, music, and on and on. There are also stories about people when they die, about politicians who vote for this, but vote against that, about Minnesingers, teachers who retire, homecoming kings and queens, SATs, and football games. There are stories that simply tell you that Kim Kardashian ate a burrito in Beverly Hills yesterday with Barack Obama. Did Michelle know? The question is, as a journalist, as a storyteller, what sort of stories do you want to tell?
Then I told them the story about Molly and the High School View and the story of its creation and the 25 years of stories it had published.
They were fascinated. Well, at least they didn't fall asleep, or walk out before the hour ended, or throw things.