At Large: First principles and a long life

At Large: First principles and a long life

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Elsewhere in the paper this morning, we report on the success of the High School View staff, in competition among high school newspapers across New England, particularly in Massachusetts. The Times congratulates the young journalists on the View, the high school administration, and the View’s long-serving advisor, Dan Sharkovitz. It’s only natural that The Martha’s Vineyard Times organization would root for the High School View, because we have been closely associated with the high school publication since its birth in the late 1980s. Not that beginning a high school newspaper and the ensuing journalism program that grew up around it was our idea.

No, the idea for the High School View began with a question from a student, Molly Ann McClaine, 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 itself 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.

I discussed this unusual history with young journalists at the New England Scholastic Press Association at Boston University on May 3. The association was convening as it does annually to talk business and make awards, this year including those to the staff of the High School View.

The View’s history was one part of a talk on news gathering I was invited to give. 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, dependable, weekly publication — rarely achieved by high school newspapers in other communities — 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 it would also invite the student journalist to spread their wings a bit and look outside their school business for stories. And that’s exactly what happened.

I’ve rehearsed this history before, but it’s worth retelling. Early on, the students did their work in The Times office each week, sharing reporters’ terminals and phones with our staff, 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 Shark.

We’re proud of our now 26-year sponsorship of the High School View. We think the effort has done precisely what we thought it might, and much more than we imagined.

My talk on May 3 with student journalists and their professional advisors dwelt on two key, guiding underpinnings of newspapering — or whatever newspapering is today. That is, two keys as I see them. I’ve learned over the years that one must acknowledge other views. But for the hour set aside for me, I figured I had these young minds where I wanted them.

So, I talked about audience. Unwitting as it may have been, the idea that the young High School View staffers should write about and publish to not only the intimate community within the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School turned out to be brilliant. It meant that these young people permitted themselves to get outside themselves, to meet and understand the world around them, when they chose. It was opportunity they could seize and run with, and with such a larger pond in which to fish, it suggested that for true journalists the world is full of stories and finding them depends on nothing more than one’s willingness to look around and follow one’s instincts. What fun, and what a trove of possibilities.

And, I talked about storytelling, which is all that the trade really is. 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, of netbooks, iPads, laptops, video, audio. Each and all vital, but put them to the side for a moment.

What’s left? Storytelling is what’s left. 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 is plump as a burrito, but nevertheless she parties with Barack Obama. The question is, as a journalist, as a storyteller, what sort of stories do you want to tell?

And, we talked about what were not stories. For instance, when you receive a tweet from someone who proffers a news tip, it’s not a story. Not yet. It’s a story when it’s been developed by a storyteller who has met face to face with someone who knows the story, who analyzes and reorders all the information, as good storytellers do. What gets published — no matter where or how it gets published — is the news according to the writer. Not just any writer, not some anonymous source who may or may not be what and who he says he is, not necessarily what another writer might write, but it’s the story you wrote after getting close to the subject and forming judgments about him, or her, or it.

They were fascinated. Well, at least they didn’t fall asleep, or walk out before the hour ended, or throw things.

A version of this column appeared in this space a year ago.