Newspaper adviser: Keep journalism alive here

Mrs. Heveron-Smith’s sign-off…

From left, Managing Editor Nicole Lundahl, Adviser Mrs. Mary Heveron-Smith, Features Editor Kathryn Hobbs, and Copy Editor Jamie Ciminelli.

Chris Wojtas

From left, Managing Editor Nicole Lundahl, Adviser Mrs. Mary Heveron-Smith, Features Editor Kathryn Hobbs, and Copy Editor Jamie Ciminelli.

Dear students,

Late in my junior year of high school, my guidance counselor invited me into her office for a visit, and asked me if I’d thought about a career.  “Yes,” I said.  “I think I’d like to write short stories.”

“Ha!” she answered.  “Do you want to eat?”

She pointed out, correctly, that young short-story writers may find it hard to make a living, at least at first.  She suggested that, if I wanted to write, I look more closely at the field of Journalism.  I wasn’t thrilled about the idea.  After all, I was so shy that I never went to my junior prom.  (I was too shy to say “yes” to the guy who asked me to prom and too shy to tell work not to schedule me that night.) So, with my very shy personality, how was I going to conduct an interview, get on the phone to ask follow-up questions, or, God forbid, handle criticism if I made a mistake?

Well, I ended up going to college for newspaper journalism, working in newspapers for a few years and then, later, directing a publications office at a local college. Through more than a few poorly written stories and my fair share of errors, I found my writing voice. I became good at interviewing, organizing a story, and writing and editing my work. I loved hearing other people’s stories and getting the details just right.  All the while, this little voice inside me kept saying, Why don’t you try teaching this skill to students?

I made the career change while my children were young, and I came to Webster 20 years ago this fall, taking over the Journalism course and newspaper adviser position.  Back then, we were still producing newspapers by gluing skinny columns of type onto large sheets of paper with long blue grid lines.  When we were done laying out the paper, I’d drive the large sheets over to Dave Young of Empire State Weeklies, and his staff would take it from there, printing our Webster school newspapers.

When I went to the Columbia Scholastic Press Association conference my first year, a much younger and much more tech-savvy teacher listened to me explain our production process and sneered, “Sounds like you’re in the dark ages.”  Ouch.  I came back from the conference and told the late John Soper, then the principal of then-Webster High School, at Schroeder, “I guess we’re in the dark ages.”

“What do we need?” John asked me.  I told him, and he made some things happen – a better space, some computers, and new software.  We were on the road to electronic publishing; we started transporting our files to Dave Young electronically.  Our current principal, Glenn Widor, has responded numerous times the way John Soper did: “What do you need?” We now have state-of-the-art software as well as hardware; most of our videos over the last couple of years were produced with technology that connects a mobile phone to a microphone, a cable, a little pre-amp, and a small tripod.  I presented two sessions at CSPA in 2016 – one on technology — and now there are many schools nowhere near us.  We’ve won numerous awards from CSPA, and we recently won the highest award for digital newspapers from our state organization, the Empire State Scholastic Press Association.

This is my retirement year, and I wanted to reflect on some highlights and give some advice.  First, I want to acknowledge the contributions of four other advisers, each of whom took turns running the newspaper, and each of whom brought her own brilliant leadership and editorial style while doing so:  Carolyn Stahl, Amy Krajeck, and Sheila Byrne.  Carrie Waldarek also worked with both Carolyn and Sheila.  (Kelly Cameron and Kyle Suffoletto each took turns teaching the Journalism course.)  Each of these people opened my eyes to better ways of recruiting staff, expanding readership, and coming up with more innovative story ideas.

The field of journalism has changed significantly in the last 20 years.  We’re now living in an era in which legitimate news sources are met with unprecedented skepticism, and sketchy stories are being taken seriously.  Therefore, it’s more important than ever to be discerning readers and careful writers.

Some have begun to believe that myth that all news today is “fake news.”  That’s like saying all politicians are corrupt or all business owners are wealthy.  Spend a day with a good journalist, and you’ll see how hard he or she works to get every detail just right.  So although we’ve entered an era in which some people make money passing off fiction as news, the news from serious news sources is anything but fake.

The reality is that your generation, unlike mine, will have to wade through an ocean of information in order to learn whom to trust.  But that work is vital.  After you figure out where you can get good information, you need to read like a maniac – and not just the sources whose views are like  yours. Make it a point to read with an open mind.

Once you find your trusted sources, support them with your dollars. Support them, but don’t be afraid to call them out when you know they can be better.  (Earlier this school year, I wrote to The New York Times suggesting that they do a better job covering the world of style and leisure for all young people, and not just rich, upper-class young people.  The Times printed my comment and commended me on it.)

Journalism is often misunderstood as a kind of writing that has no creativity.  This year’s managing editor, Nicole Lundahl, who’s been with the paper for all four years and who began a photo feature in our paper, has argued that the creativity can live alongside journalism.  I would agree.  The degree of choice alone that high school journalists have is something that speaks of creativity:  In this year’s paper, we ran Morgan Hardy’s story on being the sister of Monique Hardy, track star and “throwing” phenom; Hanna Cavicchioli’s piece exploring boys’ use of makeup; Andrew Hammack’s video review of his beloved metal bands; Shannon Harris’s essay describing her dog’s unique way of caring for her; Shyann Harris’s essay on what it’s like to be hard of hearing; and Laura and Sarah Postigo’s argument on why schools should teach self-defense.

Even headlines can be creative.  The best student headline, in my book, the one that still makes me laugh out loud, even though it was written 17-18 years ago, is one on the topic of procrastination.  If I recall correctly, it was a boy named Jason who wrote this headline:  “I would have written a better headline, but I didn’t get around to it.”

Other benefits of journalism?  Writing a personal essay can often be cathartic, healing, and empowering for a student. Conducting an interview with a teacher, principal, assistant principal, or staff member can help you get to know that person on a whole new level.  If you’re the shy kid that I once was, then journalism can help you build not only your writing skills, but also your confidence.

We have had exceptional support from the administration as well as the staff here.  Yet our newspaper struggles to get student readers, and our Journalism elective struggles to get enrollment.  Don’t let this vital component of education — part of which is the responsible exercise of your First Amendment rights — slip away.  I hope you will work to keep excellent journalism alive here in Webster.  Know that your own voice matters and is waiting to be heard.  Thank you.


Mary Heveron-Smith