Covering the community
Albany newspaper students win awards, build relationships
By Laura Gutschke
Special to the Abilene Reporter-News
Sunday, May 11, 2008
In a town where everyone knows everyone else, and at a school where many of the 187 students are involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities -- including student journalism -- publishing a newspaper presents a few challenges.
"I don't know" and "kind of" are two frequent responses to questions when the student journalists interview their classmates, teammates, friends or cousins -- not much to build a story on, said Albany High School sophomore Kaitlyn Wiloth, 16, sports writer.
"Or they'll say, 'Just write what you want,'" said editor Robin Wiloth, 17, Kaitlyn's older sister.
But with hard work -- and support from their teacher and principal -- students on the Albany High Lions Roar school newspaper staff have gone from covering small-school news to making headlines themselves.
The three fall issues of the 12-page newspaper -- packed with stories and photos on depression, cervical cancer vaccine, summer jobs, new policies, student life and much more -- garnered a Gold Star Award at the Interscholastic League Press Conference state convention last month at the University of Texas in Austin. It just so happens that this is the first year the newspaper is able to publish in color throughout each edition.
The seven-member staff at the Lions Roar was one of six to receive the award out of more than 300 schools, many of which are larger-division schools with staffs of up to 50 students.
"We are fortunate that we have a board and administration that supports a journalism program in a (Class) 1A school," said adviser Donnie Lucas.
All the Albany students also received individual awards -- totaling 11 first places, 16 seconds, three thirds and one honorable mention -- in the Class 1A division for their articles, entertainment reviews, cartoons, page designs and photographs. About 1,100 students attended the convention.
Usually outgoing sophomore Mary Garvin, 15, features editor/cartoonist, turned embarrassed when called to the stage to receive the Tops in Texas Award for her article on senior Kirstin Noble's struggles to walk again after a vehicle accident. Garvin prefers highlighting students' accomplishments to the personal honor of writing the best of all the Class 1A to 5A feature writing entries.
"I know they have poured their hearts and souls into this with Mr. Lucas. The hours they have spent you couldn't put on a clock," said Albany High School Principal Tommy Terrell.
Lions Roar is published at the end of each six-week period, six times each school year. About 750 copies are printed (on the Abilene Reporter-News press) and distributed at all the Albany schools and around town. The Albany school district underwrites the cost of the advertising-free publication.
Terrell said he looks at the project as a way for Albany to get "an insight into the attitudes of the kids."
In addition to teaching English and history, Lucas leads basic journalism and newspaper classes. In the latter, the student staffers brainstorm, write, edit articles and photos and design pages. The students work on computers with Adobe Creative Suites software, which is industry standard, and use Nikon D70 cameras.
"The quality of student photography has improved with digital equipment," Lucas said.
Terrell, who is legally considered publisher, reviews each issue just before publication. He has nixed only a couple of story ideas and pulled only one item -- a letter to the editor -- over the years, Lucas said.
The principal said he welcomes the students' broaching hot issues because writing about them "is a way to get input to things that need to be adjusted or changed. One of the strengths of these kids is their balance. They explore the good things as well as the other."
Colt Keller, 17, a staff writer and photographer, remembers one topic in particular.
"We covered STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) last year," he said, "and that was a big deal."
The student journalists have learned to manage the administrative review by discussing the coverage of a controversial subject early in the planning stage instead of waiting until the story is written and on the final proof.
But covering a small, tight-knit school in a small, tight-knit community presents still other challenges, the students said.
"On a story like teen pregnancy, you can't do anonymous or undercover stories because the school is so small everyone knows everyone. You can't keep that anonymity," Lucas said.
This does not mean stories such as teen pregnancy are ignored. Instead, they are covered from an informational angle, he said.
For the article on the cervical cancer vaccine, staff writer Molly Wisdom, 17, junior, interviewed school nurse Monica Cleveland, who was photographed during a presentation to juniors about the vaccine. Wisdom also included comments from a junior who received the vaccine because of relatives' battles with the disease.
Some of the issues covered in the spring edition include energy drinks, dating, a prayer box on campus and driver's education. Because of the gap between sports events and publication date, the staff is trying to devote more space to profiles of athletes and coaches instead of recapping competitions.
Lucas said working on the newspaper hones important life skills beyond journalistic principles: time management, communication, people relations and critical thinking.
The students also say that the newsroom drama featured in the MTV show "The Paper," which chronicles student journalists at a Florida high school, eclipses their competitive but amicable and collaborative environment.
"We inspire each other," Albany student Kallie Noble said.