At the end of my sophomore year, a friend and I decided that we would found a school newspaper. Our small high school hadn’t had one before, and we thought that it was something our fellow students needed. About a year and a half later, it’s time to reflect; here are a few things I learned.
1. You’re not going to have a lot of committed people on your staff at first.
That’s just the way it is—you’re a new club, and anyone who joins really doesn’t know what to expect. Thus, you’re probably going to have a lot of people who don’t show up to meetings or turn in articles on time (or at all). They’re not getting anything out of it yet, because no one is really reading your publication.
This goes for any club, really. You haven’t acquired the solidity and prestige in the school community that encourages people to participate. But at the same time, you need people to do stuff in order to become established. It’s definitely a Catch 22.
You have to come up with a way to get people to want to write for you. This year, I started having pitch meetings almost every week to figure out what people wanted to write about. That meant someone interviewing students and teachers about what “Netflix and chill” means instead of covering the Homecoming game, and I was OK with that. Because it’s more likely that people will actually turn in good articles if they’re covering something they wanted to cover. And when you’re a new publication, you’re ultimately concerned with getting as many articles published as possible.
2. Don’t expect your staff to know how to do everything.
Most of the people who joined my staff didn’t have a background in journalism, because there were no news publications to speak of before I created mine. Most of them were people who were good writers in general, but that’s really a different animal from journalism. But I still sort of expected them to understand how to report and write articles.
You have to realize that you’re a high school publication. You’re not The New York Times. So it’s OK if you have a few grammatical errors or a couple of flowery sentences here and there. That being said, it’s still important to give your staff at least some journalistic grounding. I made a short handbook with article types and important elements of news to give to my staff. At least then I could help them distinguish a feature from an op-ed.
3. Advertise ad nauseam.
Halfway through our first year of existence, we released our website. But people kept coming up to me and asking me, “Hey, when’s that newspaper thing gonna come out?” And it took me a long time to realize that their not knowing about us was entirely our fault. We hadn’t advertised.
If your school has a club fair day, represent your publication. Get the word out that you actually exist. Pass out little cards and flyers with your website and social media information (oh yeah, and have social media accounts). Ask your staff members to tell their friends about your publication. But above all, don’t antagonize people for not knowing you exist. I sort of did that, and it was a total waste of time and energy because I didn’t do something to change it.
4. Understand your audience and your environment.
I sort of expected going into the project that we would become something like a real news publication, that reported on stories and started conversations within our school community. But the reality is that, for the most part, the publication is for your staff to gain experience with writing and reporting. It’s great if people do read it, but don’t expect it to become a capstone of your school’s community in its infancy. That may happen once the publication becomes more established, though.
That being said, practice is useless if you’re not preparing for the real thing. So don’t act like nobody will read your publication. Stress accuracy and integrity. Assert the importance of your audience. Discourage controversial or detrimental topics. Because you need to have a firm grounding in the practice of journalism if you want to have any hope of doing it as a career.
5. Establish roles.
At the beginning of the project, it was basically my friend and I who were “co-editors-in-chief”. That turned out not to work, because we didn’t have set things that we were in charge of individually. Eventually, my friend decided to take a back seat, leaving me as the one editor-in-chief. But just one person managing a group of staffers doesn’t work very well—I can’t do everything for the publication.
So, this year, I asked one of my friends to become a PR manager, advertising our website and getting people to follow us on social media. That was some weight off my shoulders. I also made who I thought was the most committed member the previous year the managing editor, in charge of pitches and direct editing of some stories.
But I wish I had created these roles at the beginning of last year. I’ve realized that, to a group of staffers, disappointing just one editor-in-chief by not turning in an article is easier on the conscience than disappointing three editors by not turning in an article. So we probably would’ve had more articles published last year had there been a team of editors, and not just, basically, me.
6. Getting people to join is mostly you being a talent scout.
Advertising can help attract writers as well as readers, but in reality, you have to be in touch with the kind of talent that exists in your school community. You have to sort of glean people who you know would be good staff members. For example, there was a student in my grade that I knew loved politics, so I asked him to come write about politics for my publication. The staffer that I made managing editor was a new girl who sat next to me in English—she had asked me what clubs to join, and I told her to come join mine.
Asking people to join your club also makes them feel wanted and special, and makes them more likely to participate than if they come wandering into a meeting one afternoon, just thinking to try it out for a couple days.
7. Make it online.
I had initially intended for our paper to be an actual printed newspaper, but then realized that the costs of such a publication would be quite expensive. So I opted for a beautiful, clean website instead. For a publication that’s just starting out, I’d say don’t even bother trying to make a printed paper; when you don’t have readers yet, it’s not worth it. Maybe down the road you can go to print, but online is more accessible to students wherever they are.
When founding a news publication, you’ll inevitably run into a lot of problems and make a lot of mistakes. But that’s what this period of your life is about: making mistakes and learning from them without any harsh consequences. Even if you think your publication will crash and burn or if you have no experience whatsoever in journalism, try it. You’ll learn about leadership, integrity, and teamwork—whether you publish 5 or 500 articles.