An unexpected mission: Newspaper adviser

by Mr. Sheehy

I didn’t mean to become who I am. Not that anyone else means it particularly, but sometimes you come across a person who seems to have figured out their future at the end of kindergarten. Take Dr. Jack Bacon, a NASA engineer who spoke at the TIE Conference this year: in elementary school he carried a lunch box with a picture of a rocket blasting to a space station. Now, he carries his headset in that same lunch box when he heads to work–for the team that created the international space station.

Not meaning to become who I am does not mean I am disappointed with the results, however. Early dreams of playing baseball, talking on the radio, and coaching died away as I grew up and learned more about those jobs and my own life.  They were good dreams, but they are not as important as I thought they would be.

As I grew new dreams emerged–like noble fatherhood, for example. It’s not something a young man dreams about, but it is something a young dad can envision. Yet there are also things that pop up in life that one never expects, things you pick up along the way not because you dream it, but because it just happens.

I happened to pick up the label technology expert, a label achieved by knowing a few things about blogs and wikis that my colleagues did not know. I don’t particularly like computers, but communicating is awfully cool and these were tools of communication, so I’d thrown myself at them–immersing myself in their workings, over-committing my time and energy to their development, eventually growing tired of it all and settling into a normalized use of them as tools. The formula was strangely familiar to the ones I applied to my childhood dreams: baseball was fun so I obsessed over it until baseball was life; eventually I realized it wasn’t.

Earlier this year another little surprise emerged. The colleague who puts together the school newspaper took a job elsewhere and I was asked if I was interested. I was presumably asked because I like to write and because it was thought I might enjoy the software side of things (they use InDesign, which I’ve never touched). At no point had I pictured myself as the newspaper guy. The thought never occurred to me. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and now I am the newspaper guy.

Within days I’d wasted entire planning periods cooking up ideas with a colleague, threatening to destroy myself by repeating the same ol’ plot of total immersion, enthusiastic overcommitment, exhaustion, and pull back. Realizing that I want to break that formulaic story, that I want to focus my energy, and that I want to prevent extraneous ideas from drawing me into good but non-essential activities, I spent a bit of time considering what my mission, or objective, will be for the newspaper. Not only is my hope that a mission statement will keep me focused, but that it will help me to communicate to others what we are trying to do and why.

So far, this is what that mission looks like.

As an adviser, I am convinced that the newspaper’s main goal is to provide students an audience for their work. When I say work I mean it in a broad sense, wanting it to include many forms of communication, be it reporting-style writing to short stories to poetry, to photography and art work. Perhaps it can include work I have not fathomed or considered. For me, the genre or type of work is far less important than the audience. I want to seize upon the opportunity to create audience, because there are forms of work at which students are engaged where audience is a fundamental necessity. One writes that others may read and snaps a photograph that others may see. A classroom, unfortunately yet understandably, struggles to capture audience, even as within its walls these audience-dependent forms are taught. The newspaper thus compliments the school’s endeavors by providing opportunity for some students to be heard.

With that goal in mind, one of my first and biggest priorities is to work out a way for the print edition of the newspaper to be distributed to the student-body free of charge. Currently it is sold for 50 cents a copy, and as beautiful and well assembled as it is, it is read by a shockingly small audience, consisting, to my unofficial observation, mostly of staff members, who each receive a free copy of it. Even if this would require us to resume printing on newspaper print, I think it would be worthwhile (currently the paper is printed on fairly nice paper stock, in color). In college our student-newspaper came out every Friday about mid-morning, free of charge, and everybody I knew grabbed a copy of it and had it mostly read by Friday night. If we can nurture an effect like that here, we will have created a relevant compliment to education.

For students on my staff, when it exists (and I’ll need to recruit one), this will be their mission as well–to gain an audience. Yet for them, the goals they will be setting to pursue the mission will be different. They will not be worried about the printing costs or the budget as much as about their content and presentation (at least at first–if the staff grew large I could disperse business responsibilities as well). In that way, the second mission of the newspaper enters.

The staff of the newspaper will seek to provide for the school’s community relevant and interesting content. Like the work mentioned previously, the content is broadly defined to mean anything that can be conveyed in a printed format for an audience to consume. Relevant ends up being the crucial term here.

Relevant means timely, for example. Printing an article about how the football season ended up is not relevant if printed weeks after the season ended.

Similarly, relevant also meets a need. If the audience for the most part is fully aware of something, like what the plays will be this coming year, there is no need to re-publish it in the newspaper. The readers of the paper do not need to read such an article, because they already know what it says. It’s a newspaper, but such items are not new; if the paper wants to print such things, it should fight for the chance to break those stories, so the audience has a need to read the paper.

Relevant also encompasses perspective. This is a school newspaper, which means the readers are concerned with students’ perspectives and concerns. Students have a unique angle to provide on events and can cover things from state elections to school events to American Idol competitions with viewpoints that their audience wants to hear.

Personally I am bubbling with ideas for the paper. To compliment both missions, I would like to create an online version of the paper. The purpose of the online edition would not be to republish online that which is already printed, but to publish exclusive content that we otherwise could not bring to the audience in a relevant manner. Activities and breaking news are primarily what I have in mind: 250-word summaries of sporting events published within 24 hours of their completion; previews of upcoming matches including interviews with coaches and players; activities’ announcements and current events (like, “Hey, in three days the construction company is going to close off the parking for the next year and a half”). Such content, because relevant, will bring readers, and for me, the adviser and teacher, providing that audience is the point.

Fittingly, I say to you as always, thanks for reading.


Newspaper on Flickr by: jamesjyu