It’s lunchtime at North Toronto Collegiate Institute and a group of teenagers are debating their newsroom policy on anonymity.
“I think anybody should be able to be anonymous if they want to,” says 17-year-old Philip Ko, the contrarian driving the debate. “If their article is good, why not publish it?” The room buzzes with dissent. About 20 young journalists sit in an English classroom, packed lunches on their desks and the next print issue on their minds. One student wants to pen an anonymous op-ed about sexism in gym classes—but does that justify protecting her identity?
“I think if you have an opinion, you should own it,” argues Annie Doane, 17. “What if this person decides to write something anonymous, and it’s all completely wrong?”
These students are on the editorial board of Graffiti, the school newspaper. There are 37 students on the board—Graffiti attracts some of the keenest of the more than 1,200 students who attend the public school, located in Toronto’s Yonge and Eglinton area. The paper has a strong presence in the school; on days when it comes out, students get an extended homeroom period to read it.
In the past, the newspaper has let students stay anonymous when confessing to things that could damage their futures, like stealing or doing hard drugs, says Jessica Bulgutch, a teacher advisor. Does being frustrated about gym class pass muster? Ko mentions the op-ed could influence a teacher and negatively affect the student’s grades. “Shouldn’t we protect people against that?”
The meetings aren’t usually so heated, says co-editor-in-chief Chantelle Nejnec, 17, after the bell rings and the students hurry to their classes. But there are always energized discussions where the board members brainstorm story ideas, discuss issues, and craft their vision for the roughly 40-page newspaper they publish four times a year.
As professional newspapers shutter and shrink, there are still teenagers across Toronto putting out impressive publications while wrestling with some of the same challenges as the wider industry. High school newspapers can be invaluable places for students to grapple with ideas, amplify their voices, and receive first-hand training in media literacy.
At Graffiti, Baruch Zohar, a longtime teacher advisor, pushes students to question the status quo and pursue stories that matter to them. Recent editions included an article about students selling tests, a critique of the school’s award assembly, and pieces about media suppression in Turkey, the politics of Snapchat beauty filters, and the “unwritten rules” of lunch.
In 2017, Nejnec went undercover with teens who were buying fake IDs. She observed the process and surreptitiously asked the vendors questions, then surveyed fellow students on whether they had fake IDs of their own. When her story was published, Nejnec said some students and teachers were shocked.
“It was really crazy to see how many people just didn’t know about something that was so prominent in our school,” said Nejnec, who’s been writing for the paper since Grade 10. She likes the investigative side of journalism—gathering information first-hand, and knowing her facts are solid.
Students enjoy reading content they can relate to, says 17-year-old Madeleine MacIsaac-Sun, the editor-in-chief of Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School’s newspaper, the Mary Ward Planet. But they’re also politically active and passionate about what’s happening in the world. Recent editions of the Planet included reporting on school events and study tips, as well as pieces on NAFTA, provincial politics, and the #MeToo movement. “I don’t know one student that doesn’t care about what’s going on,” MacIsaac-Sun says.
“I don’t know one student that doesn’t care about what’s going on.”
“We try to write things that we ourselves would want to read,” says Planet art editor Yuki Tam, 17, as she meticulously designs a feature on the semi-formal dance. The Planet looks more like an arts magazine than a standard newspaper, and has a tradition of sharp visuals and creative design. Tam spends six to seven hours designing the cover illustration alone.
“Blood, sweat, and tears” go into each paper, says teacher advisor Nicole Powell, herself a former Mary Ward student and Planet photographer who still keeps copies of newspapers she helped create. “I love watching what these guys produce. Every time an issue comes out…I can’t tell you how proud I get.”
At R.H. King Academy in Scarborough, Kingsley Voice co-editors-in-chief Aarti Patel and Timur Islam say working at the school paper makes them think critically about the news they consume. “It opens your eyes to [the fact that] people write the news. It’s not just this magical thing that exists,” said Islam, who now finds himself critiquing professional newspapers’ layouts or noticing bias in articles.
MacIsaac-Sun thinks recent talk of fake news has prompted many of her peers to be more critical of what they read. She hopes her school paper helps with media literacy; student readers can have an example of something “genuine,” while writers experience the journalistic process of finding sources and checking facts.
In Ontario, some of the top high school publications are recognized at the Toronto Star’s annual high school journalism awards, which include 21 categories for print and online publications, from sports reporting and feature writing to electronic layout and editorial cartoons. The awards are open to the whole province, but schools in the Greater Toronto Area make up the bulk of entries, although numbers have begun to dwindle. In 2003, the Star reported that there were 1,363 entries from a total of 52 schools. In 2017, it received 620 entries from 20 schools. Sixteen schools entered in 2018.
High school papers generally require supportive administrations, and their existence often depends on dedicated teacher advisors. Other schools produce newspapers as part of a class, but at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, it all started with the students.
In 2011, Mahan Nekoui and Soheil Koushan founded Garneau’s The Reckoner in Grade 11, in the midst of a controversy over severe overcrowding at the school. Nekoui and Koushan were part of an enriched program at the school, which several people wanted relocated to alleviate the problem. Nekoui says students didn’t feel like they had a voice in the decisions. At the same time, he says, the school also lacked a sense of community. So he and a handful of friends in the enriched program started an online “underground” newspaper, named after a Radiohead song.
By the end of their first year, The Reckoner had won several Star awards (including best electronic newspaper), giving them the money—and legitimacy—they needed to expand into print. Nekoui, now a medical student at Harvard University, remembers the thrill of distributing that first newspaper after many long nights of planning.
“It really felt like we were able to do what we wanted to do, which was to give students something that they would actually care about, written by their friends,” he says.
These days, The Reckoner has a staff of more than 80 students, and was dubbed the “Meryl Streep of high school journalism awards” by the Star for its award-winning ways. The staff tries to report on everything they can in their school, says Varun Venkataramanan, the current editor-in-chief. The paper features student opinions, artwork, and creative writing, and their self-developed website has an athletics scoreboard and data visualizations. While print remains an integral part of The Reckoner’s operation, it has also continued to expand its digital presence. A few years ago, staff even made an app.
Venkataramanan scrolls through a piece he worked on, which gives a statistical breakdown of the 2016 U.S. election results through interactive maps and graphs. “This is my version of art,” he says, laughing.
Read the Reckoner‘s U.S. Presidential Election Breakdown here.
Reflecting the school’s diverse population has always been a priority for The Reckoner. Last year, the paper ran a series called “Coming to Canada,” in which students wrote about their experiences as immigrants. “I just want it to be an area where we can tell everyone’s story,” says Venkatamaranan, who took over as editor-in-chief the following year.
Since starting underground, The Reckoner has forged a stronger relationship with the school’s administration. But it’s still entirely student run—although administration has to see everything before it goes to print. But Venkatamaranan says his paper has a lot of freedom, more than at some other schools. “We’re allowed to be critical of things that are happening in the school itself,” he says.
Indeed, high schoolers don’t always have full freedom of the press. Content often has to be approved before publication, and there can be limits on what students can say.
“There’s always high school politics that go into what we can and can’t do as students.”
Graffiti’s teacher advisors encourage students to speak their minds and be critical. But they’re a school first and foremost, says Bulgutch; the paper can’t publish anything that would hurt other students and they have to be wary with stories involving teachers and administrators. That means certain things can’t get published, while others require a negotiation process between the school, teachers and the newspaper’s staff.
“There’s always high school politics that go into what we can and can’t do as students,” says Christopher Mohan, co-editor-in-chief of the Eye of the Tiger at Thornhill Secondary School. Mohan, 17, says his paper has a lot of freedom, and he’s glad to have supportive faculty and oversight. But high school is a small place, and ideally students wouldn’t have to deal with the potential awkwardness or backlash from teachers reading their published opinions, he says.
Mohan also has financial issues on his mind; high school newspapers aren’t immune to the grim realities of print journalism. His paper is struggling with debt, and has faced funding cuts from a student council that thinks print is unsustainable. This year, the Eye of the Tiger had to fundraise for four $750 print runs, through a mix of ad sales and rose, tea, and bake sales. They might eventually have to phase out their print edition and go online-only, but co-editor Isabell Pitigoi “really, really wants to avoid this.”
“We’re trying to get the community to understand that this newspaper, if they want it to continue, it needs to be supported.”
“I think there’s something special about having a physical copy,” says Pitigoi, who says the print edition makes the paper much more visible to the school community. “I think if that physical presence was lost then we would lose a lot of readership.”
For now, the editors are fighting to keep print alive. “We’re trying to get the community to understand that this newspaper, if they want it to continue, it needs to be supported,” says Pitigoi.
Downtown, at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, however, the Golden Falcon discarded its print edition a few years ago. The paper became increasingly expensive to print over the years, says staff advisor Edward Lee, who wasn’t sad to see print go. Online publishing afforded new possibilities for multimedia and audience interaction. “Was semi-formal a triumph or defeat?” screamed a banner on the Golden Falcon homepage in February. “Read the editorial soon.”
A screenshot from the Golden Falcon webpage in February, 2018.
Co-editor-in-chief Matthew Lindzon, 17, who runs the newly-updated website, says the paper has been trying hard to increase online readership, and the efforts have paid off—the site went from roughly 8,500 page visits in 2014 to about 90,000 in 2017 (Forest Hill Collegiate has less than 1,000 students).
The Golden Falcon promotes content through social media, publishes “Humans of FHCI” on their Instagram page, and strategically releases articles at different times throughout the week. They also use Instagram stories to poll student opinions, says Lindzon, who adds that not many of his peers use Facebook. But while online is their priority, the editors actually want to bring back the print edition to increase their readership. They’ve done some surveys of the student population, and readers want a physical copy.
On a Friday afternoon before Christmas break at R.H. King, it’s crunch time in the Kingsley Voice newsroom—the next issue comes out in a week. The room is a flurry of activity. Students scurry from screen to screen, negotiating layout and figuring out how to photoshop “creepy eyes.” The art directors stand on a table, trying to take the perfect shot of a student holding an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset for their cover story.
“I say this every time: I have no idea how this is going to happen, and yet somehow it will,” laughs staff advisor Brian Wilkinson, who says he’ll never let go of print; it’s just too valuable of a learning experience.
Students’ writing gets better when they realize they only have a certain amount of room to get to the point, and say what they want to say, Wilkinson says. Producing a newspaper is a tangible accomplishment students can hold on to, he adds. It’s not just a grade on paper they’ll toss in the garbage after class.
“It teaches them creative problem solving, deadlines and pressures, and also, ideally, the reward that comes from producing something of value,” he says.
“We look at it and we’re like, wow. We created this.”
Last year, one Kingsley Voice cover featured students of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds standing in the shape of a maple leaf, with a headline reading, “Where do you belong when people shout: ‘GO BACK HOME’? Patel, the current co-editor-in-chief, wrote the editorial, in which she described feeling conflicted about her cultural identity as a second-generation Canadian immigrant.
“In recent years I have heard racists tell people of colour like me to ‘go back to their country,’” she writes, “and it got me thinking, if I were to ‘go back to my country’ where exactly would I go?”
Patel’s article, “I’m Indian, I’m Canadian, I’m Proud,” resonated with her peers, she says. “I realized that a lot of students at R.H. King also struggle with their cultural identity because they come from immigrant families, and living in Canadian society sometimes we don’t know where we belong,” says Patel, who envisions a paper that reflects her school’s culture and connects its community.
Patel and Islam, her co-editor, want to create something students will be proud of. But putting out a newspaper can be gruelling, and a week before deadline, they’re stressed to the limit. Still, they find solace in knowing it will all be worth it once the issue hits newsstands.
“I feel like every time we’re done making a newspaper we all just look at it like it’s a masterpiece,” says Patel.
“We look at it and we’re like, wow. We created this.”
This piece was updated from the April print publication to include information about the 2018 Star awards, and Chantelle Nejnec’s story about fake IDs.