Steinbrenner newspaper delivers timely news on a budget
By B.C. Manion
If readers want to read a story by the staff of the Oracle at Steinbrenner High, their best bet is to check for an online version.
Indeed, that may be their only opportunity to see the piece: Just a select number of stories make it into the school’s print publication.
The newspaper’s model is based partly on a desire to deliver timely news and partly on economics.
Online publication can save printing costs but poses other issues, said Wayne Garcia, executive director of the Florida Scholastic Press Association. Staffers need the technical capability to create websites and handle access issues and the ability to ensure that content is secure, Garcia said.
“The vast majority (of high school newspapers) are still print,” Garcia said, but, “there is talk of going online only.”
At Steinbrenner, the Oracle staff understands the challenge of paying for the print publication. The newspaper is self-sustaining, which requires students to sell advertising to cover printing costs.
It’s not easy.
“I’m the business manager, and we never have any money, ever,” said Savanna Peterson, of the scramble to cover the $700 or so printing tab.
Jake Bittle, a junior who writes reviews, said he feels Peterson’s pain, although he doesn’t sell ads anymore. “My least favorite thing is having to listen to the stress that the ad people have to go through,” he said.
Getting local businesses to advertise is a challenge, especially when larger publications compete for the same ad dollar, said Kyle Dunn, the newspaper’s editor in chief. It’s especially difficult when businesses are struggling, he said.
The newspaper sells online advertising, but as an add-on for its print deals.
“Not enough people read our online edition to merit pay-per-clicks,” Dunn explained.
Adviser James Flaskamp said some parents question why students have to sell advertising, but it gives students a strong dose of reality.
“If we don’t have the money in the account, we can’t go to print,” Flaskamp said.
When the newspaper added its online model this year, it reduced the number of issues it prints from eight to four. On the up side, online news is more timely. The staff frequently updates the online version, with Jeff Odom, the sports editor, known for constantly churning out fresh content.
With fewer issues, the print version becomes a “best of” edition, chock full of good work.
“What goes into the print edition is a mixture of what’s timely and what’s most prominent,” Dunn said.
The hybrid delivery mirrors today’s news industry. The vast majority of newspapers publish online, have a print product and update their online stories.
The Oracle also has a level of autonomy that goes beyond what’s possible for some high school publications. While some principals require prior review of the newspaper before it goes to press, that isn’t true at Steinbrenner.
The newspaper’s staff confers with administrators on occasion on sensitive stories. But in those cases, administrators generally just want to be sure the stories are accurate, fair and balanced, Flaskamp said.
“It’s really one of those situations where they trust us, based on our track record. They trust the kids to do what they need to do and to be ethical about it and to be accurate,” Flaskamp said.
“I have to applaud our administration for allowing that to happen. At so many schools where the administrators don’t allow that to happen, the kids aren’t really engaging in journalism, they’re engaging in public relations for the school,” Flaskamp said.
Garcia said it’s not uncommon for high school newspapers to print without prior review, but added, “the majority of publications have some level of review.”
In school newspapers without prior review, Garcia said, trust has been established between administrators and the newspaper’s adviser, and the principal has an understanding of the First Amendment.
Oracle staffers come up with ideas in class, figure out angles to pursue and consider visuals and design to give the story its best presentation.
“I’m a big proponent of the conversational pitch, almost Socratic method of just saying, ‘Why do you think such-and-such is the proper angle to go about with this story, what do you think is the merit of this story?’ ” Dunn said.
Dunn doesn’t believe in top-down decision-making.
“I can’t know everything that’s going on in school, which is why we have the diverse staff that we do,” Dunn said. Sometimes a staffer pitches an idea and Dunn questions its relevance until the rest of the staff reacts by outlining reasons for going after the story. In those cases, Dunn said, he’s happy to acknowledge he’s wrong.
The best stories come from paying attention to campus chatter, said Natalie Barman, the paper’s opinion editor. “A lot of our story ideas are generated from listening, just hearing what’s going on,” she said.
In choosing center spreads, the staff bases decisions “less on timeliness and more on hard-hitting stories that affect teens today,” said Erica Everett, who edits the two-page spreads.
In one issue, for instance, the centerpiece package explored body image and how people perceive themselves in today’s society. Another focused on campus traffic safety.
Megan Varde, who works on graphics, said she asks these questions: “Does this appeal to readers? Is it easy to read? Is it easy to understand and does it go with the story?”
Flaskamp said he’s lucky to work with the Oracle staff.
“I’ve been blessed with this group of kids. They are fantastic. They all work really, really hard,” he said. “You have to love it enough to put in the hours.”