The News Ring: Building a Circle of Trust
As we prepare for the arrival of summer and begin reflecting on this extraordinary school year, COVID-19 has reinforced and made clear what educators already intuited: student well-being must be an essential aspect of our curriculum. We could think of no better educator to reflect on student well-being than our friend, colleague, and journalism teacher, Melinda Smith, whose newspaper and yearbook classroom is a special refuge for so many writers and a space to develop a growth mindset while also building resilience and empathy.
It starts with sitting in a circle, which I long ago dubbed the “news ring” after watching Woodward and Bernstein, Steven Glass and Katharine Graham sit in a circle while working as professional journalists, pitch story ideas, and interact with fellow reporters and editors. The energy of their editorial meetings, the air of both competition and cooperation and the exhilaration of knowing you had come up with a journalistic gem became palatable. Students, freshmen through seniors, can feel the energy of the news ring. They want to be a part of it, and once they are, they are hooked.
There are many things in my memory as a journalism student which are exciting. Most, however, will never replace the thrill of walking across The University of Texas campus, eyeing the latest issue of The Daily Texan and seeing the story I had written the night before with my byline on the front page. Certainly, it would not win a Pulitzer or even be picked up by a news service, but it was mine. And for an 18-year-old girl away from home for the first time, that was enough. Now, as a journalism teacher at an all-girls high school for almost two decades, I have tried to convey that satisfaction and excitement to the hundreds of students who have passed through my classroom, affectionately called 035.
For our newspaper staff, the world is literally our textbook. In our news ring, we freely discuss local, national and international events, not every day, but fairly often. We learn to hear other opinions and to respect those opinions. We learn that, for editorial quality, our tone and word choice are as important as remembering that AP style does not use the oxford comma. We learn to know our audience: what they would like to read, what would anger them, what would make them think. We learn that we are sometimes limited by what we can publish. We learn to check facts, to value honesty and transparency and to toughen our shells for the occasional criticism of some of our audience.
To the chagrin of English teachers, we disavow long paragraphs, mostly write in present tense, get rid of adverbs and most adjectives and keep sentences in active voice and short. Gradually, the girls learn that there are different ways of writing to different audiences and that all types have their place and their value. I tell the story of a former newspaper editor, an excellent student who, just learning to write journalistically, completed her history test in present tense and failed. Case in point: know for whom you are writing and their expectations. This may also translate into a lesson in life skills.
Teamwork is a must. We all depend on each other to get out several newspapers and a 400 page yearbook. Deadlines must be met. Layouts must be completed and submitted to the printers in consideration of their schedules and their available press time. Just as in most sports, it is obvious when someone has dropped the ball. That someone very seldom drops the ball twice. The blending of different types of people of different ages, possessing different interests becomes a reality when the goal of producing a final product is evident. While we all sometimes curse deadlines, complain about all the pressure, must backpedal when a source doesn’t come through and generally feel somewhat burned out, holding that final newspaper issue or that completed yearbook is regenerative. Again, I often think this translates into another life lesson.
At the first of this “unprecedented” year, a sophomore who had just joined the upperclassman newspaper staff stated an opinion of a story and immediately regretted sticking her neck out. Our senior editor smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry. This is a circle of trust.” Woodward and Bernstein would be proud of these girls.
Melinda Smith is in her 20th year of teaching Journalism. Her undergraduate work in journalism and English was done at the University of Texas in Austin and her graduate degree is in English Supervision and Curriculum from the University of North Texas. She has worked for several newspapers as an editor and reporter, done financial public relations for a Fortune 500 company and published free-lance pieces from restaurant reviews to travel features.