High school journalists take a crash course in newspaper economics


Journalism students and newspaper staffers at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School on November 28, 2012 in Bethesda, Md. The newspaper posters will be displayed during the school's fundraiser. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
December 2, 2012

Consuming news and information has been easier than ever for a generation of kids with e-readers, smartphones, tablets and laptops at their fingertips. But for some Montgomery County students, nothing beats an old-fashioned print newspaper.

Journalism students who produce the Tattler, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School newspaper, have been feverishly fundraising to resurrect the print version of their publication after going on hiatus in mid-October. They say they are dedicated to keeping what the school claims is the longest-running student newspaper in Montgomery County going — not just online, but also in ink on paper.

“There seemed to be a feeling among the students that online-only is second rate,” said Aaron Wildavsky, co-editor in chief of the Tattler with Marissa Sawicki. “There’s sort of a stigma.”

Wildavsky said the journalism students’ efforts to bring back the print newspaper — which first published in 1926 — isn’t less about the “principle of saving print journalism” and more a matter of giving the audience and community what it wants.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase English teacher and newspaper adviser David Lopilato has even paid out of his own pocket to support some editions of the Tattler in the past, but students realized that wasn’t a sustainable business model.

So they shifted gears, going from the reporting side of journalism to the business side, hoping to generate at least $5,000. While they’ve raised enough money to bring back a print edition on Dec. 7, they hope to raise enough to pay for newspapers through the end of the school year and possibly beyond.

The newspaper staff has been working the phones to get local businesses to buy ads, soliciting donations from parents and holding bake sales to raise money for the paper, which costs about $700 per edition. Students also recently sold tickets to a “thought-raiser and fundraiser” called “Polls, PACs and Pundits,” a panel discussion featuring reporters from The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CBS News.

Like many other newspapers around the country, the Tattler had trouble generating income during the recession and started a “weird cycle” around 2008, Lopilato said.

“The paper didn’t come out as often because they just didn’t have the revenue to do it,” Lopilato said. But “it’s hard to sell ads when you don’t come out regularly.”

The Tattler’s financial struggles have been a learning experience for the students, in ways they wouldn’t typically experience just writing news articles, Lopilato said.

“It’s been great for everyone involved to see what the bottom line looks like and what it takes to put out a paper of quality,” Lopilato said.

The Tattler’s staff isn’t the only one struggling to keep publications in print. High school newspapers around the country, like larger commercial newspapers, have seen their print editions struggle or disappear, said Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association.

Aimone said shrinking school budgets, the reluctance of small business to spend money on ads and the rising costs of producing newspapers are some of the major factors at play. But students might be clinging to print for more tangible reasons, Aimone said.

“It really is a magic moment when that paper comes out and a student walks through the halls and sees someone reading his or her story or editorial,” said Aimone, a former high school journalism teacher. “There’s a sense of accomplishment that you don’t get from looking at your Google Analytics.”

Sawicki, the Tattler’s co-editor, said that is a big reason why she wants to bring back the newspaper for publication every two weeks.

“Putting out the paper is the most rewarding thing ever,” Sawicki said.

While the Tattler has been struggling, Lopilato said students just aren’t ready to give up what others may consider a relic.

“Online editions present a lot of possibilities with Twitter feeds and videos, but for the same reason that Facebook can’t replace a yearbook, I don’t think an online school paper will replace a newspaper,” Lopilato said. “They love physically reading something that has them and their friends in it.”

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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