In 1721, 16-year-old newspaperman Ben Franklin did it all. He wrote for, edited, typeset and printed his brother's newspaper, the New-England Courant.
In 1984, journalism students at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke do the same things, and more. Their school paper, the Bear Facts, is the only one in Virginia entirely student-produced, they say. Students handle not just the main text, including photography, paste-up, and folding, but also advertising sales, design and distribution. The process culminates in a nationally recognized twice-monthly distribution rate that begins each semester on the first day of school.
The Bear Facts sallies from a sprawling, self-sufficient, technologically advanced journalism room, beyond anything that Ben Franklin, also the father of electricity, could have imagined. It holds a Compugraphic typesetting system with three word- processing terminals and three Kaypro II computers, a trendsetter Photo-Typesetting unit, three offset presses, darkroom, conference room, and library. Twelve-year Lake Braddock journalism teacher Patrick McCarthy, 41, supervises the room, his student staff and their newspaper with obvious pride.
"We do a real newspaper here." he boasts. "It's not a game, or a high school show. Everyone here is 100 percent dedicated. We never miss a deadline. Ever."
Such dedication earned the Bear Facts last year's top high school newspaper award from Columbia University School of Journalism (along with McLean, Robinson and West Springfield) and from the Virginia High School League (with Annandale, Hayfield, McLean, J.E.B. Stuart, Washington-Lee and Groveton), according to league program director Michael Porter.
McCarthy, with five separate classes totaling and officially limited to 150 people, heads the largest high school journalism program in the state, with five different courses. He leaves most newspaper-related decisions to an unusually large student editorial board.
The board lists, among others, two editors-in-chief, a business managing editor, news editor, sports editor, photography editor, music editor, editorial editor, even an ombudsman. Editorial board positions for each school year are democratically selected by the previous year's staff in an annual high school journalism seminar at Columbia University School of Journalism. Those selected say they earn their assignments the hard way.
"I came here because I wanted to learn everything," claimed Brenda Dimmel, 14, who does a little bit of everything at the paper. "I enjoy the inner workings of a newspaper, and putting things together. This year I've learned a lot."
Said advertising manager Wendy Levitz, 17. "My job is mak- ing sure the ads are done on time. And usually there's no time left."
Advertising, in fact, provides most of the newspaper's budget, a major distinction for a high school periodical. Local merchants buy space in the publication, which has a mailed circulation of more than 3,600 homes. The newspaper's frequent, timely appearance guarantees a loyal following among the families of Lake Braddock students. Readers remain topically well informed about school academic, athletic, bureaucratic and social events. One issue even featured the Fairfax County Public School lunch menu for the year.
According to McCarthy, writers on the newspaper must follow strict stylistic guidelines. Story leads, for example, are limited to 35 words, cannot begin with "the," and cannot contain the name "Lake Braddock." A proofreading computer checks for punctuation, spelling and grammar, identifying lapses with the message, "You can't do that." McCarthy says this rigid regimen has helped graduates succeed in the news business.
As in nonscholastic newspapers, the Bear Facts' intrepid young journalists continually seek the elusive exclusive. The Lake Braddock beat, while short on political scandal, has nonetheless yielded an occasional scoop, such as the recent hiring of a new football coach.
When the school's previous coach resigned, the Bear Facts found out who his successor would be. Sports editor Keith Crennan, 17, then interviewed with the man without revealing that he knew the coach was anything more than a finalist for the job. On the day that the decision became official, the paper put out a special one-page edition, one day ahead of every other local sports page.
"It's kind of nice to be able to scoop The Post," McCarthy said.