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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

In closing student newspaper, school abandons principles of journalism

Published: February 10, 2012
Section: Opinions

If administrators have their way, volume 51 will be the last for my high school’s newspaper.

Plans are underway to shutter Denebola, the paper that has informed members of the Newton South High School community in Newton, Mass., since the school first opened in 1960. The plan comes on the heels of the decision across town at Newton North High School to convert The Newtonite student paper to an online-only paper after 90 years in print.

These decisions have taken place behind closed doors and have not been subject to outside scrutiny. They are also flawed, cutting back on experiential learning opportunities without clear reason.

These papers do not deserve the same fate of the United Kingdom’s News of the World—during the last five years, Denebola has received top recognition at scholastic press competitions including from the New England Scholastic Press Association and from Suffolk University. The paper is the size of The Boston Globe and prints multiple pages in color. The quality has always surpassed that of other local school publications.

In fact, Denebola has a long history of important contributions to the school. As an independent paper funded completely with outside advertising revenue, the paper has always had a rare degree of freedom, often shedding that all important sunlight on school policies. When administrators installed security cameras hidden within fake smoke-detectors outside bathrooms in 2007, my peers and I on the paper revealed the story, resulting in new school surveillance policy measures.

A newspaper, after all, can have a vital function in fostering community debate. Schools that allocate resources to student newspapers signal that they take seriously the lessons of open inquiry that they teach.

Newton South administrators led by English Department Head Brian Baron argue that journalism is changing. The argument is that moving Denebola to an online format would be a step forward for the school in keeping with national journalism trends.

But, especially in a school environment, online news is not as effective. Journalism has suffered because traditional sponsors—advertisers—no longer consider print papers to be the best way to spread their message. But at a high school—or college campus for that matter—the school newspaper retains a clear monopoly as a source of news. Students lead busy lives, and the print newspaper accommodates them. They can pick up the paper around the school building, flip through and perhaps serendipitously land on an article they may never have thought to open in a Web browser.

Today, Denebola is vulnerable. George White, the paper’s long-term adviser, retired recently and Baron has taken over the newspaper. Baron, who has few ties to the newspaper, has less interest in seeing the paper as an institution continue.

But closing a newspaper sets a dangerous precedent. Like at Brandeis, Newton South has two newspapers and, if the administration can shutter one, the other is similarly at risk.

There is no doubt: Student newspapers cost money. But Denebola always managed to fund itself, even through the recession, without receiving more than a small stipend for the adviser from taxpayers. When I led Denebola, we raised more than $25,000 in advertising. Advertisers continue to be happy to fund the newspapers and, were the city to allow it, advertisers would likely be able to pay the stipend as well.

Cutting Denebola has proven much too easy. The adviser is not invested in the paper, the administration has not suggested a better solution and the community has not even been consulted. And, no surprise, the newspaper has not even examined the issue in its own pages.

But, as an alum of Newton South High School and as an advocate of student journalism generally, I know that ending Denebola is a mistake. Students will miss an opportunity to engage their community, to think critically about the decisions made about their education and to ask those questions only a member of the press has the standing to ask.

The very notion of viable journalism suffers if a newspaper as economically stable and award-winning as Denebola is at risk. One question remains: Will the residents of Newton—and the journalism community at large—remain silent?