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The most important meeting

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by Lindsay Coppens, adviser of The Harbinger, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA

Keep them separated.

That was my mentality when I first starting advising my high school’s newspaper. By “them” I meant the administration and the student editors.

By separated I didn’t mean student reporters shouldn’t interview administration (they are often invaluable sources), but I do think this mentality harmed the journalistic process in the long run. In my mind, keeping them separated was a way to protect student independence. We’re a publication with a limited public forum and no prior review, and although the administrators were generally supportive and respectful of the process, I wanted them to keep their hands off!

I now know this approach was flawed.

Another important part of the adviser’s role is to facilitate communication between the editors and administrators and to help staff members learn effective modes of communication.

Yes, an important part of the adviser’s role is to protect the scholastic press’s independence, but I’ve realized this separation-focused approach can be detrimental. An us-against-them mentality developed, and inevitably, because the paper is run by high school students who occasionally make mistakes, the principal would raise concerns about the publication’s product or process. These concerns would lead to meetings which often had an undercurrent of fear, anger and defensiveness. We would all feel stressed and at least a little afraid of the next call or email from the administration.

And then one day I woke up and realized at least some of this stress and fear could be my fault.

Another important part of the adviser’s role is to facilitate communication between the editors and administrators and to help staff members learn effective modes of communication.

I realized that publication life would be less stressful and student journalists would be more empowered if they met with the principal preemptively. We started a tradition of a back-to-school conversation with the overall goals of establishing respectful relationships, determining modes of effective communication, and gaining an understanding of mutual and differing goals.

This back-to-school meeting between the Editors-in-Chief, the school principal and myself usually lasts only about 45 minutes but it has drastically transformed our perceptions and understanding of each other.

Some of the talking points:

  • The editors’ roles, values, and why they love working on the paper
  • Goals for the year
  • The publication’s social and community role
  • Law and ethics (including forum status, why it’s essential that we do not have prior review, and the publication’s code of ethics)
  • The publication’s process (of not only reporting, but also a brief overview of fact-checking, editing, and what they do if they make mistakes)
  • The best ways for editors and administrators to communicate
  • What the principal will do if she receives concerns or complaints from a community member regarding the publication or if she has her own concerns
  • The principal’s questions
  • Any initial story ideas or topics the principal may want to share

During this meeting, I talk little and listen a lot. Often I take notes while the editors and principal talk. If needed, I help facilitate the conversation. I also want the administrator to understand my role as an adviser: that I am not an editor and I do not approve copy, but help editors coach their staff, communicate and organize effectively, and produce a publication they are proud of.  

Since we’ve started the tradition of this back-to-school meeting, the relationship between the principal and publication’s editors has been notably more productive and collegial. For example, when an article or editorial questions administrative decisions, there has been less kick-back and more understanding that questioning and reporting incisively are important parts of the publication’s role. Or when a parent recently demanded the principal reprimand a student journalist for expressing a view the parent didn’t agree with the principal not only defended the student’s right to expression but also immediately opened communication with the student editors.

This meeting is the first important step in having a positive year. Learning about where the editors are coming from helps the principal build trust that they are committed to producing good journalism. The principal is more likely to understand that scholastic journalism not only plays an important social and democratic role in the community but also that it is a learning experience.

However, one meeting is only the start of a conversation that continues to develop throughout the year. And while conflicts may arise, I’ve found that this initial dialogue focused on the objectives, process, and ethics of a free student press is by far the best way to begin.

 

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