CENTERBURG – If Cate Wheeler is being completely honest, she didn’t expect much from this year’s Ohio Scholastic Media Association awards banquet.
The Trojan Crier, Centerburg’s student newspaper, had only seven writers on staff this year. The editorial board (which included Wheeler, co-editor-in-chief) made the decision to cut monthly issues from 12 pages to eight pages. They chose quality over quantity, advisor Karen Allen said, at the risk of winning fewer awards.
And they were competing against some of the biggest schools in the state; Lakota East (Cincinnati), Olentangy Liberty, and GlenOak (Canton) were among the fray. Lakota East, for example, is roughly eight times bigger than Centerburg (based on student population). Its student magazine, Spark, has 77 staff writers and a five-figure budget.
So when the awards banquet proceeded at this year’s OSMA conference, and the Trojan Crier still hadn’t been called yet, Wheeler’s mind began to race.
“Is this possible?” she remembers saying to herself. The association announced third place, second place, first place…
“Then they announced All-Ohio and said our name,” Wheeler said Wednesday, still amazed over a week later. “We were all kind of flabbergasted. It was obviously very rewarding and we were super excited about it, but it was totally unexpected.”
The Trojan Crier took home its sixth All-Ohio award on April 14 at Kent State University, which hosted this year’s convention. Despite having fewer staffers than in years past, the paper earned high marks from out-of-state judges, based on the quality and quantity of the product for a school Centerburg’s size.
Only three high school newspapers in the state earn All-Ohio distinction; the other two this year were Lakota East and Bexley. In total, individual Crier contributors and staff members earned 33 awards in pre-judged categories and in competitions held at the convention. That included superior ratings for Lula Burke, Karly Jacklin, Elise Tucker and Kristy Vargo.
“It’s nice to see that our kids, from a small school, can do that in a competition with students from really large schools,” Allen remarked.
Last Wednesday, the Crier staff hosted a celebratory get-together during the lunch hour. They served cupcakes and invited school administrators, teachers and students, as a way to thank them for their support of the paper.
Ryan Gallwitz, the high school principal, said the district is “just super proud” of the Crier staff, which annually competes with some of the top student papers in the state. They’re led by Allen, formerly a professional reporter, who works tirelessly to keep the school’s journalism program strong. Many students write for the Crier after completing her Intro to Journalism class, intended for freshmen and sophomores.
Since Allen came aboard in 2003, the Crier has become involved with OSMA, the state’s only high school press association. Allen, an OSMA board member, said the Crier became more competitive as the years went on. The paper earned its first All-Ohio award in 2009 and has won five more since.
This year’s staff was focused on regaining All-Ohio status after slipping to first place last year. Wheeler was one of five seniors to anchor the publication, alongside co-editor-in-chief Elise Tucker.
OSMA judges only accept stories from the first half of the school year, which makes the competition particularly challenging. Still, the Crier took home a bevy of trophies.
Of the 33 individual awards won, 18 were given ratings of ‘excellent’ and 14 were ‘honorable mention.’ Four projects earned the state’s highest rating, ‘superior.’
One was Vargo’s profile of senior Madeleine Watson, who is headed to Cornell next year on a gymnastics scholarship. Two of Tucker’s opinion pieces – one on voter rights and another on public outreach – won ‘superior’ ratings, as did the November episode of Prior Crier, the newspaper’s online video show (anchored by Jacklin and Burke).
These projects were submitted in January, Allen said, and judged by instructors at the high school and college level from neighboring states.
When it came to awards for overall newspaper production, judges considered coverage, writing, editing, photography, graphics, design, and editorial leadership. In awarding the Trojan Crier All-Ohio status, judges said the paper “demonstrates strong journalism through news stories that are factual, feature stories that (are) of good human interest, sports features that highlight the sport through the athletes, elementary coverage that is unique, and opinion articles that call for change and evoke thought.”
According to Wheeler, last year’s first-place finish made this year’s result even sweeter.
“We were very excited this year to kind of get back up to that ranking, just because we knew we could achieve it and we had been there before,” the senior said. “We were excited to just see if we could maintain that level of excellence they were looking for.”
More than just an extracurricular
Before the trophies and the banquets, however, few see the long hours Crier staff members put into making the paper one of the best in the state.
With only seven staff members, each issue is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. Writers often have multiple bylines in each edition, and they also take their own photos. The editing process is rigorous, too. Each story goes by a section editor, an editor-in-chief, and Allen has the final say. In the week before an issue comes out, staff members will spend hours editing and laying out the paper after school.
It’s an entirely different experience than at bigger schools like Lakota East, Allen said. With 77 staff members, each student there has a specific role. Some sell advertisements, some take pictures, and some write (and given the competition to get into the magazine, many stories don’t make it). At the Trojan Crier, staff members do all of the above.
“Everybody has to do everything,” Allen said, “so they get experience with all phases of journalism.”
That’s quite a time commitment for some of the staff members, however, Allen noted. Wheeler and Tucker are both three-sport athletes who are involved in various extracurriculars on the side. Reporting and editing for a state-recognized publication isn’t easy, Wheeler said, but they make it a priority.
“I mean, we’re working on this every day and we’re in here when we have our other classes and things,” Wheeler said. “It’s a lot of work, especially for just that many people to handle.”
The hard work pays off, though, as Gallwitz said students look forward to the final product. It’s something the whole high school is proud of, he added.
“They report fairly, accurately,” Gallwitz said. “They just do a wonderful job.”
The Crier isn’t afraid to push the envelope with its reporting, either. Just this year, two staff members conducted a survey that led to an investigative piece on the school’s vaping problem. Crier staffers shed light on the prominence of vaping and JUULing at Centerburg High School, and they wrote about how district leaders plan to combat the issue.
Reporters have also written about campus violence, the dangers of digitized self-imaging, and hallway congestion.
Staff writers believe their reporting prompts positive change in the school, and Gallwitz agrees. He recalled an instance several years ago when Crier staffers came to him with an idea for how to fix the high school’s one-hour delay schedule. They claimed the current schedule caused a discrepancy in class times, and they offered a solution.
“I looked at it and I was like, ‘That’s a lot better than what I made. Thank you.’ And we implemented it,” Gallwitz said. “There are times when they have great ideas and we listen, and we try to work with them.”
Unlike some schools in Ohio, the Trojan Crier is not under prior review. This means that it is written and edited by students (with Allen’s help), and it is not seen by school administrators before it is published.
Reporters at the paper feel empowered to report accurately and express their opinions, Gallwitz said. He believes they serve a vital function in the school and the community at-large.
“I get emails from the different staff members, ‘Hey, can we come talk to you about this? We have a question about that,’” Gallwitz said. “And they’re excited that they’re empowered to have a voice and to have real conversations about issues that either impact them directly – policy issues, policy concerns – and they take their research very serious, and they’re empowered and they enjoy it.”
‘Pushy in a good way’
Being a part of the Trojan Crier staff teaches students important life skills, such as communication, persistence, and the ability to meet deadlines. Wheeler, who plans to study environmental and humanitarian engineering at Miami University next year, said participating in student journalism at CHS “helped me to just be a more well-rounded person.”
“Not only does it improve your writing skills, because that’s a huge part of it and that’s super important for job applications and applying for colleges later on, but you also learn a bunch of skills just about working with a team,” Wheeler said. “I think it’s super important.”
Vargo, a four-year Crier contributor, said her experience in journalism has taught her “to be pushy in a good way.”
“You’ve gotta get your sources,” she said. “You’ve gotta know what questions to ask people.”
Wheeler hopes Centerburg’s journalism program will continue to thrive, even though it has faced staffing challenges in recent years. Before College Credit Plus courses were implemented, Allen said her staff grew to 18 members. Now, she said, more students are taking classes outside the high school, and they have less time to invest in the student newspaper.
“From that small pool that we start with, then you take out the ones that are going to College Credit Plus and you don’t have very many,” Allen said.
The good news, however, is this: the students who do want to write for the paper are often dedicated to maintaining its all-state standards.
“The ones that you get are generally pretty committed, because they have made the choice to be involved in journalism,” Allen said. “And so this year, we have just had some kids with very high ability.”
Heading forward, Allen is optimistic. While the Crier staff will graduate five seniors, many of whom wrote for the paper all four years, she expects to have a new wave coming in. For the first time in two years, she’ll be able to teach her Intro to Journalism course next year, as enough students expressed interest this spring.
Like any successful business or sports dynasty, the Crier will find a way to keep pushing. Reporters may graduate, but the goals will stay the same: report accurately, report fairly, and compete at the state level.
“We set high standards – both I do, as an advisor, and the editors do,” Allen said. “We’ve built a culture of expecting high standards and the kids work really hard to maintain those.”