The two classrooms-turned-newsroom of the student news website, The Central Trend, are a steady buzz of activity on a winter afternoon just before the final bell.
On the sports side, reporters on laptops put the finishing touches on ice hockey, wrestling and girls basketball stories. Across the room, Madison Szczepanski, managing editor of public relations, creates a new hallway poster that will tease an upcoming feature.
Adviser Ken George approaches a group of reporters and announces that Superintendent Dan Behm, who is filling in for athletic secretary Carol Sprys, is available to be interviewed. Krystal Koski grabs a notebook and pen, and after nobody volunteers to take photos, Editor-in Chief Reena Mathews gets out her phone and follows.
There are about 30 staffers on The Trend this year: news and sports reporters, photographers and graphic designers, plus social media and public relations managers. Everyone on staff writes, and many on staff do double duty as editors.
Reena, who shares the position with Hannah Kos, said she read the printed version of The Trend — now discontinued save a once-a-year edition for seniors — as a middle-schooler, when her older siblings brought copies home.
“I remember really liking it then,” she recalled, “and my mom would say ‘You’re going to do that when you get there.’”
Under Reena and Hannah’s direction, the Trend has operated this year more like a bona fide news organization than a high school class. That means stricter deadlines, more accountability and new series such as “Popping the Bubble,” which tackles current world events such as elections, mass shootings and net neutrality.
“It became a really big part of my life,” Reena said. “I didn’t foresee myself becoming so invested. But I am.”
All Hail Facebook Moms
A wall-size monthly calendar in George’s room breaks down by day what type of article is due and who is responsible to write it. New content — a half-dozen stories minimum — is posted every day, seven days a week. That’s 42 articles a week — at least.
Every staffer is required to produce at least two articles per week, and at least three sources are required for hard news articles. As for editing, the goal is that two people proofread every article.
“It definitely holds you to a standard,” Ashlyn Korpak said.
Added Krystal: “It’s also kind of high stress. When something newsy happens, one of us has to write a story about it, and it’s a lot of work to get it out by the next day with three sources.”
Story assignments and website and social media analytics are recorded daily on whiteboards and chalkboards that span the length of both classrooms: news and columns in one room, sports next door.
Their diligence is paying off with near double the reach and readership this year over last school year. Krystal, who is in charge of social media, also started this year a subscription email of new articles.
Reena said the goal is to have 100,000 views by the end of the school year. “We wanted to be better,” she said. “We are already halfway there and it’s only the end of December.”
“The Facebook moms love us,” said Irene Yi. “Mrs. Baldwin has like a million friends, and she shares almost everything. Mrs. Donovan is ‘Facebook mom’ of the school. She shares every single one of our posts.”
Also new this year is “Humans of FHC,” modeled after photoblog Humans of New York. Every reporter is required to post one Humans profile a week; the goal is to include every student in the school in The Trend. And they’re so serious about it, they keep a list and highlight each student’s name when it appears.
“We wanted variety for our writers and for our readers, so people want to write for us and want to read us,” Reena said.
Nisha Rajakrishna and Ashlyn are responsible for making sure a varied number of types of articles are published every day
“Last year there was a lot of last-minute ‘I don’t know what to write,’ and that brings quality down,” said Nisha. “This is our quality control.”
‘A Real Part of the Culture Here’
The first nine weeks of the 18-week introduction to writing for publication semester, adviser Ken George gives students a crash course in the “nuts and bolts of journalism.” From then on, he said, they learn by doing.
The second semester is advanced writing for publication, and that’s when students become full-fledged staff members. They write about new classes, school issues and events, and sports. There are editorials about administrative policies, columns about getting good grades — or not — and love, and growing up, and finding your way.
“What’s being put out is phenomenal, and 95 percent of it does not involve me,” George said. “The whole show is run by students. The bell rings and there’s a large group who just stay.”
George restarted Central High’s print newspaper in 1997, three years into teaching at the school. He had been on the newspaper staff as a high school student in Farmington, and worked as a stringer for the Livonia Observer and as a member of the sports staff at Albion College.
‘What’s being put out is phenomenal, and 95 percent of it does not involve me.’ – Ken George, adviser to The Central Trend
Central’s student newspaper, called Forest Edge until four years ago, produced four to 10 print issues per year. George said the print version was never timely, and didn’t have space for all students to write for every issue.
“And they were not being read,” he said. “We would work so hard for a month, we’d pass the paper out and by the end of the day they would be on the floor in the hallway. By the time the stories came out the events were weeks old.”
With today’s online-only version, he said, reporters go to an event, write the article and pass it to an editor, “and by midnight that story is up.”
They also know immediately what readers are drawn to and what they are not. With analytics, he said, “they get instant results; they can see who’s reading their work and how many are reading it.”
Like professional print journalists, there was resistance to going online, he said, but “it’s become a real part of our culture here. Parents go there to see what their children and their friends are up to, and students go there to read about their friends.”
The Central Trend staff is making their learning experience a learning experience for other high school journalists. Last summer, George took a few staffers to Lansing to speak at the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association conference.
“I think this class is as close as possible to the real world for students,” George said. “They are getting on-the-job training in reliability, problem-solving, leading people their own age. They are responsible to each other and for each other.
“I’ve had just a handful of kids go into journalism, seriously, but the success of so many of these kids is that they saw their first real-life experience in this class.”
‘Something That’s Thriving’
Sports Editor Jake Heilman is in his second year on staff. He manages 14 reporters who cover every sport at every level in the school — both home and away games — and even some college and professional teams. Everyone on The Trend sports desk also has his or her own blog.
Jake intends to make journalism his career. He has already secured an internship at a radio station in Lansing next year.
“It’s helped me grow a ton as a writer, and in personal relationships as well,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s exciting for me. I’m thinking of questions to ask as I’m watching the games.”
The most challenging aspect for Jake sounds, perhaps unsurprisingly, like the challenges of the head of a team: “Trying to get the best out of everybody. I just want to keep pushing them to keep our coverage not only good, but great.” He calls The Trend’s sports reporters “super bought-in and super driven.”
Irene Yi, who isn’t enrolled in the class because her schedule is already full, still contributes two stories a week.
“You definitely have to have a passion for writing,” she said. “You learn about yourself too. For me, it’s part of taking responsibility for telling people in the community what’s going on. A lot of our teachers have said to me that they get to know their students better.
“I think it’s really cool that we turned something that was fading into something that’s thriving.”