Thoughts for Thursdays: New Voices

By Kelcey Caulder, Outreach Intern for the Student Press Law Center

Educational institutions have long played an instrumental role in preparing children for the responsibilities of adulthood, teaching them the ability to be self-sufficient and the skills necessary for civic engagement in a democratic society. With almost 2 million students enrolled in Georgia public schools, no other branch of government offers such regular interaction between citizens and the state.

Schools have an obligation to demonstrate firsthand the importance of constitutional values like free speech. And the best way of teaching these values is by allowing students to use their voices to discuss and question contemporary political issues — the exact speech so many administrators have fought to keep out of schools.

New Voices USA is a movement to provide a pathway for public high schools and colleges to reclaim their duty as teachers of civic virtue by passing state legislation that would give young people the legally-protected right to gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern without fear of administrative retribution.

Eight states explicitly protect students’ freedom of expression. Most recently, North Dakota passed a bipartisan New Voices law last year. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota spoke on the Senate floor on March 11 about the success of the legislation: "I ... encourage all the members in this chamber to examine what happens at home with students' First Amendment rights, to provide leadership to promote those rights in their state and to potentially look at how we can reverse the Hazelwood decision so that we can grow a more confident, a more educated and a more diverse population for our future." 

Heitkamp’s notion that protecting the freedom of expression in schools across the country would foster a more confident and educated electorate is undeniable. The social standards we aspire to have their best chance of taking hold in public schools.

Georgia students deserve the chance to receive a true education in journalism. Our high school journalism programs have the unique opportunity to begin students on a path of success from a young age. Allowing student journalists to speak their minds about issues that concern them, and teaching them how to do so appropriately, should be a cornerstone in scholastic programs where students are being taught, many for the first time, about their rights as members of the press.

We see that when you give students the opportunity to learn best practices while in school, they are better prepared for the futures that await them. And that is why a New Voices bill is so essential in Georgia. We must uphold the standard of excellence that we have already set in place for our journalism students and educators by guaranteeing a safe environment for speech.

The New Voices movement has taken root in about 20 states, with active bills in Missouri, Rhode Island, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska. If you are interested in getting involved with the Georgia campaign, please contact Carolyn Carlson at or Kelcey Caulder at

New Voices busts common myths about regarding administrative censorship here.

Find more information about new voices and how to get involved here. 


Thoughts for Thursday: Sunshine Week

By Jenny Alpaugh, GSPA Student Assistant

Happy Sunshine Week!

And no, I’m not just referring to the glorious sunny weather that has graced Georgia, or at least Athens, this week. Sunshine week is national initiative to promote conversation about freedom of information and transparency in government, both of which are very important to journalists.

Sunshine week began as Sunshine Sunday in 2002 when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors wanted to respond to efforts by some Florida Legislators to create new exemptions to the state’s public records laws. Many of which would make it more difficult for journalists to perform their essential job of being watchdogs of the government.

Three years later, Sunshine Week was launched by the American Society of News Editors. It is a non-profit and non-partisan initiative that is celebrated in mid-March every year.

Although it is a week created by journalists, it is important for everyone. We all have the right to know what our government is doing and the motivations that lie behind those actions. If we find out that there are too many closed-door meetings or suspicious money trails it is important to investigate. We can do this by taking advantage of the access to information from the federal government that the Freedom of Information Act provides us.

Journalists play the important role of often being the ones to spend the hours necessary digging through paperwork and data to uncover questionable acts by government officials. Being a journalist isn’t always easy, but it’s immensely important to continue to push past barriers to uncover the truth.

Celebrating Sunshine Week can be as easy as beginning your journalism class with a discussion of about the importance of open government. Discuss ways that your students could use the Freedom of Information Act to dig deep into a story. And encourage your students to celebrate Sunshine Week in their own way by exploring their rights to information about the government. 

You can find more information about this week at 

Thoughts for Thursday: New Opportunity

By Jenny Alpaugh, GSPA Student Assistant

In the past, GSPA members have received a Weekly Wednesday email. These served mainly as a way of disseminating advice from current GSPA student assistants or the GSPA director, or for addressing important aspects of student journalism, like the impact of the first amendment. This year we are switching things up a bit and will now be sending out "Thoughts for Thursday" bi-weekly starting today. Occasionally we will use this as a way to keep you all updated on important information and upcoming deadlines, but we also want to open these up to you. We want to hear what your high school journalism program is doing! We encourage you to submit a piece of writing for Thoughts for Thursdays about:

  • New tools your students are using
  • Important skills for student journalists
  • Helpful tips related to student journalism
  • An update on exciting things your students have accomplished
  • Any information that would be useful to fellow journalism advisers

All of you have something to contribute to the collective knowledge of journalism advisers in Georgia, and we hope that this can be one way we can help to facilitate the spread of this information. 

We also open up Thoughts for Thursdays for your student editors to write in the style of the past Weekly Wednesdays written by student assistants. We want to hear about obstacles they have overcome in the newsroom and ways they have developed their leadership. This provides students with a chance to help build their portfolios, as Thoughts for Thursdays will also be published in the next month's bulletin. 

To submit a written piece send it to with the author's name, title and school at the top. Pieces should be about 300-500 words and are subject to editing for clarity by the GSPA director or GSPA student assistants. Please send it by the Friday of the week before you want it to be shared. If your Thoughts for Thursday is chosen to be shared we will notify you the Monday of the week it will be sent out to the listserv.

We are looking forward to reading your thoughts!

The Weekly Wednesday: Free Speech

By Jenny Alpaugh, GSPA Student Assistant

When I was little, I would climb on top of our table and tell my mom no to whatever she was asking me to do. I knew living in America meant I had this thing called the freedom of speech, so I took that to mean I could say no to my mom whenever I wanted. Even though my mom didn’t share this view, it is true that the freedom of speech is granted to all Americans in the first amendment of the constitution

It’s difficult for us to imagine what life would be like without freedom of speech. For those of us who have spent our lives in the United States, we have never really had to fear for our lives because of something we’ve said. So it’s easy for us to take this freedom for granted.

But this ability to speak our minds without fear of imprisonment is essential to our work as journalists. In many ways, journalists represent this ideal of free speech. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were able to break the Watergate scandal, Ida Tarbell was able to write her expose the Standard Oil Company and Upton Sinclair brought to light the horrible conditions in the meatpacking industry all under the protection of free speech.

There’s a reason why the tragedy of journalists being beheaded occurs. Journalists are a symbol of free speech and equality and these gruesome killings try to squash this spirit and these ideals.

As journalists, it is our responsibility to continue to push the boundaries of free speech, and to push back when this freedom is infringed upon. It is our duty to make sure that journalists who are killed do not die in vain.

This week or any other week, make freedom of speech a topic of discussion. Talk about why it’s important and what high school journalists can do to effectively take advantage of this right. And remember, this is a freedom we should never take for granted.

The Weekly Wednesday: How To Deal With All The Feels {in a Newsroom}

by Srishti Mishra, GSPA student assistant

Rambling tales of a teenage journalism from a passive-aggressive twentysomething.

(Sighs wistfully) I remember my days of participating in an editorial staff room. To put it best is like an episode straight out of The Newsroom: Emotions run deep. Tensions run high. Deadlines run your life up until the 59th minute of the 11th hour.

And if you’re a "passive-aggressive overanalyst" like me, there will be many times when all that runs through your mind is, “coulda woulda shoulda." So how exactly do you deal with cranky colleagues and demanding advisers in midst of the organized chaos that is high school journalism?

Truth is, there is no right way to deal. Here’s why…

An editorial staff is made up of multiple types of personalities. Every staff member handles criticism differently. Probably due to individual perspective, every staff member has a different level of commitment to the editorial staff. And on a broader scale every staff member has a life outside of the newsroom that somehow collides with their editorial world and manages to wreak irreversible havoc. Every staff member has a different way of how they balance their dedication to high school journalism along with their litany of priorities in life. So here are some ways to deal with this dilemma:

  • Let It Go- In the lyrical words of Frozen’s Elsa, "let it goooo let it gooooo turn away and close the doooor!" As cheesy as it sounds, letting it go is probably the best option considering the fast-paced environment you’re working in.  There’s no time to hold grudges (especially against people you’ll be working with for a few semesters) so it’s monumentally healthier for your emotional well-being to forgive and forget rather than to dwell. But let’s also not forget that letting it go is one of the most difficult pieces of advice to follow, especially if you’re sensitive or emotionally invested in the particular situation. However it is the most rewarding choice because a lot of petty arguments are avoided this way and you’ll come out of the newsroom with more friends than enemies. And here’s a lesson best to learn early: in the journalism (and generally in the professional world) circuit, networking is everything.
  • Raise Your Voice- Speak up. If you didn’t like the edits your adviser made to that one draft of the one article or you didn’t like how rude that one fellow staffer was on that one day, say something! It is better to address the situation head on than to wait it out or just not say anything at all. Disclaimer: choose this method only if it matches your personality. If you are non-confrontational person or a “people-pleaser” (ahem me) THIS WAY OF DEALING WILL FAIL YOU. I am not trying to say this in a “I-told-you-so” kind of way but more in a “it-will-backfire-and-blow-up-in-your-face” kind of way. I say this mainly because somebody’s feelings will get hurt when succumbing this level of honesty, so proceed with caution.
  • Internalize It- Do not do this. I repeat DO. NOT. DO. THIS. Even it if seems like the higher road to keep it to yourself in order to avoid causing a scene worse than a Berenstein Bears’ gimmebaby, you will regret it. Especially because by internalizing your emotions they will either a) get continuously bottled up inside until it erupts at an inopportune time or b) you’ll end up lashing out at others because you low key resent not addressing your feelings in that moment in time. Here’s a secret: I can assure you that I’ve done both during my time as a yearbook staffer.

From personal experience, I can tell you that working on an award-winning yearbook staff was anything but a walk in the park. In my opinion it was more like running with the bulls in Spain during the festival of San Fermin – or at least what I picture that feels like. There wasn’t a day that went by where I questioned whether my passion for local journalism was worth putting up with an elitist adviser that made reporting to The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated character portrayal for those of you that are “pop uncultured”) look like a dream job and staff members so catty it would put Lindsay Lohan’s squad of vapid frenemies in Mean Girls to shame- or at least that’s what it felt like for me because I was considered the outcast of my journalism class. Did I mention we were an all-female staff? Yeah envision the overabundant levels of estrogen flowing around our editorial floor.

Anyways back to my anecdote: Although I chose the road I told you not to travel, I definitely regret choosing that road. Till this day I wish I would’ve followed Elsa’s advice and let it go because the effects of internalizing my feelings came at the cost of sinking into a borderline state of depression every time I walked into my adviser’s classroom, and as a result looking for excuses to get out of the classroom because the editorial environment felt so mentally suffocating. But most importantly my greatest defeat in internalizing my feelings about that class was being unable strike up a sense of camaraderie with a single yearbook staffer in spite of all the cliques in that class. Fortunately I currently attend college with a handful of them and (to my pleasant surprise) we all run in similar friend groups. So I am also here to testify that there is hope for friendship outside the editorial room!

But if I, The Anomaly, could survive the dog-eat-dog world that is high school journalism, you definitely can too! Just remember Elsa’s voice the nanosecond you start to feel your blood pressure rise… Because I sure wish I had.

The Weekly Wednesday: Uncensored

By Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

Censorship never worked for me.

Growing up, every time I was told I couldn’t read/watch/listen to something, I always figured out a way to access that material. My interest in the subject matter did not matter — if it was banned, I wanted it. When rap group 2 Live Crew’s 1989 album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” started to get pulled from shelves, I rushed to the record store to secure my copy … and I hated rap. When Henry and June became the first movie to garner an NC-17 rating in 1990, I snuck a rental copy out of the video store … and I hated dramas. And when the 1990s movement started to remove from school curriculums classic novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye, I borrowed those books from the library … and I hated reading. Consumption of all the censored material has broadened my horizons, reinforced my faith and sense of self and made me realize that not everyone is like me (or has had it as easy as I have).

Over the years, I've engaged in many debates with more conservative family members and friends about censorship, but this time from the perspective of a parent. As the father of an 11-year-old, middle school boy, the issue of censorship often hits home. His interests are beginning to expand beyond Nickelodeon shows, comic books and the “safe” rock music I’ve put on his iPod. Now he’s inquiring about “The Walking Dead,” reading “The Kite Runner” and has developed an interest in rap, specifically Dr. Dre. And I love it! Each piece of art teaches him something about society. “The Kite Runner” has led to discussions about life in other countries and the how fortunate we are (through pure luck) to be American. The lyrics of Dr. Dre has led to discussions about how life is often different for black youth growing up in poverty. And “The Walking Dead” … honestly, I’m still trying to figure that one out. But I never attempt to squash his natural curiosity by “banning” him from reading/watching/listening certain things. Like me as a child, I know he’s too smart and curious for that. I can tell him, “no,” but the minute I leave the room his natural curiosity will lead him to the obtain the taboo piece of art.

Unfortunately, censorship continues to this day. Segments of the population still believe that banning content deemed controversial by a set of unwritten standards and directly or indirectly suppressing a child’s curiosity is somehow makes society better. Already this school year, book censorship has made national headlines. In Florida, a high school pulled “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” because the book — about an autistic boy investigating the death of a neighborhood dog — contains “atheistic beliefs.” A parent in Tennessee is protesting the reading of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” — a nonfiction book describing how one woman’s cells has led to many medical innovations — calling the book “pornographic.” A study by the American Library Association (ALA) found that a vast majority of the books being banned feature a central character that is a “minority” in society. And books written by minorities are disproportionately banned than those written by white authors.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the ALA has deemed this week “Banned Books Week.” This marks a perfect time for a high school journalist to explore censorship within the school walls. What books, if any, have been banned from your school? What is the reason behind the censorship? Do the banned works feature minority characters or are they written by minority authors? Read the books. You may find that the censorship has more to do with race, religion and sexuality than it does with bad language and racy content. 

Then write the story … unless of course it gets censored.

The Weekly Wednesday: The Formula

By Jenny Alpaugh, GSPA Student Assistant

Introduction. Three supporting paragraphs. Conclusion. This formula is drilled into the minds of students as they learn how to write. This is the formula that will help them pass the writing test and the SAT writing section. But it is not a formula for how to be a good journalist.

I knew I was a good writer when I began my first journalism class in high school, but I did not know that I was not yet a good journalist. Writing journalistically was different than any kind of writing I had ever done before for any of my classes. 

It was heartbreaking to receive my first draft of an article back with what seemed like hundreds of edits. But it was also a good wake-up call. If I wanted to succeed as a high school journalist I would have to learn how to write like a journalist. 

So I began to read as much journalism as I could. I scoured my house for old magazines and tried to absorb as much information as I could. This helped me to find my own style as I mixed and matched aspects of other styles I thought were compelling. 

Encourage your journalism students to do the same. Reading journalism is one of the best ways to learn how to write journalistically, besides of course, practice. My high school journalism classroom was filled with old issues of our own newsmagazine and shelves stuffed full of Time, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The Atlantic among others.   

We would sometimes spend entire class periods discussing an article that we had all been assigned to read the night before. We were able to deconstruct the article and talk about what elements we liked and what we didn’t like. We could figure out how to apply what we liked in our own writing to improve our publication.

Just as it helps a novel writer to be well read in fiction, it helps a journalist, and especially a student-journalist, to be well read in journalism.

The Weekly Wednesday: An Unexpected Passion ...

By Joe Dennis GSPA Director

I was unsure if I should be eager or anxious, but I definitely knew I was overwhelmed by his words and intimidated by the passion coming from the journalism adviser at Decatur High School.

It was in the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the NSPA/JEA 2004 Fall Convention where Jon Reese introduced himself to me. "We could be doing so much more with GSPA," he told me, then listed off numerous things that would make GSPA more beneficial to students and advisers. "GSPA can be a premier organization for the high school press."

I had been in my position for barely a month, already having been thrust into "hosting" NSPA, a national convention with roughly 5,000 high school journalists and teachers in attendance. I knew GSPA had already been through numerous directors in its recent history -- I was the fourth in six years. Admittedly, I anticipated my tenure to be short as well -- get my master's degree within three years, then get back in the professional world writing for a publication somewhere in the Midwest. At 28 and with a newly born baby, GSPA was the de facto "reset" button for my professional career. 

But then I kept talking to Jon Reese. And then to Debbie Smelley of Starr's Mill High School. And Coni Grebel of Lee County High School. And Kristy Cates of Lowndes High School. And Brian Holt of Effingham High School. And Sonya Boyd of Shaw High School. And David Ragsdale of Clarke Central High School. And Cal Powell of First Presbyterian School. And Elisha Boggs of Chestatee High School. And these people -- who at one point were on or are still on the GSPA Advisory Board -- changed my career.

The passion each of them had for high school journalism and more importantly, journalism students is contagious. I caught the disease. They came to me with idea after idea on things GSPA could be doing better, and for the most part we implemented them. Because after multiple conversations with members of the board, I recognized that not only were they full of good ideas, but they were willing to step up and help institute the ideas they espoused. From hosting student workshops, creating and developing an adviser training seminar, teaching multiple sessions at conferences, and mentoring new teachers, these individuals served as the core of GSPA over the past decade ... without getting any of the credit (or pay).

Almost immediately, I embodied their passion for high school journalism. My 3-year plan became a 5-year plan, then 10-year plan, and then a life plan. While knowing I had a tremendous backbone of support at the state level, I merged my academic goals with my new professional passion and began to conduct statewide and national research on scholastic journalism, presenting my results at national academic conferences. I began to critique papers for publications in various states around the country. I became involved in SIPA to reach young journalists in the Southeast. And back home, we continuously reshaped GSPA's offerings, continuously taking feedback from not just the board, but all advisers who offered input.

After 11 years, I figured this was my lot in life. And I was OK with that. Family-wise we are settled in Athens. And professionally, as my passion for fostering journalism among high school students continued, I developed another passion -- teaching college students. As my position evolved at Grady to a faculty role, I had the best of both worlds. But then an opportunity came to me that I just couldn't turn down -- the chance to teach at the collegiate level full time. Starting Jan. 1, 2016, I will be an assistant professor of mass communications at Piedmont College, splitting my time on both their Demorest and Athens campuses while advising the college newspaper.

It's a new chapter in my life, as well as for GSPA. It's a chance for the organization to get a new perspective, and continue to grow the organization into one of the most respected scholastic press associations in the country. And I'm confident that whoever takes over GSPA -- despite his or her initial motives -- will develop the same passion and care for high school journalism that I did. Jon Reese -- and every other teacher who is part of GSPA -- will make sure of it.

The Weekly Wednesday: Don't Be SADD

by Srishti Mishra, GSPA Student Assistant

We’ve all done this. You get a great story idea in your head. Next thing you know, you’re "word vomiting" a million thoughts a minute and unable to harness neither your self-control nor the verbal debris until your entire paper is oozing with alphabetic letters.

Article in hand, you begin to proceed towards your editor with about as much self-confidence as Beyoncé in her “Single Ladies” music video. Your editor starts to scan the submitted article. A grin as wide as Taylor Swift’s every time she wins a Grammy starts to creep up on your face. This could be your best, potentially award-winning work yet. 

Uh oh. Your editor returns your story. Multiple traces of infamous red pen markings scatter your paper, but the markings that haunt you the most look like this: ???. What did your editor mean by: ???.  Wasn’t it pretty obvious that you were referring to everything you possibly knew about the topic at hand? You made sure to research, fact-check, and even venture as far as to interview experts to make sure you had all the information necessary to write a kick-ass article. I mean, isn’t that good enough? 

Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because many young writers fall prey to what we refer to as Story Angle Deficit Syndrome -- the unfortunate condition whose symptoms include non-sequitir thoughts and sentences, lengthy paragraphs but the most detrimental symptom of all is (drum roll please) the lack of a story angle.

Here are some questions journalists should always have in mind while writing their pieces:

  • 1)     What are you focusing on in this story?
  • 2)     What is the main point you are trying get across?
  • 3)     What would you like the reader to take away?

The following questions are also great to use during the editing process and can weed out any storyline kinks. Having a clear, concise story angle can prevent a plethora of editorial revisions, nervous breakdowns, and high blood pressure involved in this writing process.

So make sure to use these provisions to keep your students from being mad, or worse, getting SADD.

The Weekly Wednesday: The First Interview

By Jenny Alpaugh, GSPA Student Assistant

I remember my first interview like it was yesterday.

I was interviewing the cheerleading coach about a pep rally. Nothing too scary. But I showed up outside her door five minutes early. I spent those five minutes breathing deeply and working up the courage to walk inside her room.

This coach was a teacher I had known since I was in sixth grade. But now, as a sophomore in high school, I was about to talk to her in a different capacity, as a journalist. I wasn’t just asking her a quick question about math homework. Instead I had a list of questions I spent two days writing and rewriting. To say I was nervous would be an understatement.

I finally managed to calm my shaking hands and I walked into her classroom. She warmly welcomed me and I thanked her for giving me the time to talk to her. I methodically asked her the questions I had come up with, reading them word for word off my printed piece paper and asked no follow up questions.

When I transcribed the interview I cringed as I listened to my robotic voice. I realized all of the questions I should have asked.

My point in sharing this story with you is that new journalists need help with interviewing. It’s something that can feel natural for veteran journalists. It’s easy for us to assume that our new writers are capable interviewers. But most of the time that’s not true.

In my high school journalism class my first interview experience was not the norm. Usually a veteran journalism student would accompany a new writer on their first few interviews. Because of some miscommunication, I was on my own. But I realize now the importance of tag-teaming the first few interviews of a new journalist’s career. The older journalist is there to ask follow up questions. They are there to ease the nerves of the new journalist. Most importantly, they are there to provide advice for the learning student. They can let them know what they did well with in the interview and what they need to work on improving.

Don’t throw your new students into the wilderness that is interviewing! Send them out with a student who knows the ropes a little better. It will give them a better experience and it will help cultivate them into more successful interviewers.

The Weekly Wednesday: Do As I Say … AND As I Do

By Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

An odd number of students in my editing class forced me into action for the first in-class writing exercise: write a short profile of a classmate following my “Anatomy of a Journalism Story” format.

The “Anatomy” format is formulaic:

  • Open story with a one-sentence lead, focusing on the who and what.
  • The second paragraph is a quote from your main source, reinforcing the lead.
  • The third paragraph is the nut graf, filling in the essential details not covered in the lead.
  • The rest of the story comprises transition/new information, quote. Transition/new information, quote.
  • The story always ends with a quote, ideally tying the back to the lead.

The idea is to introduce students to a journalistic format that is simple to follow and flows well for the reader. It is the only time I confine students to a specific format. Admittedly, this was the first time I subjected myself to simultaneously work on the same exercise I gave my students. The pressure was on: if I couldn’t pull this off, how could I expect my students to do the same? After interviewing my subject for 10 minutes, I started writing. It was a flashback to being a student in school, complicated by the inevitable self-evaluating of my teaching methods. I told students I wouldn’t even read their stories if the lead didn’t capture my attention, so I spent most of my time — definitely too much — trying to get my lead perfect. Did I overemphasize the lead to students? As caught myself straying from my format, I wondered why in the world am I so stringent on following this format for this exercise? I had the perfect ending to my story, but it wasn’t a quote as I required. So I was forced to change my ending. Was I stifling my students’ creativity?

As I put the finishing touches on my story, the student in me was very proud, and the teacher in me was relieved. I pulled it off (story below).

It was truly educational for me, as a teacher, to force myself to do what I was asking my students to do. In this particular case, it reinforced in me the benefits of this exercise. But would that be the case if I forced myself to do everything I asked of my students?


It’s tails: VanMeter flips to journalism

A flip of the coin lead Chenault VanMeter to journalism.

“I was torn between advertising and journalism,” said VanMeter, a Grady College senior. “So I flipped a coin. And that was it.”

Her unconventional decision-making methods matches her unique first name, Chenault. Named after her grandmother, VanMeter was raised on a 120-acre horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky. With four brothers, including her twin, carving out her own identity has always been a challenge.

“It was always really hectic, really loud,” VanMeter said. “It helped me become an outgoing person.”

Standing in the shadows of her brothers is difficult enough, but she also has lived under a strong VanMeter family legacy in her hometown, where the VanMeter name is plastered on roads, buildings and professional practices across town.

“Our family stretches back 12 generations (in Lexington),” VanMeter said. “I’m constantly learning new things about my family.”

With an entrenched family legacy in the land of Wildcats, it’s no surprise VanMeter — fueled by her desire to be adventurous — moved to the Bulldog nation to pursue her education. Although her family is extremely important to her, VanMeter is eager to gain new experiences on her own.

“It’s really important for people to get away,” she said. “There’s so much to see and do. If you don’t leave home, you can easily get stuck.”

With her heart set on Nashville, Tennessee, or Washington, D.C., VanMeter aims to tell people’s stories while building her own life story — with the chapter on her career opening with that fateful coin flip.

“It was tails,” she said. “So I picked journalism.”

The Weekly Wednesday: Review on Reviews

by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

In judging entries for another state high school press association, I’ve found some commonalities in what makes a good review, and what mistakes are often made in high school review writing:


  • Use adjectives and adverbs. Contrary to news writing, the review is an opinion piece. Use adjectives and adverbs to help explain the piece. (a shocking ending, incessant violence, etc.)
  • Compare elements of the material to well-known pieces of work. For instance, if writing a music review of a little-known pop artist, compare his/her music to a well-known artist (she produces bubblegum pop melodies that would make Katy Perry sound bland).
  • Be short. Entertainment Weekly writes excellent reviews each week of less than 50 words. There’s no need to be that concise, but a review taking a half page is ridiculous.
  • For food reviews, describe the taste, smell, feel and appearance of food. The mud pie, with a solid vanilla ice cream layer melting under the hot fudge, is the perfect temperature as the sweetness lingers after one bite.


  • Inserting yourself in the review. The reader doesn’t care about you and how you came to watching the movie, or how long you’ve been a fan of the author. Jump right into the review. The review should stay third person.
  • Writing, “I think.” or “I believe.” By its nature, the review is the opinion of the writer. So the reader knows it’s what you think.
  • Focusing on the news angle. For example, a review of “The Interview” should not spend multiple paragraphs discussing the controversy behind the movie. That should be done in an accompanying story (if desired).
  • Getting quotes from other students. This is not a news story, so there’s no need to be balanced. This is the writer’s opinion. If there’s a reason to write a news story about a specific movie that has become a generational phenomenon, then do a separate story.

In planning reviews for the page, strive for multiple reviews per issue across different spectrums. I read one paper that had a reviews section with a main long-form review (400 words), complimented with three short reviews (100 words each) with the kickers “A movie. A book. An album.” This changed with each issue, depending on what they were reviewing. “A video game. A concert. A TV show.”

The Weekly Wednesday: A friend, a crush, pizza and a journalism award

By Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

I never wanted to be a journalist.

It was a crush on a college volleyball player, the desire to help a friend and the lure of free pizza that lead me the fourth floor of Goldspohn Hall at North Central College one Monday night in September 1994. My friend Dave was sports editor of The NCC Chronicle, and he needed someone to cover volleyball. I was skeptical — I never thought about pursuing journalism in college — but the opportunity to possibly befriend Tara, the team’s middle hitter, and the chance to have a free, non-dining hall dinner had me sold. 

So I each week I attended Cardinal volleyball games, went to newspaper budget meetings and turned in my volleyball stories. I was surprised at how little editing my stories needed, especially since I felt I put little effort into the writing. The process of writing the story seemed easy: attend matches, get official statistics from the sports information director, interview the coach and prominent players and write the story. Although I never wrote sports coverage before, Dave told me to just read newspaper sports sections and emulate the writing.

Even though it came easily to me and my writing was adequate, I still didn’t want to be a journalist. The weekly free pizza was nice, but I thought after fall semester I’m done with journalism. Then Dave asked me to help cover wrestling. Then baseball. Then help with layout. Then write a few sports columns. Meanwhile the faculty adviser of the paper was pushing me to pursue a journalism major. But I still didn’t want to be a journalist.

It wasn’t until spring of 1995 that the journalism captured me. I was invited to join several editors and attend the Illinois College Press Association awards ceremony in Chicago. I was always up for a trip to downtown Chicago and befriended many of the journalism staff members, so I joined them. When the sportswriting awards were announced, I was truly shocked to hear my name announced. I had no idea my work was submitted to the competition, or that it was even good enough to be considered for submission. Hearing my name at an awards ceremony, seeing my name on an award certificate and later reading my name in the next edition of the newspaper and in a college press release instilled in me a sense of confidence that my friend, the editors and my adviser could not have possibly done.

My work was recognized among the best in the state! Producing journalism was seemingly natural for me, and I had a lot of fun doing it. Maybe I should pursue this as a career, I thought. I registered for an introductory journalism course for the fall, became sports editor of the newspaper and began working in the college's sports information office. 

Twenty years later I am a journalist. A friend, a crush and pizza introduced me to it. But it was an award that instilled in me the confidence and motivation to pursue it.

The Weekly Wednesday: Literary Magazine Changed My Life

by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

As I was shuffling through boxes at my mom's house, I came across a folder packed with random pieces of paper filled with forgotten poetry, half-written short stories and attempted drawings from my high school days.

Most memorable was a stack of song lyrics I wrote. It was the early 1990s and I was going to be a rock star! My best friend played guitar and I would take my folder of lyrics and we would jam. He would play riffs as I shuffled through the papers finding a set of lyrics that best fit with the jam. Once I found a fit, I adjusted the lyrics as he strummed some different chords and we would develop a chorus and intro for the song. We ended up writing almost 20 songs that way.

Each song was deeply personal to me. "Change in the Weather" was about Ivey -- the girl I so desperately wanted to be my girlfriend, but I didn't quite know how to make that happen. "Dial the Devil" was about my inner demons that wanted to come out every time I lost my temper. "Confusion" was about my battle with depression (although I didn't know it at the time). As I read through each lyric sheet -- with the chords scribbled above them -- the emotions of that teenage boy 25 years ago took over me. 

I was very guarded with my lyrics -- they were deeply personal and I feared letting others read them would leave me vulnerable. It's why it was such a difficult decision for me about whether I should submit a poem to my high school's literary magazine. I was pretty successful at staying under the radar in high school. An all-boys Catholic school with a proud tradition of state championships in football, basketball and hockey, one had to either be an athlete or an Ivy-league bound genius to get recognized. I was neither. So I made a conscious decision to stay invisible. But my English teacher (and literary magazine adviser), presumably being impressed with some of my poetry written for class assignments, encouraged me to submit something.

So I transformed my darkest and most personal lyric into a poem and submitted it to the literary magazine (here's a segment):

Sadness. Happiness. They battle for my mind.

My sense of self is impossible to find.

Confusion. It's taking me over again.

I don't know what message to send.

In my sorrow you get amused.

I'm angry and confused.

When I learned it would be published, I experienced the full gamut of emotions, from pride that my work would be published to fear that my true self would be exposed. Weeks later when the issue came out, I grabbed my copy, proudly looked at my name in the table of contents and flipped page 16 to see my words. Almost immediately, a sense of accomplishment -- one that I haven't felt in high school -- took over me. That sense of pride grew when teachers complimented my poem, when other students in the literary magazine befriended me and when I was actually approached to join the drama club. After three years, I was finally visible in my high school.

Being published in the literary magazine was the start of my journalistic career, and more importantly the evolution of my public self. It's scary to think my life may have been completely different if Mr. Taylor didn't give me that extra push to submit my work to the magazine. Because of that seemingly uneventful, but truly fateful moment in my life, I try to look out for those students flying under the radar, and give them that vote of confidence and extra push when appropriate. They don't know it yet, but It just might change their life.

The Weekly Wednesday: Adrenaline Rush

by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

As a former journalist who worked in a newsroom, I miss the adrenaline rush of doing the interviews, writing the story and getting it published all in one day. Sure it was stressful -- and one of the reasons I left the newsroom for academia -- but I rarely find something that matches that feeling of accomplishment that I sensed seeing the paper, filled with a day of my work, come off the press.

On Tuesday night, that feeling came back. With another Grady professor we served as editors of a six-person Election Day newsroom. Our team of student reporters were dispatched at 7 a.m. to various polling locations across Athens. Their mission was to get the "stories behind the story" -- talking to voters, poll workers and election managers as to why they are there, why they vote, who inspired them to vote, etc. By 8 p.m. we had several written stories, photos and videos posted on a website we created -- -- and eight student-written stories or videos also posted on the Athens Banner-Herald website.

At the end of the day, that feeling came back to me, but more importantly the six students felt it as well. Working together for almost 13 hours we put together a pretty solid body of work. Of course there were challenges -- at times we argued, sniped at each other and had periods of grumpiness. But we also laughed a whole lot, high-fived, shared humorous personal stories and bonded in a way we never could through a typical classroom environment. And we learned, again in a way that we could never learn in a standard classroom. 

For example, in teaching video shooting I consistently emphasize the importance of good audio. But still, with every video assignment I have students turning in good clips with horrible audio. Typically, they can just go out and shoot again. In our deadline-driven Election Day newsroom, though, there were no "redos." So when a student came in with a video piece with horrible audio, we just couldn't do anything with it. Her hard work was essentially wasted -- a tough lesson to learn. But I bet she gets good audio from now on.

This experience got me thinking how a same-day deadline newsroom scenario could be replicated in high school journalism. Perhaps you can open your classroom after hours to have team coverage of a home football game, school event or "High School After Hours," dispatching students to various events happening on a particularly busy day after school. The focus of stories would be on people -- and why they are there -- not your standard news story of the event. 

Finding a scenario that would allow willing students to get that newsroom rush would be great for staff bonding and morale. And who knows, you might get the rush too.

The Weekly Wednesday: Courtesy of ...

by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

Imagine you confronted a student who turned in a paper that you knew wasn't there work, and the conversation went like this:

TEACHER: Did you write that paper you turned in? I'm sensing it isn't your work.

STUDENT: Oh yeah. I just found that paper on the internet.

TEACHER: What? You can't do that. That's called plagiarism.

STUDENT: Why not? You said to to write a paper about <insert subject here> and I found this paper online that was exactly about the subject. So I just decided to turn it in.

TEACHER: Oh, so it's not your writing?

STUDENT: No. I can't research and write that well.

TEACHER: OK. I understand. But next time you turn something in that isn't your work, you need to say "Courtesy of" and attribute it to the author.

STUDENT: So I can just take anything off the internet and turn it in, as long as I say "Courtesy of Google?"


STUDENT: But then can I still put my name on it and get credit for the assignment?

TEACHER: Of course!

Sound silly? We would never think of allowing our students to take something they found online, and turn it in as there own work. Right?

One would think so, but it happens all the time in high school newspapers/magazines and yearbooks. Running a story in your newspaper about student reactions to the war in Iraq? Let's just grab a picture of President Obama from the internet and publish it with our story. Listing the top artists of the year in the yearbook? Let's just grab some concert photos of Ariana Grande and John Legend from the internet and publish it in our yearbook. 

Of course, we know that's not our work. So maybe we'll put "Courtesy of Associated Press" or even worse, "Courtesy of Google" as the photo credit. (FYI -- Google is not the producer of photos, so even if you asked Google, they would not have the "courtesy" to grant you the rights to the photo.) And simply writing "Courtesy of ____" is not accurate if you never received permission. It would be like if I grabbed your car keys without your knowledge and started driving your car telling everyone my new ride is courtesy of you.

The above examples are violations of copyright. It's the equivalent of plagiarism. It's the equivalent of stealing. You must receive permission from the source of the photo to reprint the photo in your publication. And if you get the permission, the photo credit should read "Reprinted with permission of ____."

With that said, there are some exceptions for "fair use." In general, company logos fall under fair use as long as the logos are not being used for marketing purposes. For reviews, you can use album artwork, book covers or promotional movie posters. Otherwise, it's best not to lift photos from the internet.

There are places to go to get photos -- free and legally. For instance, anything on government websites is fair use, so you can grab a photo of President Obama there. For a one-time $100 fee, MCT Campus offers a lifetime of free content for school publications. The Creative Commons section of Flickr offers thousands of photos that may be reproduced as long as proper credit is given. And the best way around it, whenever possible,  take your own picture!

The Weekly Wednesday: I was wrong

by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

I was wrong. And my students made sure I knew it. 

I've always supported argument in the classroom. As someone who has inundated myself with child and student development literature for my dissertation, a common theme comes up: critical thinking is essential to the development of students. And one of the most productive ways older children can develop their critical thinking skills is through argument. Now I'm not talking about the in-your-face, yelling type of argument that is rooted in emotions. I'm talking about disagreeing with authority and/or peers based on research, experience and/or morals to the contrary.

For instance, I recently gave a multiple choice news quiz to my editing class. One question asked, "Does President Barack Obama have the authority to send troops into Iraq without Congressional approval?" The choices were: yes, no or it's complicated. 

Admittedly, I throw these news quizzes together pretty quickly over my breakfast. Through my brief research on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorism (2001), and reading articles on CNN and New York Times about the issue, I came up with the answer "it's complicated." In reviewing the quiz, I told students that although the act does give the President powers, there is debate about whether those only applied to terrorists responsible for Sept. 11. A few students argued with me, saying that he does indeed have that power. Support began to build among students that I was wrong. I found myself in unfamiliar territory. I love debate in my classroom, but rarely did it involved something directly related to something that was graded. How confident was I in my answer? Do they have a legitimate point or are they just griping because they hate taking this quizzes? Or are they just trying to avoid my dreaded talk on grammar?

I encouraged students to do their research -- right then and there -- and convince me I'm wrong. I left the room momentarily to get some coffee and came back. There it was, on my desk, an outline of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, highlighting that the law "requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war."

Although in my mind my question was clear -- essentially can Obama start Iraq War III without approval -- my students told me that the wording to my question is not what I was thinking. The answer to the question, as it is written, is "yes." According to the 1973 law, which is still in place, Obama can send troops into Iraq without approval, so long as he notifies Congress within 48 hours. 

Touche. I threw out the question and gave everyone credit. And I had to scrap my grammar talk for the day. But something more important happened in this class -- working together, students critically examined an important national issue, developed an understanding of it, formed their own opinions while working with peers, analyzed the wording of a test question and learned the importance of using the right words, and developed a boldness to challenge authority when the authority figure is wrong.

I think I may be wrong more often.

The Weekly Wednesday: Adding A Personal Touch

by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

The news cycle is brimming with big stories: the situation in Ferguson, the resurgence of terrorism in the Middle East, the suicide of Robin Williams. Although these stories are prominent on a national level, they could -- and should -- be localized in your school newspaper or broadcast show.

The situation in Ferguson brings a great opportunity to discuss race relations in your school. How diverse is your school? Does the diversity (or lack thereof) have an effect on how people view race relations? Do African American students feel the same sense of fear of authorities that people in Ferguson have expressed? How do African American teachers feel?

Robin Williams' suicide offers an opportunity for your organization to examine the issue of depression and mental disorders. It's highly likely someone on your staff suffers from depression or anxiety. If she is willing to share her story, a first-person account of her battle with the disorder will really serve your readers well, offering an opportunity for others who suffer from mental disorders to know they are not alone. Also, examine school resources for mental disorders. Is counseling available on site? Is there a reporting policy for teachers who may recognize that a student is suffering from a mental disorder? Are there resources for teens in your community to get help without parental consent?

The ISIS terrorism debacle offers a chance for your organization to examine issues of war. Do students feel the United States should get involved again in Iraq? If so, are students willing to enroll in the military? Are students willing to have a draft re-implemented that would inevitably affect them? 

Localizing big national stories to your school community is an opportunity to create outstanding journalism, and more importantly show how what happens in the world does have a connection to your school. And that's when school journalism is at its best. 

The Weekly Wednesday: !!!!!!

by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

Either you love them or you hate them! There are very few people in between! 

The exclamation point has long been the bane of journalists. Old-school editors and journalism teachers will tell you that the exclamation point should be eliminated from punctuation. My college journalism teacher was like this, literally erasing the exclamation point from our newsroom. She had the symbol -- located above the 1 key -- whited out on all the keyboards in the newsroom.

I'm not sure how she would've survived students in this era. Looking through my phone, these are the last six text messages I have received from various journalism students:

  • Okay sounds good!
  • Idk why I had 5:45 written down but see you at 6:45!
  • I'll do it right now!
  • Yes, I'm sorry!
  • Ok I'll put it in your box! Thanks joe!!!
  • I'll get to you Fri morn the latest but my goal is tomorrow!

Granted, these are private, one-to-one text messages and not for published journalism pieces. However, even before I stepped in a journalism class I learned the exclamation point was only to be used for, well, an exclamation. Grammar rules say to use the exclamation point to indicate a declaration, interjection or command. I was taught (in English class, not journalism) to use an exclamation point only if I can envision the a raised voice with the sentence it completes. If that's the case, I'm not sure why my students are always yelling at me through text messages.  

The truth is, the advent of texting and social media has led to a lot more non-verbal interpersonal communication. And for some reason, the exclamation point has been the tool most people use to insert emotion to indicate a positive mood. I must admit that they have suckered me in -- somewhat -- to this trend. My text replies often end with an exclamation point. But I minimize my exclamation points on my more public interactions, such as Facebook and Twitter, and never use them in my journalistic writing.

I've given up the fight against exclamation points in informal communication. However, I firmly believe it has little use in journalism. Our job is to be objective, and an exclamation point editorializes the quote, and the reader can read into it many different ways. If the writer wants to convey added emotion with accuracy, she should do it with added description following the quote. For instance, "You will all fail this class if you don't stop using exclamation points," Dennis said with a raised voice to his students, handing back papers with a visible "F" scrawled across the top in thick red ink.

Exclamation point haters: face it. We lost the battle to eliminate the dreaded punctuation. However, we must clamp down and stop it from entering the journalism lexicon. We must win this battle! Oops. I mean, we must win this battle.

The Weekly Wednesday: 'Boot up' with GSPA

By Joe Dennis, GSPA Director 

Being a journalism adviser is difficult. On top of a normal teaching load, as advisers we have to worry about getting the product out on time, pleasing several different constituents, staying on top of the latest media trends (and many times learning a brand new field), learning multiple software platforms, staying financially afloat, managing multiple egos and developing special relationships with our students that ends up eating away at our time (why can't she confide in her math teacher about her relationship problems?). And we do this all usually  without any recognition from administrators. In fact, many end up fighting to keep their programs alive.

The good news is you're not alone. Whether new to advising or a journalism advising veteran, I encourage you to attend our revamped GSPA Adviser's Workshop. With the theme "Boot up," the 2014 workshop, held June 4-5 at the University of Georgia, will give new advisers the tools they need to get started and veteran advisers an opportunity to "reboot" their practices. We'll meet as a group, break out into small groups by experience, break out into groups by publication type and come back with a year's worth of ideas and tools to take into the 2014-15 school year.

It will all be done in a very casual environment, and will be led by fellow advisers (and a few other adviser-friendly people). And since this is that rare moment you'll attend a journalism training event without students, an optional, adult-friendly downtown social outing is on the agenda! 

The workshop is from 1-9 p.m. on Wednesday, June 4 and 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 5. Cost is $40 before May 23 and includes some journalism teaching materials and two meals. Hotel rooms are available at the nearby Holiday Inn Express in Athens (if you'd like to split the cost of the room with a fellow adviser, feel free to email the listserv ( to see if there are any takers).

More information and the registration form is here on the GSPA website.