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J-Bird rises from the ashes

Posted: October 28, 2012 - 12:03am
Student Editor-in-Chief Sam Kurland, 16, and faculty advisor and English department chair Carol Jordan hold the first print edition of the newly revived Juneau-Douglas High School J-Bird after the publication's seven-year hiatus.  Melissa Griffiths / Juneau Empire
Melissa Griffiths / Juneau Empire
Student Editor-in-Chief Sam Kurland, 16, and faculty advisor and English department chair Carol Jordan hold the first print edition of the newly revived Juneau-Douglas High School J-Bird after the publication's seven-year hiatus.

After a seven-year hiatus spurred by questionable content and sealed by the popularity of another student publication, the J-Bird is back. The Juneau-Douglas High School student newspaper, first seen as early as the 1920s, has been revived by 16-year-old Sam Kurland, a senior at the high school and the publication’s editor-in-chief. With the support of English department chair Carol Jordan, Kurland and a group of his peers have been on the high school beat since August, though the ambitious teen had begun efforts in the previous school year.

The J-Bird’s first print edition in seven years is dated Oct. 18, 2012 and leads with the bold headline “THE J-BIRD SOARS BACK!” The paper includes eight pages of content, including school news reporting, editorial and opinions, photos and an outline of the J-Bird’s editorial policies, as determined by the current staff.

In the wake of the October 2011 death of beloved JDHS English teacher Ali McKenna, who inspired and advised students to create monthly magazines The Ego and its satirical counterpart The Alterego, the student body found itself without a voice.

In Melissa Bowhay’s article on the return of the student paper, science teacher and former J-Bird advisor Jonathan Smith articulated the sentiment behind the dissolution of The Ego and the re-emergence of the J-Bird.

“…The Ego was Ms. McKenna’s and the loss of the Ego is a reminder of the loss of a great teacher. But I think that the J-Bird is a great tradition and root to our history.”

Kurland dates the J-Bird back as early as 1923, though he said there have been “anecdotal reports of people having seen editions from earlier than that…” The last printing was in 2004.

“There were a variety of unfortunate events that led to the halt in publication of the paper.” Kurland said, “I think one of them was the incident in, I believe it was 2002, when there was an article published in the J-Bird that compared a pretty decisive victory by the JDHS basketball team over the Sitka Wolves basketball team to child abuse and rape, which, in retrospect was a very poor editorial decision, and was met with a lot of criticism from the community — and justly so. The paper lost a good deal of its credibility at that point. And after that the staff dwindled and the paper shifted more and more toward opinion and became almost entirely an opinion journal, by very few student authors.”

The disintegration of the J-Bird coincided with the rise of The Ego, with the more literary publication taking the newspaper’s place until last school year.

Kurland, an avid consumer of news and current high school senior, approached Jordan during that last school year, with a group of other enthusiastic students.

“Sam and a couple of his friends came last year to me … and asked if I would be interested in advising the J-Bird and I said that I would.” Jordan said, “We had to get approval to become a club — there are only a certain number of clubs available at JDHS, so we had to get approval from the committee, which decides which clubs are allowed to go forward, and we were approved, so Sam and his group… tried to start up last fall.”

As with many bold moves and big ideas, the revival of the paper didn’t immediately come to fruition.

“To start a successful paper, especially a paper that has had issues in the past like the J-Bird, requires a lot of time. It was something that my peers and I weren’t necessarily prepared for. We weren’t necessarily realistic with ourselves, I guess you could say, about what we would be able to take on, given the other obligations that we had. We gave it a shot, we tried to pull some things together, and ultimately last year we weren’t successful, we didn’t get off the ground, we didn’t get a publication. But I think we learned really valuable lessons from that.” Kurland said.

Kurland, who became editor-in-chief by merit of organizing the effort to bring back the J-Bird, is trying to strike a balance between uncensored speech, which led to the paper’s demise almost a decade ago, and what he considered to be too much editorial control in the earlier attempt to resuscitate.

“We learned about what our organizational structure should look like, which is very different from what it looked like last year, and I think that, at least for me, it really helped shape my perception of what the paper should be and it helped me really appreciate that individual students who write for a student newspaper should have a lot of freedom in what they write about. That’s part of what makes student papers so vibrant and so diverse, and really so strong and so meaningful to their communities,” Kurland explained, “So that was one of the biggest takeaways for me. There certainly has to be some editorial direction, but we have to give individuals more freedom and control of what they’re writing than we did (last year). And that shapes what we’re doing right now, and I think that’s a big reason we have the paper on Ms. Jordan’s wall right now.”

Jordan, as the advisor, guided the students in developing their editorial philosophy.

“Sam and I really discussed the ideas behind the policies, and when the students do editorials, how much are we going to accept or change, how much are we going to modify the message or not modify it — we really had a heart-to-heart discussion about the importance of our integrity. Me, as a staff member at JDHS and an English teacher, I have a certain credibility I need to maintain, so we did discuss the policy and we do have a section that identifies that for the readers.” Jordan said.

A significant amount of effort and research went into crafting the editorial policy that stands, one the staff believes meets the needs of the paper and the audience.

“Basically it’s a declaration of journalistic freedom, saying ‘These are the things we, as a newspaper, as a student organization, have a right to do, and we’ll defend our right.’ The other section I think is most relevant … is the statement of duties to the student body. ‘We as a responsible paper have some responsibilities, if we’re going to remain credible with the population we serve, with our audience, we need to have some core values that we’re really going to stick to.’” Kurland explained.

The paper on the wall, and the other copies circulating, are the product of the efforts of nearly a dozen students. The paper features eight student writers, almost all without specific roles or titles, including Kurland, Bowhay, Ruby Steedle, Melanya Mason, Ari Gross, Kaialee Mercado, Talyn Ramos, Tommy Thompson and Leo Steedle. A microcosm of the greater community, the JDHS paper features election results — for the student council, reporting on events, change and controversy, sports coverage and opinions on policy. The paper also features an impassioned editorial by Kurland defending free speech and invoking integrity.

It’s a paper born of the passion of a handful of students, who write for themselves and for their audience.

“The students write about what they are interested in — and we throw out ideas for the newspaper, Sam writes them up on the board, but students pick what they are interested in pursuing.” Jordan said. “And there’s a lot of student population interest; in all my classes they’re asking “How often are we going to publish” and so there’s a lot of student and staff interest, I mentioned it at a staff meeting last week and we got a round of applause for bringing it back. It’s very exciting that people are really looking forward to the next edition.”

It’s money that had been, and will continue to be, the biggest hurdle for the J-Bird, as with any print publication.

“We grew to critical mass and Sam told me that the real hindrance to actual publishing was the funding and he told me that it cost about $250 to publish and that the Empire had generously agreed to publish for us, to actually print them,” Jordan said, “ so I went and found out how we could get the money … and I told the administration that we wanted this amount of money and that we wanted to publish and we needed this amount of money. We were given access to the $250 so we published our first issue. From here on in, however, we have to rely on advertising.”

Some of the funding was from The Ego’s budget, some from private donations. Starting with the next printing, and the subsequent monthly printings, it will come from the community.

“We would like to see the paper published monthly, but with breaking news posted online.” Kurland said. “We’re also on Twitter and Facebook, because we reach, actually, a lot more students that way, than we do on our homepage. I think that’s great. Social media’s a lot faster than a static website.”

Though Kurland is uncertain about his future plans —who does know at 16-years-old what they’ll be when they grow up? — he’s applying for colleges and he knows what he’d like to see from the J-Bird — and he’s confident the staff who will remain can pull it off.

“Long-term aspirations? Really just to see the J-Bird return to the sustainable, responsible, credible paper that it was for the vast majority of its life. This is a paper that was really a huge part of the JDHS community for, like, 75 years — it was the thing, they read it when it came out, everyone wanted to be a part of it, and I think, given the reception for our first print edition, I think we can get there and I think we should.”

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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