Among the Interschool, Journalistic Practice Ranges Widely

By Austin Szatrowski ’21

Each school's newspaper serves a different purpose for the community (Photo Credit: Britannica)

Among member institutions of the Interschool, a consortium of independent K-12 schools in New York City, student journalism operates under a diverse range of paradigms.


While Spence’s Voice and Nightingale-Bamford’s Spectator run a broad latitude, Brearley’s Zephyr acts under a rather tightly controlled environment. Many, though not all, have mission statements that outline their commitments to their communities. The Collegiate Journal (“making sure that no Dutchman goes unrepresented or unheard”), the Browning Grytte (“the Grytte strives to embody the Browning School and to promote its values”), the Spence Voice (“to share with the community Spence news, sports, and entertainment, as well as diverse opinions of the student body”) all do. The Nightingale Spectator’s Co-Editor-in-Chief Sari Dashefsky (Nightingale ’21) says the editorial board plans to write one in the fall; the Brearley Zephyr lacks one entirely.


Editors say that their papers mostly align with their respective communities.


“I definitely think that our paper conforms to the mission statement. One rule that we have is that we have to connect any article we write to our school's community. This is essential in creating a publication that ‘embodies’ The Browning School,” said Alexander Raftopoulos (Browning ’21), a Deputy Editor at the Grytte.


Describing the function of The Collegiate Journal under his leadership, Tommy Przygoda (Collegiate ’20), its former Editor-in-Chief, said, “We want to be a constructive member of the community,” and continued that critiques of the administration “should be constructive and allow change to happen,” instead of just “students complaining.”


Although they boast different mission statements, every paper acts under the guidance of an often-powerful faculty advisor, though the role varies widely. At The Spectator, there are two, and “The editorial staff meets with them regularly,” said Spectator co-Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Paulus (Nightingale ’21). “They essentially advise us in all areas of production—they help us brainstorm article ideas to suggest to our writing staff, look over articles that we edit, and help us send our issues to print and then distribute them.”


In spite of their wide-ranging editorial purview, she isn’t concerned about any sort of censorship. “I think the faculty, particularly our faculty advisors, agree with us that if there is something we need to unpack or shine a light upon, we, as student journalists, have a responsibility and right to do so,” she wrote. Dashefsky, her Co-Editor-in-Chief, concurred, saying, “I completely stand by everything she said.” The two had to receive permission from their faculty advisors to disclose this information in a public setting.


At The Spence Voice, Editor-in-Chief Anna Goldman (Spence ’21) reports that her publication suffers little interference. “I do not feel that there is pressure to convey or suppress specific messages,” she said. When asked whether there had ever been “problem articles” that raised eyebrows, she said, “We have not had any ‘problem articles’ that I know of.”


The Voice’s faculty advisors, she continued, are largely supportive, as “they have a lot more publishing experience than the students on the editorial board do, so they are able to catch mistakes/problems that we miss and point out aspects of articles that might be confusing to the wider audience of the whole school community.”


The Browning Grytte operates similarly. Its single faculty advisor gives a great deal of leeway to the editors. “He lets the students write about what they want as long as it pertains to the Browning community,” said Deputy Editor Alexander Raftopoulos. “He also works with all of the editors in teaching the younger members some journalism concepts that are useful for our paper.” Andrew Halajian (Browning ’21), another Deputy Editor, added that he “teaches writers how to properly conduct research and interviews.”


The Daltonian, Dalton’s newspaper since 1933 and winner of several scholastic publication awards, has a mixed history. In a testimonial in celebration of Dalton's 100th anniversary in 2019, former Daltonian Editor-in-Chief Nick Goldin (Dalton ’92) wrote that “what made service on The Daltonian so special was the independence of it all. It is hard now to grasp just how free we were—without meaningful review or censorship by, it seemed, anyone at all.” Goldin did not respond to a request for comment for this article.


However, a New York Times article reported that on October 13, 2010, the Dalton administration confiscated The Daltonian’s press run upon delivery to the school. The confiscation concerned the title of a column in one of two paragraphs in a survey article about alcohol consumption at the school. According to the Times, Jim Zulakis, a spokesman for the school, said that “it was altered after administrators signed off. The erroneous chart indicated that 80 percent of respondents said they did not drink ‘regularly,’ though the survey question had asked whether students drank at all.” Instead of demanding that The Daltonian make a correction in the next issue, Dalton administrators elected to intercept the shipment entirely, and a revised version was later printed, according to the article. The Daltonian did not respond to a request for comment.


At The Collegiate Journal, the relationship between the student-led editorial board and its faculty advisors is more complex. Editor-in-Chief Eric Harwood (Collegiate ’21) said that during the production of his first issue, he met weekly with The Journal’s faculty advisors Dr. John Beall, Mx. Lauren Lazar, and Dr. Juan Carlos Aguirre, to discuss progress, and was “basically in charge until the last week.” During that last week, the advisors meticulously reviewed the draft. “Beall is especially vigilant; he will go through everything line by line a number of times before going to print,” Harwood said.


“As an advisor, I help the students with trying to see the different angles of a given piece and help them to remember the difference between news and opinion,” said Mx. Lazar. Dr. Aguirre added in a separate interview that “The Journal has the obligation to hold information and dialogue to a higher standard… [and] provides a forum for students to express their views in a manner that raises—rather than degrades—the level of discourse.” As an advisor he sees his role as to “to provide oversight, structure, and guidance to the students on the staff, so that they are better equipped to ensure that the newspaper is fulfilling its important role within the community.” “Ultimately,” Mx. Lazar said of The Collegiate Journal, “it functions as a space to see the Collegiate world from the students’ perspective—that is the aim and mission.”


Sam Brill (Collegiate ’06), The Journal’s former Editor-in-Chief, said that in the years leading up to his tenure, The Journal had grown “timid” and afraid to test the boundaries of what its then-faculty advisor Mr. Bruce Breimer or Dr. Beall, the Head of the Upper School at the time, would permit. Brill also noted that Mr. Breimer served primarily as the Director of College Relations, and therefore “held a certain power over students.” “For whatever reason,” Brill said, “my year was less of that.” He and his co-editors resolved to hold the paper “to super-high standards, what you’d expect to see at a professional publication.”


That year, they ran a series of articles revealing that the Board of Trustees was mostly at fault for extending the search for a Headmaster out to two years, and quoted an anonymous source on the Board saying that their chosen candidate had actually declined the position. They also exposed years of mismanagement on the soccer team, in stark opposition to its highly successful Cross Country program. Brill recalled that Dr. Beall and Mr. Breimer pushed back on many stories, but when neither could prove that anything reported was factually inaccurate, they backed down, and the stories ran.


During the production of the final issue of Volume 87 published in April 2020 under the editorship of Thomas Przygoda (Collegiate ’20), an article about the shift to remote learning quoted an anonymous student who said, “an absence of definitive regulations for online learning has put the responsibility on each teacher to create his or her own system and on each student to accustom himself with up to six or seven different systems.” An email from the Head of the Upper School Mr. Temple on March 24 had issued guidelines for workload and synchronous class meetings, though students and faculty disagree on how closely they were followed. Przygoda, in consultation with Dr. Beall and Mx. Lazar, elected to cut the quote. They reasoned that the administration had insufficient time to weigh in, and the faculty “didn’t deserve to be publicly put on blast given how much of their spring break they had devoted to making sure online learning would work for us.” The quote appeared, attributed, in the following issue with a responding comment from Mr. Temple,“the world of fully remote learning was unknown to all of us when faculty were moving classes to remote learning.” He stressed the need for allowing the faculty “flexibility to structure courses in ways that best suited their course goals.”


At The Brearley School’s The Zephyr, the faculty advisor and administration have a much broader role. One source, identified as Irene, said that although working for The Zephyr was “overall a really good experience,” “Brearley did not allow the Zephyr to function like a real student newspaper.” Brearley’s administration reviewed all proposed articles before they were written, and “would reject any story that could conceivably have cast the school in a less-than-positive light.” She added, “Brearley prides itself on teaching its students to be outspoken critical thinkers. I hope it can begin to extend that ethos to its student newspaper.”

Current Zephyr faculty advisor Mr. March, citing an ongoing recovery from surgery, directed my request for comment to Ms. Jo David, Brearley’s Director of Communications, an office not involved with the publication of The Zephyr. She agreed to comment for this story. When asked how Brearley handles articles critical of its administration, she said, “There are certainly times when students have concerns about policies—and the idea is that they should go right to the appropriate sources in the administration for interviews to get clarity and responses.” When asked how Brearley wanted to respond to allegations that it was too regulatory of the paper's content, she referred back to these comments.


In 2016, The Zephyr published an interview with Sara Faruqi (Brearley ’15), a former Zephyr staff writer and then-staff writer for The Columbia Daily Spectator, an independent, non-profit newspaper at Columbia University. She told The Zephyr, “there were times when my editors did not feel comfortable with me having certain viewpoints or writing about certain issues.” At the Daily Spectator, according to the article’s introduction, Faruqi worked as a financial officer to help the paper maintain financial independence from the University, and wishes the same for The Zephyr: “I really wish The Zephyr were financially inde­pendent, which would give writers and editors at The Zephyr a lit­tle more control and say over what could be writ­ten.”


Ms. David responded that “The purpose of having the paper receive its funding from the school has been to keep it free of advertising content and the need for students to spend time trying to find and manage advertisers.” She sees this as an opportunity to save time and effort. “Students already have limited time to produce the newspaper, so adding the burden of finding appropriate advertising, and collecting funds wouldn't be realistic.”


As with The Collegiate Journal, The Zephyr’s faculty advisor, Mr. Tom March, “often helped us get a nuanced or at least fair angle on each article, particularly if it dealt with a school topic,” said Debjani Das (Brearley ’20), the paper’s Managing Editor between 2018 and 2019. For such issues, interviewing relevant faculty members would always be necessary. Das considers this a beneficial requirement. “Writers can often be too eager to express their qualms with an aspect of the school and forego proper investigative techniques,” she said.


“Sometimes [Mr. March] might help them identify the people in the community, or specifically in the administration. [The editors] should send a writer to interview for an article,” said Ms. David on the subject.


However, the process was often poorly organized, according to the 2018-19 editors. The Editor-in-Chief at the time, Abigail Sylvor Greenberg (Brearley ’20), described the production process as plagued by “multiple layers of approval,” “needless bureaucratic hurdles,” and a lack of clarity as to which faculty member was truly in charge: their faculty advisor Mr. March or Head of the Upper School for Student Life Ms. Evelyn Segal.


The editors sometimes received clearance from one only to hear about an issue from the other “at the eleventh hour.” Sylvor Greenberg also mentioned that Mr. March was first and foremost an English teacher—for which “we all loved him,”—but this conflict meant that “The Zephyr was never his priority, which resulted in lots of long delays.”


Ms. David attributed these delayed articles to ensuring that journalistic integrity has been properly upheld. “Sometimes it turns out that covering a story will take more time than originally planned because many people are involved and have perspectives that should be included. And covering that might take more time than the two or three weeks allotted, to really do it well.”


During their tenure, a staff writer had asked to write what Das described as “an informative piece on the impact of positive psychology on the general education system.” The article’s draft briefly referenced a Brearley initiative called START that employed positive psychology. The article did not comment on the program—“it was a simple statement of fact,” says Das. The passage in question read, “Brearley’s START pilot, which is currently being tested on grades 7, 9, and 11, provides students with anonymous surveys every few months to track the positives and negatives of their lives and enforce awareness of what’s most important to them.”


Nonetheless, their faculty advisor recommended that the then-Director of Counseling and Wellness be reached for comment. Das and Sylvor Greenberg were confused as to why this was necessary; they were running behind their press deadline, and according to Sylvor Greenberg, the Director responded that she had “nothing to add” for the story. Shortly thereafter, Das and Sylvor Greenberg sent the paper to press, without comment from the Director. When Mr. March realized what had happened, he had the editors recall the 500 copies they printed, only permitting them to publish after the requested comments appeared in the article and an apology letter had been sent to the administration.


Ms. David described the incident as “mostly a process question.” She disagreed with Das’s characterization of the article, saying that it was “about an important new initiative emphasizing student emotional well-being and sense of self,” rather than a general discussion of positive psychology. It was not clear whether Ms. David was directly referring to the START initiative. Ms. David said that “the order to print was given by the editors ahead of getting confirmation that the story was accurate enough to run,” and that “Mr. March let [the editors] know that they could put the print order in again after hearing back and getting the clearance from him.” Ms. David did not discuss the apology in her response.


Das agreed that “My co-editor and I were at fault for not being completely transparent with our advisor,” but doesn't “understand why the Director's comments were so crucial for the article in the first place,” she wrote. Sylvor Greenberg agreed. “I still don’t quite understand that decision,” she said.


According to Das, the role of the paper and the content it puts out have changed since its inception. During research for the June 2019 archives issue, she and Sylvor Greenberg rediscovered the first issue of The Zephyr, from 1968, where it says it aims to “represent the Student Body [and] publish most of the articles that students send in.” At the time, she said, “It was much more focused on gathering and publishing information on school affairs, extra-curricular activities, and student government progress and events.”


Das says she doesn’t know when the shift occurred but doesn’t necessarily see it as a negative. The current Zephyr “is more a platform that the student body can use to write about something that they’re passionate about, and for readers of the paper to learn something new from their peers,” she said, and Ms. David agreed. “The Zephyr also becomes a forum for students to practice the kind of writing they might not otherwise get many opportunities to write at school— for example, reviews, op-ed pieces, and news analysis.”


Despite everything, Sylvor Greenberg stressed, “It was really fun when we were allowed to do what we wanted. I would describe my experience as an editor as largely positive; my co-editor Debjani [Das] and I accomplished a lot.”


CONFLICTS OF INTEREST


It should be noted that several people involved in the production of this article are also tied to the publications it covers.


Ryan Pelosky, The Iris co-editor-in-chief, is a News Editor at The Collegiate Journal.


Lily Wolfson, The Iris co-editor-in-chief, is the Editor-at-Large at The Nightingale-Bamford Spectator.


Sasha Tucker, The Iris Associate Editor, is an Editor Emerita and former Editor in Chief of The Brearley Zephyr.


Yassie Liow, The Iris Features Editor, is an Editor Emerita and former Managing Editor at The Brearley Zephyr, as well as the author of the Zephyr article concerning positive psychology described here.


Austin Szatrowski, the author, is the Executive Editor at The Collegiate Journal.

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