The power of the (high school) press
This March, Loyola University hosted the annual Tom Bell Silver Scribe competition for area high school newspapers, begun in 1975 by the late journalism professor.
Many New Orleans high school students who write for a high school publication are getting an early start on a career.
New Orleans has always produced a bumper crop of writers – admittedly, some of whom never published in high school. Author Tom Sancton was a student at Ben Franklin when “we were still in the old courthouse on Carrollton Avenue – and we didn’t have a school paper.” Novelist and playwright Sheila Bosworth notes that the Academy of the Sacred Heart had no newspaper when she was a student.
Some students went straight to mainstream media. Nick Lemann, a staff writer at the The New Yorker and former Dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, says, “I published my first magazine article in April 1972, when I was a senior at Country Day, in the late lamented Vieux Carré Courier. It was a long report on all the private schools in New Orleans. … That definitely changed my life: There has never been a moment since then when I wasn’t actively at work on a magazine article. Including right now.”
Lemann’s sister, novelist Nancy Lemann recounted an early piece in Country Day’s Eh! La Bas newspaper “about watching the kindergartners walk across campus and conjuring a perhaps far-fetched and somewhat elaborate comparison of them to tiny drunkards … I felt that my grandmother didn’t approve of it – which is perhaps quite understandable.”
That fanciful description might predict Nancy Lemann’s adult writing, including novels Malaise and The Fiery Pantheon. However, Robert Peyton, Haute Plates blogger and Restaurant Reporter for New Orleans Magazine, got his high school writing experience with a humor column in The Halo newspaper at St. Martin’s.
Charles Ferguson, former editor of The Times-Picayune, wrote for the Silver and Blue newspaper while at Fortier, as did fellow student John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces.
Ferguson, who also did some sports reporting for The Times-Picayune, admits, “I guess my greatest journalistic coup was that, when I was a sophomore, our Civics class went to Washington to see President Dwight Eisenhower inaugurated. I asked the New Orleans Item if they wanted me to cover it. They said they already had a reporter, but if I wanted to do some articles they would run them, and they did!”
Back in 1915, Newman student Alfred Adair Watters (a career Marine and briefly police superintendent of New Orleans) was sports editor of The Pioneer, which began as a general school publication. It is now Newman’s literary magazine, possibly the oldest in the country.
Newman’s newspaper, The Greenie, began in 1954 when some seniors, including Tom Lewis, decided the school needed a paper. Lewis’s son, author Michael Lewis, is a Newman alum but did not write for The Greenie Angus Lind, longtime columnist at The Times-Picayune and now a columnist at The Tulanian, began by writing about sports at Newman for The Greenie (and admits to a “total love of newspapers and journalism as a teenager”).
Not all high school writers stick to journalism. Michael Edward Saulny, retired in Georgia after an insurance career, was 1964 editor of the St. Augustine High School newspaper.
According to Saulny, the school thought he needed some extracurricular activities. “I wasn’t an athlete, and you can’t just up and decide you want to be in the band. So, I did the newspaper.”
Later at St. Augustine, Dean Baquet, now Executive Editor of The New York Times, “would shut himself in his room to write tales of drug kingpins for the fiction section of the newspaper” according to his brother Terry Baquet (of The Times-Picayune) in a 2005 story in The Los Angeles Times. Both Baquets would win Pulitzer prizes for journalism: Terry for Katrina coverage and Dean for an exposé series in Chicago.
Sometimes it just takes time: Sacred Heart had a literary magazine when student Patricia Murret attended, but only after changing careers did she go into journalism; she’s now Loyola University’s Associate Director of Public Affairs. New Orleanian Becky Friedman “wrote a little bit” for Eh! La Bas at Country Day, but after working for a large consulting firm she took up freelance journalism last year.
“You plant the seed, and later on you figure out how to make it work,” she says. “It’s been great. I can’t complain.”