GREAT FALLS – The student newspaper at Charles M. Russell High School (CMR) garnered top honors at the University of Montana’s Journalism Day this past week, earning a highly coveted decoration: the best publication in Big Sky Country.
The Stampede — as it’s dubbed — received the Pacesetter Award for best Double-A newspaper and top online news website at an annual ceremony honoring similar high school programs around the state; other accolades included recognition for outstanding photography, writing and advertising. According to veteran CMR journalism teacher Beth Britton, such prizes have become commonplace for her students.
“I’m just so lucky,” Britton told MTN. “I work with students who want to be in here, whether they’re in yearbook or newspaper or the intro to journalism class. I feel so lucky that the program is still going, [that] it’s still viable, and that these kids actually want to spend time with me and with this subject.”
Britton oversees both the student newspaper and CMR’s yearbook, Russellog. Coverage in each varies from news, like articles about alumnus Ryan Leaf’s upcoming visit to the school, to editorials about clothing style. Testimonials from former students speak to the benefits of the program’s range.
“At a time in an individual’s life where labels are extremely prevalent, high school journalism allows students to expand their horizons,” writes Mackenzie George, former editor-in-chief of The Stampede, on the paper’s website. “Reporters have a chance to learn something new every day by getting outside their comfort zone and covering those whose lifestyles might be quite dissimilar to theirs.”
Britton’s program, however, represents an anomaly. The Chicago Tribune reports that high school journalism programs are on the decline around the country, citing how districts nationwide infringe upon its “elective” status to de-prioritize the class. In 2015, media mogul Hugh Hefner pledged to fund a student newspaper himself when an Illinois school decided to nix its newspaper. National Public Radio has even identified school newspapers as an “endangered species.”
Britton said it makes her “sad to see journalism departments either disappearing from some high schools or becoming much smaller.” She elaborated, admitting she has had to adapt her program and tailor it toward changing industry norms.
“We’re going more online. I think in years to come, we’ll do more video,” she said. Yet some lessons, she claimed, will always be in vogue.
“I don’t think that teaching students how to think critically, how to research properly, how to tell really great stories — no matter what the story is about — will ever go out of style,” Britton said.
Senior Gabrielle Pope, the Stampede’s sports editor, considers herself inspired by Britton’s example; in fact, she said her adviser acts as a motivating factor to get her through the school day.
“I have this class seventh period, and there [are] so many times where I’m like, ‘I just want to go home, I don’t need to be here,’” Pope said. “And then I’m like, ‘[Britton] will be disappointed in me. I better come to newspaper.’”
Pope has cultivated a relationship with Britton four years strong, beginning with the intro to journalism class she took as a freshman. “I fell in love with not only journalism itself but also the teacher,” she said.
She was recognized at Journalism Day this past week for a sports feature piece she wrote, about managers of spring sports at CMR. Pope has sat on staff at The Stampede since her sophomore year, and doing so has awakened within her a love of story-telling.
“I think that it’s really important that we have kids that are still interested in, and find it important to, find the truth of the stories,” Pope said, “and make sure that people’s voices are getting heard.”
Britton hopes that students like Pope will take advantage of what the program’s offerings, no mater what career they go into.
“I don’t expect all my students to leave here and go to journalism school and become full-time journalists,” she said. “But what I do hope that they take away are just all these great skills […] the ability to think creatively, and question what is real.”
Course scheduling for the next school year is ongoing, and Britton offers three classes: intro to journalism, newspaper and yearbook. Because they are classified as electives, CMR’s journalism classes are not required. Intro to journalism is a prerequisite, meaning its completion is required before advancement into the upper echelons of the program. Current or prospective students should consult their guidance counselors before making any decisions with respect to scheduling.
With continued enrollment, The Stampede could continue to set the pace for high school newspapers around the country. But Britton’s favorite part of teaching will remain something other than the material — her students.
“I come to work, and I’m really happy to see them walk through the door,” she said.
Reporting by Zachary Schermele for MTN News