North Atlanta High School battles two conflicting stereotypes as a public school, according to the editors of The Northerner student website.
One stereotype held by people living outside of Buckhead is that the North Atlanta community thinks it’s too good for everyone else. The other stereotype, held by people living inside Buckhead, is that the public high school isn’t good enough.
The Northerner in many ways reflects this contradiction. It’s a student publication that’s too good for a high school and yet one that strives to be better than the rest.
The website came into its own this year, under the leadership and tenacity of outgoing editor Elizabeth Ray. The Northerner gives the student body more than information. It gives the school a voice.
The student news website holds the people in charge accountable, at least as much as any student publication can.
The 2012-2013 school year was a crucible for Ray and her team. Their experiences as reporters ran the gauntlet. They broke stories. They asked questions. They scrutinized answers.
The Northerner belongs to the students, for now. Ray said there was a point last fall when she was afraid the students would lose it.
Atlanta Public Schools officials came to North Atlanta High on a Friday afternoon in October and removed the principal and transferred his administrative team. Ray said the events of what became known as “Bloody Friday” left the student journalists wary of how far they could push things and still stay independent.
“It was a power struggle,” Ray said. “It was kind of frightening.”
If APS could remove the schools leadership with no notice, Ray asked, what could they do to the student journalists trying to cover it?
Ray said her staff came to two conclusions: 1) They had to report the facts and 2) they had to stay objective.
The first part was easy. Ray and The Northerner beat all of the major media outlets on reporting the Bloody Friday story. The Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted The Northerner’s articles in its own reports.
The second part wasn’t so easy because The Northerner’s writers liked the transferred administrators, Ray said.
Margaret Margeson, The Northerner’s incoming editor, handled video broadcasts for the school’s journalism department. She said journalists knew they needed to tread lightly.
“You had to word all the reports very carefully, and it’s hard because when you’re so emotional about something, you want to say what you feel,” Margeson said.
William McClatchey, who also works on the website with Margeson and Ray, said the student journalists made objectivity a point of pride.
“In a roundabout way, students took it as an attack on the integrity of the schools,” McClatchey said. “Your bias leads you to be unbiased, because your bias leads you to protect the integrity of the paper.”
Listening to the students talk makes for an interesting commentary on some of the struggles facing journalists who have been in the business for decades. Older journalists struggle with using social media but not being too social. They struggle with being first, but also being right.
The Northerner staff struggled with it, too.
Ray, Margeson and McClatchey remembered covering a student walkout shortly after Bloody Friday. APS officials barred other media from the campus that day. As news helicopters twirled overhead and reporters watched from across the street, The Northerner gave a first-hand account of what was happening.
Reporting the truth can be a struggle, Ray said. She said it’s worth fighting for.
“A great paper, one that you’re going to keep reading, is one that does keep you informed and holds people accountable and really strives to live up to its meaning, to inform and enlighten,” Ray said.
The Northerner staff had their goofs, too. Ray blushed as she recounted the fallout from an April Fool’s Day prank. One of the students published a satirical article suggesting that the new North Atlanta High, slated to open this fall, would be delayed. It also suggested the principal’s office would be in a bowling alley.
Some people loved it; the administrators, not so much.
Ray said it was a “great learning experience.”
McClatchey took the scolding as a compliment from The Northerner’s readers.
“I thought it was impressive that it was received negatively because people had a standard as far as what they expected from the website,” he said.