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Less than a year after starting, Huntley High newspaper wins top honor

By Robert McCoppin/Tribune Reporter

Bored at home during the blizzard of 2011, Huntley High School student Michael Geheren decided to create a website for the school newspaper.

He bought the domain name — huntleyvoice.com — and, using WordPress software to model it on other sites, he put together a mock-up of what it might look like.

Geheren, now the site’s digital editor in chief, called the school journalism adviser, who had been concerned about the difficulty of operating such a site, and said, “I think we can actually do this.”

Up and running in earnest just since October, the fledgling site this week won the National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker Award for online high school newspapers — an honor sometimes described as the Pulitzer Prize of student journalism.

The students’ experience, advisers say, mirrors the transformation of the high school newspaper in general.

Though many school administrators have trepidation about publishing student-produced news online because of its speed and potential lack of oversight, more schools are adding online news sites, and some are even dropping their print editions.

This year, more than 150 schools submitted their online sites for the awards competition, the association reported — triple the number from 2008.

The transition at Huntley wasn’t easy. First, it took time for administrators and the School Board to approve its oversight. The initial operation, adviser Dennis Brown said, was a “train wreck,” before editors reorganized assignments to update the page frequently.

The site hit its stride at a campaign appearance by presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Rubbing elbows with CNN and the Wall Street Journal, students live-Tweeted and streamed video to the site.

Huntley was lucky. Many schools don’t have anyone who knows how to create a news site online, according to Evelyn Lauer, English teacher and adviser of Niles West News, which won the Pacemaker Award last year and was a finalist this year.

To focus on its online operation, the Skokie school decided two years ago to drop its print edition entirely — something some schools are being forced to do because of finances.

Online sites can provide news in a more timely fashion than student newspapers that print once a month. The sites also can be much more interactive, Lauer added, noting that her students recently used Facebook to ask seniors to give advice to juniors about going to college, and immediately got 10 responses.

The printed word remains a strong presence at some schools, though. Newspapers at Marist High School in Chicago, Lake Zurich High School and John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights also won National Scholastic Press Association honors in their respective categories, and Glenbrook South High School in Glenview won for its Etruscan yearbook.

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