The cub reporters at Lawrence High School’s The Budget just nabbed the high school version of a Pulitzer Prize.
Advisor Barbara Tholen and editor-in-chief Gary Schmidt accepted the National Scholastic Press Association’s Pacemaker Award during a ceremony last weekend in Dallas hosted by the NSPA and the Journalism Education Association.
Lawrence High is one of only a handful of schools across the country to win this year’s award, which represents the most prestigious honor in scholastic journalism. The news is still sinking in for Tholen’s students, who already boast a strong track record in regional and state competitions.
“The standard is set so unbelievably high here, just from the strong leadership we’ve had over the years,” said Schmidt, a junior. “It doesn’t feel like it’s as special as it is, but when you put it into perspective, we’re one of 26 publications across the entire country that won.”
The newspaper was last named a Pacemaker finalist in 2010, but, to Tholen’s knowledge, has never won the coveted prize outright. Two-hundred seventy-five student publications across the U.S. and England entered this year’s competition, which judges applicants on coverage and content, quality of writing and reporting, leadership, design, photography and graphics.
Like their grown-up counterparts, The Budget’s student journalists have had to navigate an increasingly challenging media landscape over the last year.
National issues played out on the local stage at LHS and in the larger Lawrence community, where students took part in a Black Lives Matter vigil in response to police shootings of unarmed black men, protested Shawnee Mission North’s Indian mascot and lobbied for policies (such as gender-neutral restrooms and homecoming royalty titles) in support of LGBTQ+ rights.
Through it all, The Budget was there, sometimes sniffing out stories that would later attract the attention of professional news outlets. Case in point: September’s protest over alleged bullying and harassment of transgender students at the school and the perceived lack of response by administrators in holding students accountable.
“Over time, I’ve seen the kids become much more aware of the things that are important, that they want to make sure they’re covering,” said Tholen, a former education reporter at the Topeka Capital-Journal. “They covered the sit-in, even talking about it the day before like, ‘Who’s going to cover it? How are we going to cover it? What is that going to look like?’”
“It sounds like a basic thing, but it takes time for kids to figure out when they see a news story happening in front of them sometimes, like, ‘Oh, this is a news story. We should be covering it,’” Tholen said. “These kids really get that.”
Kansas Gibler, last year’s editor-in-chief, is particularly proud of her piece in the October 2016 issue detailing the Lawrence district’s decision against applying for grants that supported drug-use prevention among LHS students.
The school’s former prevention specialist left LHS as grant funding for the district’s prevention program ended, following the district’s decision to pass on an offer from a citizen coalition to pursue leftover City Alcohol Tax funding, according to Gibler’s article.
Gibler, now taking a gap year after having graduated last spring, credited her team’s work ethic and dedication behind the Pacemaker win. When BLM-LFK hosted its candlelight vigil in July 2016, Budget staffers asked their teacher for access to school cameras so they could cover the event for their first issue of the school year.
Even in the middle of summer vacation, the students recognized the vigil’s newsworthiness and went about doing their jobs.
“We spent so many weekends here and took home laptops full of pages to edit,” Gibler remembers. “We argued about stories and how a story was going to be framed.”
Tholen, who began teaching at LHS in 2010, said she’s thankful to teach journalism in a school where students are civically engaged and moved to speak out on issues that matter to them, in turn allowing her student journalists to have meaningful experience in covering topics of both national and local importance.
“We have a lot of kids who are willing to express their First Amendment rights, and that’s given us a lot of opportunities to cover some really important issues,” Tholen said. “I think it’s really meaningful for our audience. It makes it challenging for us, but it’s also such a blessing to have kids who are really aware of what’s going on.”
Veda Cobb, a senior and the newspaper’s business manager, agrees with that assessment. Though she’s not necessarily interested in pursuing a career in journalism, Cobb feels the skills she’s picked up working on The Budget will serve her well down whichever path she chooses.
“We’re living in a world that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” Cobb said. “And as student journalists, it’s our job to try to make sense of what we can.”
It’s a difficult task in this “current climate,” she said, but it’s also a job she and her fellow staffers feel is incredibly important.
“Nothing’s out of the question,” Schmidt agrees. “You always have to question everything.”
In addition to the Pacemaker, The Budget staff also earned a second place “Best of Show” award for its Oct. 19 issue, a first place “Multimedia Sports Story of the Year” award for its coverage of the state basketball tournament, an honorable mention for 2017 graduate Jacinda Warren’s comic, and an honorable mention for Etana Parks’ editorial in the school’s yearbook, Red & Black.