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Prep School Confidential: What it’s like editing The Willistonian 

  • Ellie Wolfe, 17, of Northampton, is shown in an English classroom where the Williston Northampton School’s journalism elective is held. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ellie Wolfe, 17, of Northampton, is shown in an English classroom where the Williston Northampton School’s journalism elective is held. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ellie Wolfe, 17, of Northampton, is shown in an English classroom where the Williston Northampton School’s journalism elective is held. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ellie Wolfe, 17, of Northampton, is shown in an English classroom where the Williston Northampton School’s journalism elective is held. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ellie Wolfe, 17, of Northampton, is shown in an English classroom where the Williston Northampton School’s journalism elective is held. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Friday, July 06, 2018

My name is Ellie Wolfe, and I am a rising senior at the Williston Northampton School, a private boarding school in Easthampton. This year, I was one of two editors-in-chief of our student newspaper, The Willistonian, which is America’s longest continuously published high school newspaper, dating back to 1881. (The other editor was Shirley Zhou, who will soon be studying at Vanderbilt University.)

I feel honored to be at the helm of a school newspaper with our history, but it isn’t an easy job. Because we receive funding from the school, we can’t always write the stories we want to cover the way we want to cover them. As a result, it can be difficult to keep our writers excited about writing for us.  

Still, I appreciate the opportunity to show future Williston students what our school was like at this moment in time. I like to think about all the good things we cover, like the game nights that our dean of students helped organize; the walkout we planned for gun control after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida; the Birkenstocks that everyone seems to be wearing; the movies under the white tent in the spring at night and sitting out on the Adirondack chairs outside of the dorms. I love that we can express our feelings about the graduation speaker and the new leaders of the Community Service Club; elections, both at Williston and in the nation; the theme of the yearbook and the stress of AP tests. That is what keeps me writing for the newspaper, which we work on during a class period, with our adviser and journalism teacher, Matt Liebowitz.

I can go to editions from the 1970s and see school dances and concerts, as well as protests and opinions of Williston students from days past. In 1971, the Williston Academy (an all-boys school) and the Northampton School for Girls (an all-girls school) merged and formed the Williston Northampton School. By scrolling through past issues of The Willistonian in the archives, you can see the first reactions to the merge by students and faculty — how it affected day-to-day life at the school. Suddenly, there are female staff writers who bring their opinions into the paper, as well. In 1973, Williston students protested the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War; and in 2018, Williston students walked out of class to support gun control. The Willistonian covered both. This connection between the past and future is one of the most important things about our paper.

Our most popular stories tend to be the ones that cover school issues and events and check in with students and faculty. However, many of our staff writers only want to write about national and global issues. The problem that we’ve run into is that nobody really checks The Willistonian for their national or global news. Although this has been a challenge, it has had a positive effect on many of our stories. When a writer pitches a non-Williston story, he or she has to pitch it in a way that relates to us. Earlier this year, we covered a plane with only green energy, and the writer interviewed science teachers at Williston as well as students interested going into the STEM fields and international students who fly to and from home. The small change we made to how we cover those stories greatly improved our paper. 

Personally, I’ve enjoyed writing profiles of notable alumni: This past year, I wrote about Brittany Collins (class of ’14) and her literary journal that publishes works from women across the country. Before that, I wrote about Kate Nocera (class of ’01), the Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for Buzzfeed News. I was among the first to interview Chelsea Kline, a candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate. But most of all, my favorite subjects are my peers. I love writing about amazing people on campus, like A’Shaela Chaires (class of ’18), who won the Springfield Museums’ Ahadi Youth Award, given to an African-American who has excelled academically and contributed to the Greater Springfield community. I think that is the best part about writing for The Willistonian.

We distribute our paper all around campus, and that process is actually tons of fun. We receive the paper after having a giant group-editing session (it is pretty painstaking; I give our writers credit), and we get this big box of copies. I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been working on the paper for a whole trimester or because I’ve spent too many late nights in the library with my co-editor and journalism teacher, but to me there is nothing better than seeing those fresh newspapers. And I think they smell nice, too. During our class period, we take stacks of papers to the student center, gym, dorms, administrative buildings and the library — and it makes me kind of feel like the nerdy, Jewish version of Santa.

I think that plenty of students read the paper, especially in the first week, because we put them in places where they tend to congregate. We’ve found that placing papers in the dining hall has been especially successful. The key to attracting readers is having a really interesting front page. If they see pictures of their classmates or headlines about things that really affect them, they’ll start reading. And if the story is well written, then they will keep reading. Our most widely read articles are the ones that are the most relevant to students: stories on the new academic schedule, for instance. Student and teacher profiles are also popular (and the most fun to write.) That’s my favorite thing about our newspaper. I love writing about the local issues that affect our student body, and I feel good and helpful when we publish them. 

Every time I start to question why I write for the newspaper — when we’re frantically designing the print edition or I’m reading yet another article about the video game Fortnite or about a minor-league hockey player (seriously, I get those a lot; I know so much about minor-league hockey now) — I try to remember why I started writing in the first place. I was in ninth grade at Williston, and I really did not like English. But I had this teacher, who also happened to by my adviser, named Ms. Mantegna. She had blond hair, wore long, flowing pants, and made me love English class. At the time, she was the faculty adviser for the newspaper, and although she was leaving that year, she made me sign up for the class.  

My first assignment was writing about the bagel shop Tandem that is always packed with Williston students and is actually located on campus. Tandem had just gotten its liquor license, and I interviewed the owners, my schoolmates and Williston’s Dean of Students. I remember looking through my interviews and putting the article together like a puzzle. Once I was finished writing it, I was hooked. I continued writing for the paper because I’ve been able to find people who are just as passionate about writing as I am. We have around 15-20 staff writers in our journalism class, up to three managing editors, and even more contributing writers. Starting this fall, I will be the editor-in-chief.

You can visit The Willistonian online at willistonian.org.