High School Newspaper Finds Community and Success During Pandemic

Reading, MA — After Reading Public Schools shut down last March, high schoolers at RMHS have been partaking in a hybrid schedule that has had them only learning in-person on average four days a month. From the outside, the high school looks like a shadow of its former self, no longer sporting its customary packed hallways and usual din of students discussing their plans for the weekend. Yet, community often comes in more than one form and in places you might not expect. To see how students are building these new communities in these unprecedented times, look no further than the RMHS newspaper The Orbit, which despite the hybrid learning format, has provided their readers with everything from students interviews, arts reviews to commentary on national politics. 

Homepage of The Orbit. Photo Courtesy of The Orbit.

According to co-editors Catherine Adams (RMHS ‘21) and Ella Ramos (RMHS ‘21), the newspaper’s diversity in story coverage is thanks in part to their new digital format, as well as their surging number of student writers. 

Previous to last year, The Orbit was functioning mostly as a print newspaper that would come out with three issues a year. 

“With our previous Orbit advisor, we had funding to print copies and disperse them, and we also had a website, but it was difficult to maneuver,” said Adams. 

When Michael McSweeney, an English and journalism teacher at the high school, took over as the advisor for the club last year, he applied for a grant with a private organization to provide the newspaper with a new website and an app. According to Adams and Ramos, that decision was instrumental in making the club into what it is today. 

“Mr. McSweeney said that the grant could either go toward us printing three times throughout the year, which is what we’ve done in the past, or to the new website. And so we made a conscious decision to do online because the outreach was so much stronger than print, where copies would often disappear, and people wouldn’t really see them. So realistically, it just made more sense, and now our relatives and people can look at the newspaper from all across the country,” said Ramos

“When I used to tell people ‘You guys should join the school newspaper,’ they’d say ‘We have a school newspaper?’ The Orbit wasn’t in a cohesive relationship with the school back when we were only in print. Versus now, with the website, our principal publicizes our articles and links to them. I think that helps with publicity, and then kids see that and want to join,” said Adams. 

Some news stories students at The Orbit have reported on. Photo Courtesy of The Orbit.

The other significant shift for the paper came with introducing hybrid learning, but not in the way one might expect. As opposed to the in-person meetings they held last year, Adams and Ramos have found that more students have been attending their virtual meetings. 

“Last year, I think we had less success because our meetings were in-person. We didn’t get a lot of people to physically show up to the meetings. There are so many clubs at RMHS; I think that people just have their passion and kind of stick with it, but this year our meetings have been way more successful than we anticipated” Adams.

Combined with the more flexible publishing format, having more student writers has allowed the paper to branch out in their story coverage, allowing each student to find what they are passionate about and report on it. 

“When we used to do the meetings in-person, we did three issues a year, and so it’d be, for example, the Thanksgiving issue, and it was more like a get to know the new teachers and that sort of thing. I think what is different this year is people have found their niche and really dove into it. With the website, we now have articles due every two weeks, and so it’s become, ‘Whatever you want to write about, just go for it,’” said Ramos. 

Having virtual meetings has also allowed for the editors to share information more effectively, thanks to tools offered through Zoom. 

“I think in a weird way, being almost fully remote has kind of helped because, especially on Zoom with screen sharing, it’s a much easier way of reading stories together, as opposed to when we were in-person, and everyone had to look at them on the board. I think it helps hold people’s attention more,” said Adams. 

According to Adams and Ramos, The Orbit has about six student writers who write for them consistently, with other writers coming from Mr. McSweeney’s journalism class. Writers who have just started writing for the newspaper are labeled as Orbit Contributors on the website. In contrast, students who have contributed three or more articles are known as Staff Reporters. 

What is next for The Orbit? In addition to chasing down leads and covering stories on everything that might impact students’ lives, the newspaper has just released two new podcast series: The Orbit Panel and The Orbit Conversation. The Orbit Panel features a different panel of students every episode to weigh in on that episode’s topic, while The Orbit Conversation features two students talking about their passions, interests, and experiences of being seniors at RMHS. 

The Orbit meets after school on Fridays via Zoom. 

The Orbit: Our Mission & Model. Photo Courtesy of The Orbit
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