Cherubs learn to be effective editors

Two boys sit on a couch and work on their laptops.

Andrew Kwa (left) and Will Kubzansky (right) work on rewriting their trend stories in a third floor common room. Photo by Eric Neugeboren

Will Kubzansky of Washington, D.C., is editor-in-chief of The Cageliner, a student newspaper at Edmund Burke High School. He supervises about 10 people, eight of them middle schoolers, with the youngest 11 years old. For him, running a successful paper is a lot of hard work.

Kubzansky is not alone. Most of the cherubs will hold leadership positions on their respective publications. The Medill cherub program provides these students with an opportunity to learn skills they can apply to improve those newspapers and websites.

“I’ve learned from Bret Begun’s ‘Anatomy of an Edit’ that at the beginning you can’t be crazy nitpicky about your edits,” Kubzansky said. “You just need to edit for clarity, conciseness and accuracy. I can’t have these absurd standards for the first edit. That will make things a lot better, and that will make conversations a lot easier.”

Cherubs take part in workshops and lectures ranging from lead writing to managing a publication. With the workshop choices, students have room to pursue a passion or try something new.

“Students can expect getting their work held to professional standards, not high school, without worrying about grades, because there’s no grade,” instructor John Kupetz said. “What you get here is the best of both worlds. You learn from your mistakes here.”

Kupetz also leads a newspaper critique workshop, which attracts students who want to make changes to their high school paper. At the critique, students will find their publications covered in green ink with Kupetz’s recommendations and suggestions.

Kubzansky came away with several goals.

“We need to have editorials,” he said. “We need to establish an editorial board. We need to have a line of succession.”

Students also learn from their peers. Instead of having section editors like most other peer publications, Kubzansky is the only editor of his newspaper. He plans to address this after conversations with other students.

“I need to move some people up,” he said.

Some students arrive at the program with less experience in writing but with a passion to learn nevertheless.

Eileen Chen of Hefei, China, said that with no formal journalism classes at her school, she has had to teach herself most of the principles of journalism.

“I didn’t know how to write a news story before this program,” Chen said. “I just searched for good feature stories that are provided by some journalism online courses, and I try to summarize a template or a pattern through them.”

Chen spent many late nights pulling together ideas she found online for other staff members of her publication, The Verbum. She wants to encourage more students at her school to write for the paper, which is not an easy task. The language barrier is a major problem, Chen said.

“It’s a strenuous path to get to my goal,” she said. “But through this program, I’ve found a more straight forward path.”

Chen plans to open workshops and sessions where she can pass on the skills she has learned during the summer to other aspiring student journalists at her school.

Aside from technical skills, students also have a chance to improve their leadership skills. Managing a publication requires students to delegate tasks and collaborate with each other. In a session called “To Do and Not To Do as EIC,” Medill Professor Tim Franklin  who has served as the top editor of three major newspapers  advised students on how to work with their staff.

Franklin said for the editor-in-chief, people skills, including social interaction and delegating jobs, are more important than technical skills. Students in managing positions must understand and sympathize with other people to create a collaborative environment.

Elizabeth Link of Washington, Illinois, said she will take away from the program more than just technical experience.

“I don’t think I’ve learned necessarily about how to better my newspaper physically,” Link said. “But I’ve learned a lot about how to better my staff and how to make sure the [newspaper] program is fun and attaining the same success while being a collaborative and educational environment.”

Instructor Mary Lou Song said it does not matter what position students have.

“We’d like to focus on skills and values that cherubs can use at any organization and at any leadership position,” Song said. “We try to foster skills and values that will work everywhere.”