Michael Stroud/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Michael Stroud/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

5 Times Student Newspapers Broke Big Stories

Michael Stroud/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Michael Stroud/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anyone who is curious to see what the future of journalism holds should pick up a student-run newspaper. In between the new teacher profiles and sports highlights, they may find hard-hitting stories that rival reporting done for award-winning national outlets. Here are five examples of articles written by high school and college students that led to real-world results.

1. NEW PRINCIPAL’S BACKGROUND CALLED INTO QUESTION

Maddie Baden, a junior at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kansas and co-editor of the school's newspaper, didn’t intend to break a major news story. When it was announced on March 6 that Amy Robertson had been hired as the school’s new principal, Baden volunteered to write a profile on her. But what should have been a straightforward piece quickly morphed into an in-depth investigation of Robertson’s credentials, according to The New York Times.

The real reporting began when basic details Robertson gave in her interview didn’t check out. Corllins University, the institution from which Robertson claimed to have earned her master’s and doctorate degrees, lists no physical address on its website. Further research revealed that Corllins is an online university that’s been accused of not offering proper accreditation to its students. Baden, along with other student staff members at The Booster Redux, published the front-page story titled "District Hires New Principal: Background called into question after discrepancies arise" on March 31. By April 4, Robertson had resigned "in light of the issues that arose," according to a board statement. For their part in uncovering the truth, the kids made headlines of their own.

2. SECRET CAMERAS INSTALLED THROUGHOUT SCHOOL

In December 2007, students at Massachusetts's Newton South High School were unsettled to read that hidden cameras had been installed around their halls in secret. Teachers on the school committee, who first learned of the cameras in the school newspaper, were equally surprised.

Juniors Jason Kuo and Nathan Yeo broke the story in the Denebola, their student newspaper, months after the security cameras were put in place. They didn’t share how they got the scoop, but they did make sure to include a quote from the superintendent confirming the presence of cameras before sending the story to print. The cameras hadn’t been activated yet by the time the news broke. Nonetheless, members of both the school staff and student body felt they should have been notified before the new security measures were enacted. The superintendent heard their concerns and promised to be more upfront about the system moving forward.

3. GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY MISREPRESENTS ADMISSIONS POLICY

When it was revealed in 2013 that George Washington University had been dishonest about their admissions policy, the story made national news. But the facts first came to light in the campus newspaper. The staff at The GW Hatchet saw their opportunity to break the story following an administration switch-up at the admissions and financial aid offices. During an interview, then-assistant news editor Jeremy Diamond asked Laurie Koehler, the school’s new associate provost for enrollment management, how GW was able to follow a need-blind acceptance policy with its relatively small endowment. Koehler gave an answer that conflicted with statements made by her predecessors, which opened the door for students to further investigate the scandal. The final story reported that financial need had always played a bigger role in the admissions process than the school let on. Koehler responded by saying that the administration would work harder to "increase the transparency" in the future.

4. YOUNG IMMIGRANT DIES ... INDENTURED SERVITUDE TO BLAME

News reports of a tragic death led to the uncovering of a human trafficking operation when Berkeley High School students took a closer look at the story. In November 1999, a teen girl died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a Berkeley, California apartment. The death was initially ruled an accident, but high school student Megan Greenwell suspected there was more to the story. "Every other Bay Area newspaper just had the story of the tragic death, but we were finding out [the victim] wasn't even going to school and she was 17," Greenwell told The San Francisco Examiner. "That made me think there was something bigger."

Greenwell and her news editor at The Jacket, Iliana Montauk, began interviewing students and teachers with connections to people involved in the incident. They gathered accounts of human trafficking taking place in the apartment where the girl had died and other apartments owned by the same local landlord. On December 10 of that year, they published an article under headline "Young Indian Immigrant Dies in Berkeley Apartment," with the subhead, "South Asian Community Says 'Indentured Servitude' May Be to Blame." A month after the story broke, the landlord was charged with smuggling young girls into the country from India.

5. SCHOOL BOARD HOLDS ILLEGAL MEETING BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Palo Alto High School’s newspaper The Campanile owes one of the biggest scoops in its history to an anonymous tipster. After a meeting took place between school board members in 1996, the minutes from the session found their way into the mailbox of Esther Wojcicki, a journalism teacher at the school and its newspaper's adviser. The notes revealed that the board had moved to give one administrator a $9000 raise and promotion behind closed doors. From there the student journalists dug into the story, learning that the school board’s activity may have been illegal. According to the Brown Act, all public agencies in California must conduct business in public unless they’re dealing with personnel matters. By deciding the promotion in private, The Campanile suggested that the board had possibly violated that law. Once the job opening was made known to the public, Palo Alto High School administrators redid the meeting in an open forum.

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Paradise Found Around, YouTube
A Very Special History of The More You Know
Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

For the past 29 years, NBC has devoted a portion of airtime that could otherwise be sold for substantial advertising dollars to provide brief reminders about basic human decency, teen issues, and social controversies. Efficiently packaged in 30-second increments and featuring recognizable faces, The More You Know campaign has become synonymous with lessons in ethics. Wrap up a serious conversation with your kid about drug use and they’re likely to respond by humming the campaign’s theme song. (“Da-da-da-dahhh.”)

But how did the network find itself the messenger for these widely celebrated (and widely parodied) spots? And did they really have any impact?

 
 

The idea of a public service announcement—a philanthropic use of airtime on television or radio to serve a greater good—started in the United States back in the 1940s, when stations allocated some of their commercial or program time to remind people about the war efforts under the guidance of the newly-formed War Advertising Council. The idea had been imported from the UK, which had long featured film reels on public safety tips, like how to cross a road. PSAs relied on truncated, catchy messages (“Loose lips sink ships”) to impart ideas with the limited time they had available.

After the Allied victory, the War Advertising Council became the Ad Council, and the scope of their mission changed from world-altering events to comparatively mundane topics. Aligned with mandates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), public service announcements attempted to balance special interests with objective information. In the late 1960s, for example, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine took aim at tobacco advertising, with one PSA on the dangers of the habit airing for every three cigarette spots. The number of smokers in the U.S. actually declined before the FCC banned such advertising from airwaves altogether in 1971.

By the 1980s, the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) narrowed their PSA efforts by giving them a unique identity. ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock was among the most popular, using catchy songs to illustrate points about government or science. NBC aired One to Grow On, a series of cautionary messages about everything from chewing tobacco to finishing your homework, with Mr. T. and Michael J. Fox sharing their scripted wisdom.

 
 

In the late 1980s, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, was approached by several nonprofit educational groups to see if the network might want to get involved in raising awareness for the teacher shortage affecting the country. Weinman reached out to former NBC creative director-turned-ad executive Steve Lance, gave him a slogan (“The More You Know”), and asked him to produce five test spots centered around the importance of teachers and education. While NBC wasn't crazy about the campaign, Weinman had support from her own team and from some marketable names working for the network.

“She said she had a few stars of NBC series willing to do PSAs. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a talking-head campaign," Lance tells Mental Floss of not wanting to shoot videos where actors would stand or sit on a spare set and deliver their message. "Talking heads were absolute death.”

Instead, Lance wrote a series of spots focusing on bolstering the public perception of teachers by acknowledging famous educators throughout history like Aristotle and Albert Einstein and stretching Weinman’s slogan to “The more you know, the more you can teach.” Miami Vice co-star Saundra Santiago appeared in one of the spots, which began airing in 1989; so did news anchors Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville, as well as L.A. Law co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

To help give the campaign a visual identity, Lance was paired with Steve Bernstein, a graphic designer who came up with the shooting star illustration that signaled the end of the segment. Bernstein tells Mental Floss he wondered why NBC was reaching out to freelancers rather than in-house employees. "Nobody else [at NBC] would do it," he says. "They were too busy, so Rosalyn had to go outside the network." Bernstein came up with a star that fit neatly under the "W" in the slogan.

Originally, the logo was filmed so it looked like it was in motion, not animated. “We didn’t have the budget for that,” Lance says. The familiar melody was composed by two-time Emmy winner Michael Karp, who also created the theme for Dateline NBC.

The spots garnered praise: Lance wrote a total of 17 that first year, all of them centered around the importance of educators—but Lance left after finishing that first batch when Weinman decided to go in a different direction: NBC was apparently concerned viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between set-decorated spots and actual commercials, so Weinman reverted to the “talking head” premise.

 
 

Despite Lance's departure and the change of format, the series continued just as successfully as before. Its minimalist approach was attractive to actors who enjoyed delivering their lines in a loose and informal setting, and by 1996, director David Cornell herded in actors (including Courteney Cox, Jonathan Silverman, and Eriq La Salle) over a single weekend to tape spots for the entire year, often asking them to pare down their delivery so that it would fit into a 25-second block of time. (The last five seconds were reserved for the star graphic and Karp’s melody.)

The Ad Council, which had seen its role minimized over the years, would later take issue with the proprietary campaigns launched by networks, arguing that they were little more than stealth ads for their programs. To their point, NBC did appear to use at least half the casts of ER and Seinfeld. But the spots could sometimes net tangible results: In 1995, after a series of The More You Know spots on domestic violence, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline went from 228 calls daily to quadruple that amount. The network earned a Public and Community Service Emmy for its efforts, and the campaign—which still airs on NBC—grew to include spots by the cast of Friends and a comedic take courtesy of The Office, as well as appearances by sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You can watch some of the more well-known (and rather dated) spots below.

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Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium
TruTV

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]

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