High school journalist receives national recognition

Alexandre Silberman receives the Student Journalist Impact Award from Mark Newton, Journalism Education Association president, at the JEA 2017 spring national convention in Seattle.

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BRATTLEBORO — Alexandre Silberman, a senior at Burlington High School and co-editor of "The BHS Register," the school's student newspaper, which has published continuously since 1898, was recently named one of six runners-up in the Journalism Education Association's High School Journalist of the Year competition.

As a runner-up, Silberman receives a scholarship of $850. He also won the JEA Student Journalist Impact Award for his coverage of the 2016 contract talks, which had reached an impasse, between the Burlington school board and the teachers' union.

In an email interview, Silberman shared a piece he wrote describing his coverage of those contract talks.

"With the absence of local media coverage to inform the public, I decided to tackle the issue myself. Digging deep into documents and understanding the legal language of a contract and collective bargaining was not easy ... I attended countless school board meetings, reporting on the progress and providing updates in real time through social media. Many teachers and parents had young children and could not attend the meetings at night. I decided to bring in equipment and live-stream the events to increase access and promote civic participation."

In mid-October, 2016, the union voted to strike, beginning on Oct. 20, if last-ditch negotiations failed.

"After weeks of covering the negotiations," Silberman wrote, "I decided I would be on the frontlines for a last-ditch session. I spent close to a dozen hours camped with professional journalists outside of school district offices. When the local television reporters left I remained, providing consistent and timely updates via social media.

Thousands of community members, including the mayor, tuned in to my live coverage. When the news broke that a deal had been reached, I took to Facebook Live, streaming the updates in real-time to hundreds of community members. My reporting was cited by professional news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio."

JEA, with more than 2,700 members, is the largest scholastic journalism organization for teachers and advisers, according to the website.

JEA provides training around the country at national conventions and institutes, offers national certification for teaching high school journalism, publishes print and online resources on the latest trends in journalism education, provides avenues for virtual discussion among teachers and communities, and mentoring to learn best practices, and monitors and defends First Amendment and scholastic press rights across the country.

Silberman first heard about the Journalist of the Year competition in June 2016 at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, a week-long all-expenses paid conference for rising high school seniors, in Washington, D. C. He looked into the details on the JEA website, and decided he was ready for the challenge.

"I began by making a list of what I considered to be my best journalistic work throughout high school," he said. "I spent hours and hours building the website over Thanksgiving and Christmas break. I estimate it took me over 50-plus hours. In the end, it was worth every minute I put into it."

Silberman entered his portfolio (http://alexandresilberman.weebly.com/) in the state-level contest and was pleased when he learned he was named Vermont's High School Journalist of the Year.

His portfolio was then automatically entered in the national competition. Thirty-four state winners competed.

At the JEA national convention in Seattle in April, Silberman was recognized as one of six runners-up.

"It was such an honor to be named one of the top seven student journalists in the nation," he said. "I've poured so many hours and late nights into my work over the past few years. This was the moment where all of that hard work paid off and was recognized. It was a pretty special moment for me, and definitely the pinnacle of my high school journalism career."

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The four-day convention brought together over 3,800 high-school journalism students from all over the country.

"I had the opportunity to attend some incredible sessions," Silberman said. "I heard from Peter Haley, a photographer with the 'Tacoma News-Tribune' about stories behind his images. I also heard from Eric Thomas, the executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, who helped advise a group of students who investigated their principal's credentials. Her degree turned out to be fabricated, and she resigned. The students made national news."

On the second day of the convention, Silberman said, he had lunch with the JEA president Mark Newton and nine other students who had been selected for "Lunch with the President."

"It was fascinating to learn about the great things students were doing around the country," Silberman said. "One student had created a live-sports broadcasting network. I also learned that censorship and prior review are a problem at schools around the country.

One student said that a reporter for her newspaper was told by administration that she couldn't write about the women's march movement. I have had my principal personally pressure me not to run a story or image, and request specific edits to articles before publication.

"This reaffirmed my belief in the need for New Voices legislation," he continued. "I told the group about my efforts in Vermont and talked about how I had testified earlier that week."

New Voices, a project of the Student Press Law Center (www.splc.org), is a student-powered grassroots movement to extend First Amendment freedom of expression to young people: to give them the legally protected right to gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern.

"New Voices creates a clear set of standards for what can and cannot be published, rather than leaving it up to the principal," Silberman said. "New Voices legislation would allow students to report and write without fear of backlash. The work that the BHS 'Register' has done is meaningful and has made a difference in the community. The ability to publish that work needs to be protected."

Listening to the speakers at the convention convinced Silberman that, while platforms may change, "there is no substitute for good storytelling," he said. "Solid writing, interviewing and reporting skills are the core of every story. The methods for telling and delivering those stories may have changed, but the foundation is still present."

The "BHS Register," with its staff of eight students (David Lamberti, faculty adviser), publishes a print newspaper every two weeks, Silberman said, and has a circulation of approximately 500 copies.

The website has new online content every one-to-two days, and receives an average of 3,900 page-views per month.

"(As co-editor) I've encouraged the students I work with to tackle challenging stories that are meaningful to our readers," Silberman said. "We've closely covered the school board, investigated the administrative hiring process, looked into handicap accessibility issues, and told the story of transgender students who could not have their name changed on their student IDs. Our reporting has done what good journalism should: raise awareness, create civic engagement, and hold those in power accountable. The 'Register' has developed into the source hundreds of community members depend on to stay informed about BHS and the district at large."

Silberman sees himself becoming a professional journalist, perhaps as a political reporter for a major media company in Washington, D. C., or perhaps a foreign correspondent. He will attend St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.

"The convention served as a reminder that the future of journalism is bright," he said. "Despite the financial struggles of the digital age, thousands of students around the country are eager to get involved with journalism."

Nancy A. Olson is a regular contributor to the Reformer and is the Vermont State Director for the Journalism Education Association. She can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com.