When the paper they were writing for folded, the kids started their own

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from the publisher of The Pelhams-Plus and the editor of The Pelham Post, and the headline has been updated. 

Francesca Di Cristofano stood up in front of her junior year chemistry class at Pelham Memorial High School and told everyone she had an announcement to make.

The town’s newspaper had fallen apart. It needed a new one. She wanted her classmates to sign up and help make that happen.

A few people, mostly friends, added their names to the Google spreadsheet she made. Di Cristofano made the same pitch to a class of freshmen.

None of them signed up.

But by the end of the day, 25 of her classmates had.

One month later, The Pelham Examiner launched online.

A veteran journalist serves as the adviser. It’s registered as a corporation and owned and run by those students, who aren’t yet making any money at local journalism.

That’s not their goal, though. They just want their town to have news.

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Mr. Zahradnik

Pelham, New York, sits in Westchester County, “close to the city,” a New York Times headline declared last year, “but with a friendly vibe.”

Pelham’s made up of two villages — Pelham Manor and Pelham. In 1998, Gannett merged 11 papers into one, the Journal News.

Now, Pelham has a mishmash of hyperlocal news; there’s a Pelham Patch  (part of the Patch network) and a Pelham Daily Voice (part of the Daily Voice network), and the weekly Pelham Rising (part of Rising Media Group).

The Pelham Weekly served the town for 23 years until June of 2015, when the print edition ceased and the paper went online only as The Pelhams - Plus, a subscription site that currently has 600 subscribers. That site’s coverage includes town and village board meetings on apartment development proposals, cellphone tower proposals. It also runs student work, for which those students get paid.

“The website is for all ages," said Maggie Klein, publisher and editor, "and it’s been well-received.”

The community also has The Pelham Post, a 15-year-old free publication that's online and comes out in print twice monthly. 

"We serve all the Pelhams," said Cynthia Pena, editor of New Rochelle Review, The Pelham Post and The Bronxville Bulletin.

Until last spring, Pelham also had the bi-weekly News of Pelham. That print-only publication asked a former journalist and local novelist for some help getting younger voices, knowing he’d know just the right people.

Rich Zahradnik, who worked for news organizations including CNN, started helping area schools launch online newspapers in 2011. He’s worked with six elementary schools total, teaching students the elements of news stories.

He got area kids to write for The News of Pelham, “but then the paper went under,” he said.

His young journalists were upset, so Zahradnik called a meeting at a local café. He figured three or four would show up, but he had close to 13.

And those kids decided they wanted to start their own paper. Zahradnik talked to them about the cost of paper versus the cost of online. Then they decided they wanted to start their own news site.

One of his best writers, Di Cristofano, couldn’t make the meeting. But she started recruiting at school.

At the next meeting, another 25 middle schoolers and high schoolers showed up, Zahradnik said.

“So we started a paper.”

Low-cost, high-turnover

The Pelham Examiner launched as a free online publication on June 25, right after graduation weekend, with a list of that year’s high school graduates.

Zahradnik registered the Examiner as a corporation. Each of the students involved owns the shares. So far, the economics of running an online news organization that covers two villages with four elected bodies, including the school district and school board, has been pretty low, he said.

“They’re not being paid.”

Neither is Zahradnik, who is instead revising his role as journalism adviser.

For now, they’re writing features, profiles, briefs and covering local news. If they build up enough traffic to warrant ads, he’s open to that. He’d also welcome an investor.

Either way, the plan is for the Pelham Examiner to be self-sustaining, at least in terms of staff. Zahradnik envisions local kids growing up through the Examiner, the oldest teaching the youngest how it all works as the vets graduate and move on each year.

“There's a lot to be said for the teaching hospital model when it comes to training students in journalism,” said Matt DeRienzo, executive director of the Local Independent Online News Publishers, of which the Examiner is a member.

Getting kids to think not just about the news but about how it’s sustained as a business, he said, takes that model one step further.

“It prepares them for the real world they'll be facing,” DeRienzo said. “They're more likely to be in business for themselves as journalists than ever before, and legacy media companies are looking for journalists with an entrepreneurial mindset and skill set as well.”

The kids at the Examiner aren’t yet thinking about a business model, and that unpaid work is an easier sell in Westchester County, Zahradnik said, which is upper middle class.

Most of his students won’t go into journalism, but they’re learning another thing, he said, and that’s media literacy.

When they launched, what mattered to his staff wasn’t getting paid, but that their town was getting covered.

“I’m not going to claim the sixth graders think that,” he added. “They just like seeing their stories in print.”

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Daily news/track and field

The Examiner’s politics editor is a senior and the captain of the varsity track and field team. The living editor is a seventh-grade gymnast who plays the flute. Another staff reporter plays in the middle school jazz band.

Pena, editor of The Pelham Post, applauded what they're doing.

"I understand the amount of hard work that they do aside from their school work to keep this going," she said. 

Everyone who works for the Examiner works on their own, though Zahradnik holds office hours at a café each week. A few of them got hooked back in elementary school when they learned about journalism through Zahradnik, including Di Cristofano, now the managing editor of the Examiner.

She still wants to be a doctor, but working with the Examiner has taught her how to come up with ideas, how to figure out what people want to know, how to manage a news budget, how to deal with journalists who blow deadlines, and how to handle it when readers get angry at you on Facebook, which happened in the first week.

“Even that was exciting,” she said.

It was also the chance for their adviser to teach an important lesson. Some readers got upset at the Examiner — and expressed that on Facebook — for an article about an upcoming local political race.

They criticized the article’s author, and that made executive editor Ben Glickman a little angry, he said.

Then, Zahradnik sat the students down and told them it wasn’t their job to get involved in the arguments.

“Our job,” Glickman said, “is to get the news out.”

Deadlines/homework/college applications

This fall, Di Cristofano has colleges to apply to, a science research program, varsity volleyball and the Examiner.

It’s going to be busy.

“But I love working for this paper,” she said.

Since school started a few weeks ago, the Examiner is publishing about one story a day, plus breaking news. It’s slower than during the summer, and Di Cristofano often works pretty late at night. But she’s hoping it’ll pick up again after the fall.

Glickman, too, will be busy, “but I think in my mind this is one of my top priorities,” he said. “I think that we’ll be able to keep up. I hope so.”

He’s seen the Examiner’s coverage have an immediate impact on the place they live, like when they cover local lane closures. And that matters.

“Especially nowadays,” he said. “Truth is becoming disputed in a lot of places. At least for me, on any level, being a source of information and truth for any sized community, I think it’s really important that we serve that purpose.”

The Pelham Examiner, which is also now part of the New York Press Association, could be a model for other places that no longer have much local news, Zahradnik said.

“A town without a newspaper just needs one journalist who’s being paid by a grant to start something like this,” he said. “You only need one adult.”

Most people think kids can’t do this, he said, but he’s taught the basic rules of how to write a news story to fifth graders for years.

“I know in this town, kids can do it,” he said. “I know in other places, kids can do it, too.”

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