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Double scoops

At Newton South, two papers vie to make headlines

Nine students pepper their principal with questions. Why is the school construction project taking so long? Why will students get gym credit for taking sex ed? Any thoughts about the upcoming trial of a driver's education teacher accused of assaulting a student?

Some carry reporter's notebooks and tape recorders. Others scribble notes into their three-ring binders.

The student journalists sit in two groups. On one side are reporters from The Lion's Roar, a tabloid that frequently tests the limits of high school journalism. On the other are reporters from Denebola, a broadsheet that calls itself "the official school newspaper."

While many major US cities are down to one newspaper, Newton South High School boasts two. The principal started holding weekly news conferences this year because he was getting stopped so often by reporters in the hallways. One out of 10 students is on one paper or the other.

"I don't know of any school other than that one that has two papers at least in part supported by the school," said Jack Dvorak, director of the High School Journalism Institute at Indiana University. "That really is rare, if not unique."

Both newspapers serve the school's 1,550 students and their parents. They fight for scoops and try to one-up each other with better photos, design, and news analysis. The competition has led to friction between their two advisers, who are both faculty members in the English department. Last year, 3,000 copies of The Lion's Roar were confiscated by the principal after a controversial article appeared on its front page.

Most students say the competition is healthy -- and they say that it is a tribute to their school that there is enough talent to support two newspaper staffs.

"If there's competition, certainly it's friendly. I don't really think it's that cutthroat," said Sarah Tucker, coeditor of The Lion's Roar. "They congratulate us, we congratulate them.

"I don't know that it's camaraderie," Tucker added. "But they're our peers. You're in the same classes. It's not like we're going to different offices or working in different places."

The Lion's Roar was started in 1984 when a Denebola staff member lost his bid to become editor-in-chief. With several other defectors from Denebola and money from his parents, he launched The Lion's Roar. The new paper started out as an irreverent and satirical alternative to Denebola, which was founded when the school opened in 1960.

In the early 1990s, school administrators recognized that the Lion would keep roaring and assigned the paper a faculty adviser and office space comparable to that of the Denebola. Students are not awarded school credit for working on either paper.

Competing newspapers "sounds good in theory," says George Abbott White, the faculty adviser to Denebola, but in practice it is "counter-productive.

"Imagine, if you will, two school varsity basketball teams," he said.

Denebola historically has had a reputation of being the better newspaper and has produced journalists who have gone on to The Washington Post and The New York Times. The Lion's Roar's claim to fame is B.J. Novak, a star on the MTV show "Punk'd," who edited the paper in the late '90s.

But over the past few years, the tabloid has become more ambitious and is being taken more seriously. It began to print color in 2002, and Denebola followed a year later. The Lion's Roar also this year started a magazine, Uproar, inserted in the paper four times a year.

The most recent issue of the magazine, with the headline "Blue State High," examined what makes Newton South's politics different from other schools, and includes comments from students in Lexington, S.C., and Oxford, Miss. The issue also profiled a prayer group that meets weekly at Newton South, which the headline said "represents a touch of red amidst a sea of blue."

The Lion's Roar, which comes out every three weeks, also recently raised enough ad revenue to become free, like the monthly Denebola. Both paper names derive from the school's mascot, the lion; Denebola is the tail star in the constellation Leo.

The Lion's Roar has 100 staff members, double the number at Denebola, and recently won a Pacemaker Award, which is viewed as the Pulitzer Prize of high school journalism. Since Denebola isn't a member of the National Scholastic Press Association, it wasn't eligible for the award. "Putting out a paper as large and as inclusive as the one we do doesn't leave huge amounts of time for joining associations or attending conferences," White said

Both papers, though, are members of the New England Scholastic Press Association, and go head-to-head in its annual competition. Denebola has received the award for "general excellence" numerous times and it typically beats out The Lion's Roar at these conferences, according to advisers at both papers

"I always viewed Denebola as the established paper, and The Lion's Roar as the scrappy up-and-comer which fights for every nickel it gets," said Robert Provencher, the newspaper adviser at Day Middle School and a 37-year veteran of the Newton schools. "But does a school the size of South really support, or does it need, two newspapers? That's the question I've always asked myself. Are the community and the students best served by those two papers?"

About 3 of 4 high schools have a student newspaper, according to a national survey of 544 high schools released last month by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Connecticut. Fewer than 1 in 10 have news magazines. The study also showed that 56 percent of high school students read some sort of newspaper at least once a week; only 13 percent say they read the paper every day.

In addition to the two newspapers, Newton South also has a literary magazine called Reflections and a radio station. The city's other public high school, Newton North, has one newspaper, the Newtonite, which was founded in 1922.

Because there's not a whole lot of breaking news in a high school, the content in Denebola and The Lion's Roar is similar. Both papers cover high school sports teams and review school plays. They write about parking issues and school construction.

They also have a lot of questions for the school's primary newsmaker, principal Michael Welch.

"I would get five, six, seven kids asking to meet with me," Welch said. "That's great, but it was taking a tremendous amount of time. And it was becoming a little bit redundant." His press briefings, which began this year, are held each Wednesday in a lecture hall and are attended by about a dozen reporters.

Everyone agrees that The Lion's Roar has the upper hand on graphics and layout.

"I've always thought The Roar more typographically adroit, better designed, and more attractive in general appearance," White said.

Denebola is likely to use clip art, for example, while The Lion's Roar uses student artwork and photo illustrations. The Lion's Roar also regularly has editorial cartoons, and the profiles of columnists' faces are hand-drawn, Wall Street Journal style.

Denebola, though, is more creative in its arts and lifestyles coverage. It recently had a column headlined "Hair: It's what's for dinner," that had eight different haircuts South students are sporting, including "luscious locks," the "updo," and the "Jew Fro."

Denebola is also much more likely to get into issues beyond school borders. In recent months it's had articles on St. Bernard Parish in West Newton beginning its vigil, parents being removed from a gay pride event at Newton North, and an analysis of Russian politics. The paper recently started a Global Education section, featuring travel and educational articles.

The Lion's Roar has a different voice, sticking primarily to the school beat. The paper also seems to revel in creating controversy.

In the Dec. 17 issue it published an anonymous article, called "Relationships: The morning after," about a teenager who wrote about waking up naked and hung over in a guy's bedroom. Critics said it was inappropriate for a high school newspaper. Student editors said the article exposed the choices that high school students make, and that it should teach a lesson about the risks of alcohol.

"I have never felt the need to push Denebola's editors and staff to make controversy for controversy's sake," White said in an e-mail to the Globe. "Good things are being done by a wide range of student artists, musicians, athletes, debaters, budding scientists and skateboarders -- their achievements, their hopes, their difficulties, what they feel as well as what they think, deserves ink."

Brian Baron, the faculty adviser for The Lion's Roar, says he understands this style of journalism. He just doesn't subscribe to it.

"I'm not one to shy away from stuff just because it's difficult to write about, whereas George probably would," said Baron, a former Washington reporter for States News Service. "He sees [Denebola] as being a cheerleader and I see us as being a voice of the students. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. We just have a different approach, and we provide a different outlook."

Last year, the newspapers' rivalry -- and the contrasting approaches of their advisers -- became more public after The Lion's Roar published an article about a star athlete's arrest and his stormy relationship with an ex-girlfriend.

The front-page article prompted a visit from the athlete's parents and his attorney, and led the school principal to confiscate all of the issues of the newspaper. After the ACLU got involved, the newspapers were returned and distributed to the students.

In the next issue of Denebola, White wrote a column that did not mention the particular incident or The Lion's Roar but was meant as a criticism of Baron and his paper. "Because the First Amendment just might be on your side, is it right to make public the perhaps private image you've captured or news you want to report?" White wrote.

"It was not First Amendment. It was really bad judgment," White said last week in an interview. "We've got autonomy, but we also have responsibility."

The advisers, who in the past have taken students to Washington, have not spoken to each other since.

Baron says he's been criticized by other teachers as well for the newspaper's coverage. Last year, for example, Newton South's basketball coach was involved in a postgame altercation with a player from Boston Latin. Charges were never filed, but The Lion's Roar did a front-page article on the incident, headlined: "Coach Not Charged in Fight." The coach did not think the incident was worthy of the coverage it received, and made it known to Baron.

"Advising the paper certainly hasn't been good for my career -- if I were wanting to move up or advance, this would be a very bad move," Baron said. "It hasn't been easy. But if I weren't prepared for that kind of animus, I would quit."

But Baron is well-liked among the students, and many attribute his work to the recent rise of The Lion's Roar. He began advising the paper five years ago and during that time the paper has gained more respect. There are still signs of its irreverent past, but the school's "black sheep" has become more "mainstream," said coeditor Tucker.

Baron, 35, also gives his students considerable leeway in making decisions. At times he doesn't even attend editorial meetings, but before going to press asks students to justify their news judgments. White, 61, is much more hands-on, attending the principal's weekly press conferences and coaching his students as they ask their questions.

Students take pride in writing for their respective papers, but most don't have philosophical reasons for joining one over the other. Typically, it's because a sibling wrote for that paper, or because they had Baron or White in class.

Then after making a decision, students tend to become entrenched in their newspaper.

"It wasn't really a conscious choice on my part; my best friends in high school were from the paper," said Danya Pastuszek, an editor at Denebola from 1998-99. "But once people started writing for one, they didn't write for the other." Her brother, Jonathan, was later a Lion's Roar sports editor.

Nina Gold, the current editor of Denebola, declined to talk about the newspapers in depth because, she said, "Talking about the publications will only be cruel and divisive." Other Denebola staff members also declined comment.

"Staff members and the school population have tried to perpetuate an old rivalry between the two," Gold said in an e-mail. "In truth, the senior editors of both papers do communicate with each other and have maintained a fairly good relationship. Sometimes Denebola agrees with the Roar, and sometimes it does not."

But like most high school activites, students often become passionate about what they're doing. And those passions don't wear off, even years after they've graduated.

Denebola's staff this year came out with bright-blue hooded sweatshirts with their last names on the back. The Lion's Roar has an online store that sells 25 items, including baby bibs, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and bumper stickers.

"We were a student paper more than a school paper," said Matthew Natale, an assistant editor during The Lion's Roar first year. "It was feistier, blunter, cockier, and had more swagger. And God bless all of those traits."

"I'm not slamming Denebola, but it is what it is," he said. "I never thought of volunteering for Denebola. Ever."

Matt Viser can be reached at viser@globe.com.

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