Read All About It

How Marshal Anderson successfully survived his school’s Newsday project.

Micro User, March ‘88

A NEWSDAY is a project in which children produce their own newspaper in a day, working to deadlines, making editorial decisions, setting out pages and generally behaving like media people. Having decided to go for this project our first need was to get together the necessary equipment. Setting this sort of thing up can be overawing, but we broke it down into two areas: Getting the news and printing it out.

First we would need that day's newspapers, then access to radios; especially one capable of getting World Service for its extensive news coverage. We would also need a computer linked to TMS from which we hoped to get the bulk of our stories. To this we added the school's two televisions which we had recently upgraded to include Teletext. We also got in touch with the local press to arrange for any major local story that should break -note the jargon - that day to be passed to us by phone. For printing out the paper we used Typesetter from Sherston Software, as it seemed to be the right sort of level for 11 and 12 year-olds to cope with. Once set on the screen the page could be turned into either a Banda master or photocopied. The Banda seemed a good idea because it was cheap and we would be able to use colour. Unfortunately, this option was ruled out by the fact that the pressure rollers of our printer - an Epson LX86 - put two lines down the centre of the master copy and we could find no way to overcome this. Photocopying was our only other option.

Now we had to prepare the children. A group was chosen to run the Typesetter software and given time on it. Others were practising making up stories from several information sources while still others looked at how a newspaper was set out - different pages for different topics, headlines, how the most important stories were chosen and so on. We also had yet others preparing features in advance.

Come the day, then, we would have our journalists waiting for the news to come in, news editors and sports editors eager to vet the stories, our typesetters poised to type them and several features ready to go. We were equipped with several extra borrowed computers, two teachers released for the day - GRIST and shuffled classes - help from parents and an advisory teacher.

All this sounds difficult to organise, but given enough lead time it's all fairly straightforward. We had also arranged for a local newsagent to sell the papers from 4.30pm onwards - this gave us our deadline.

Finally the day dawned. Our main problem was space: Children were spread over quite an area with their TVs, radios and computers, so the first thing to break down was communication. The editorial team shut itself in a classroom and sulked, mainly because, sad news though it was, the death of Eamon Andrews hardly seemed world-shattering. And they also discovered that if they short-circuited the system and gave their stories direct to the typesetters no one would veto what they had written. Until, that is, the typesetters started running out of space and began making their own minds up. We really should have put the editors and typesetters together so that some coherence could have been introduced. This was confirmed by our sports editor, who took matters into her own hands and sat with the typesetters telling them exactly what she wanted, producing the best pages in the paper.

Things went fairly smoothly, with stories being taken off Teletext and hawked around the spaces available. Then an Iranian super-tanker was hit by an Iraqi warplane at about the same time as a group of children arrived back from the local shops with their opinion poll on the army bullying case. This seemed to concentrate everyone's minds - decisions now really had to be taken. A TTNS input on the Arab League summit was retrieved to go with the attack news, a leader also needed to be added about the army thing and this meant, with an eye to the clock, some things just had to go.

Once that had been sorted and we were all dashing about trying not to think about our missed lunches, a new problem became apparent. The typesetters were asking what numbers they should put on their pages. This was a problem as we had not planned an exact number, simply aimed at about 10, and naturally the first to be finished were features and sports which went at the back of the paper. The solution was, however, simple: We abandoned page numbers.

We worked on the principal that if there were enough worthwhile stories to fill a page then we would make that page. This was one place where teachers really had to take control because, as soon as a typesetting team had finished one page they just started another. By early afternoon we had three half-finished pages and not the time to complete all of them. At this point decisions became fairly arbitrary.

Up to now the only real technical problem had been with a printer which had caused a temporary bottle neck, but now real disaster threatened - the photocopier was not a happy machine and was flashing its replace master light, This was not really a problem in itself - the man was called to come and do it and the copies were still fine - it could wait. But then we ran out of toner and the calls became quite frantic. Fortunately the repair service was fairly swift and we breathed again, thankful for leasing agreements.

The final problem was totally unexpected. We were all rushing about, feeling quite pleased with ourselves - it was 4.15pm and we had the last pages ready for copying, when the newsagent rang: Who was responsible for this newspaper thing and why hadn't it arrived?

Apparently his fairly small shop was awash with quite large children coming to buy it and we reckoned about half an hour before we'd be ready. When I got to the shop I found the now ejected children spilling out into the road and tried everything from community singing to death threats until the paper - now nine pages long - finally arrived and was instantly sold out.

So what was its value? The children more than 30 of them - had been in a high-pressure, activity with a very tangible product at the end. The group dynamics gave them severe lessons in how to get on with others, or, in some cases, not. Language work obviously came top in academic skills and using the typesetting software was a useful experience and a very real use of computers as a tool. The staff as a whole saw a clear justification for using computers and the parents saw the result of their fund raising to buy the machines.

Next time we would organise the space differently, spend more time developing the skills of preparing written work from several sources - much that went in this time was verbatim - and perhaps develop note-taking as we lost most of what came over the radio.

A very interesting point, however, is that very little of what we used came from TTNS: Teletext was the most fruitful source, and therefore schools without TTNS could quite happily undertake this sort of thing at any time -we certainly felt it was well I worth the effort and we'll be at it again in March - so hold the front page!