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J-School Confidential: MTV Chronicles Star Reporters-to-be

Future journalism stars take center stage at this high school newspaper in a new MTV reality series

By Eric Kuhn - November 9, 2007
In the latest edition of J-School Confidential, we trade higher learning for high school and enter the world of MTV's upcoming reality show The Paper, debuting in early '08. The show follows editors of The Circuit, the high school paper of Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Florida, as they struggle to produce a 32-page color issue every month, while balancing school work, family, and the typical drama of teenage life. Our writer spoke with the paper's faculty adviser and the producer of the show about the insanity of the newsroom, what makes a good journalist, and the death threats one op-ed writer received.

Writers' deadlines had come and gone, editors had edited, the layout team had added their final touches, and all that remained was for the newspaper's computer file to be converted into a PDF -- the only way it could be sent off to the printer. Where was the one guy who knew how to do this particular task? At "High School Musical on Ice," of course.

This will be one of the plots to appear on MTV's newest reality show, The Paper, a series about a high school newspaper, set for an eight-episode run in the first quarter of 2008.

The Circuit, operated and managed by 60 students and faculty adviser Rhonda Weiss, reports on Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Florida. The paper comes out seven times a year, skipping January because of winter break.

MTV's relationship with the paper started when one of Mrs. Weiss's student's friend's mothers (how most things seem to happen in this business) saw a post for auditions. The mother told the student, knowing he was on the newspaper staff. The editors prepared a video, and before they knew it, MTV came down to Florida to shoot the pilot.

"We are a very local, boisterous group," says Weiss, an English and journalism teacher who has been the paper's adviser for six years. "Our high school is the largest in the country and our staff is very large. I can't compare us to other schools' [newspapers], but we probably looked a little insane when they saw what was going on in the room."

The pilot focuses on picking the editorial positions for the following year and the drama that goes along with it. Since Cypress Bay High is large and competitive, these students see an editor title, in part, as a means to an end for getting into a great college. The paper's first editor-in-chief went to Cornell; last year's editor is attending George Washington University with aspirations of becoming a political speechwriter.

A good high school journalist is "someone who is independent, takes initiative, isn't afraid to talk to people and ask tough questions -- so they need a bit of an outgoing personality -- and is a good writer (the most important part)," says Weiss, who was the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper.

Six thousand color copies of the 32-page paper are printed each month, so the writers and editors have to be rock stars. "My students have done stories where they interviewed school board members, county members, and really gone up the ranks," Weiss says. And while the school pays Weiss' salary and supplements the paper, covering costs that advertisements do not pay for, The Circuit has editorial freedom.

One kid wrote such a provocative editorial on immigration that he received death threats.

But, like any rock band, problems can arise and MTV will have their cameras rolling. Two of the editors are dating. The ups and downs of that relationship at any given time bleeds into their newspaper life. The show's executive producer, Marshall Eisen, wants to focus on the conflict between work and life outside the paper. "They are so committed to the paper that much of their personal lives are shaped by what they do on it," he said in a recent telephone interview. "It is such a time commitment it effects everything else they do in their lives."

Eisen worked on his junior-high newspaper, but admits that it certainly pales in comparison to The Circuit's operation. One kid -- yes, they are still kids -- wrote such a provocative editorial on immigration that he received death threats. However, between acting like Lou Dobbs and undergoing the demands for excellence, each staff member has to study for tests, apply to colleges, and decide if time allows involvement in other school activities.

MTV's executives have high hopes that the show will break new ground in the crowded high school reality show market. "With The Paper we dive into a rarely seen side of High School life -- showcasing the dynamic and surprisingly intense life of students working on their high school newspaper," Dave Sirulnick, executive vice president of MTV News and Docs, wrote in a statement. Newspapers are "a subset entirely ignored in teen movies and TV," Weiss says. "When you think of teen movies or teen cliques, you think of the band kids, the athletes, the cheerleaders, whatever, but the newspaper kids are a group like any other, but are different from any other. [They aren't] a stereotype of what you see in teen movies."

The Paper will have elements of typical high school based entertainment coupled with real life (read: adult) reality. What Eisen found most surprising during the filming of the pilot was the amount of office politics. "It is really no different than any other high power competitive work place in how they manage and deal with each other and compete and support," he said. "They are all just crammed into this one big room, so all of it just played out in front of your eyes."

Neither Weiss nor her students have seen the pilot or any final product. "They are keeping us in the dark about it, which is a little nerve-racking," she admits. "I am excited, but a little nervous to see how we are really presented. From my point of view, I am hoping it shines a spotlight on high school journalism and that journalism is a noble pursuit."

Of course, how viewers will react is still up in the air. Weiss thinks MTV made "an incredibly brilliant decision," although as any good journalist adviser would teach, she adds, "but, I am biased."

The best advice Weiss gives to her students is: "Separate yourself from the story. It's about what other people are doing. It's not all about you being mad the lunch line is too long." She instructs the budding journalists to remember, "As the journalist, you are not the story." That advice seems ironic, now that the cameras are turned on The Circuit's staff.

Eric Kuhn is a junior at Hamilton College, majoring in Government, but has already made a name for himself in print, television, radio, and podcasts. He is a Huffington Post contributor, the co-editor of PBase Magazine, an international online magazine, host of the radio show and podcast Kuhn & Company, and the editor-at-large of his school newspaper. Eric has interned for NBC News Digital Media, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, and The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, and has published numerous articles and blog posts on and To find out more, visit him online.

Full disclosure: Kuhn has been consistently involved in his school newspapers -- from The Farragut Times (middle school) and The Buzzer (high school) to The Spectator (college) -- since 5th grade.

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