School Newspapers Online recognizes 7 schools as Distinguished Sites in program’s inaugural year

When the SNO team rolled out a new recognition program this winter, hopes were high that schools would want to submit for recognition and to get better. Yet in its first season, the SNO Distinguished Sites program exceeded expectations and made a strong impact on staffs around the country. 

Seven sites received the title SNO Distinguished Site after earning badges in each of the six areas, which include continuous coverage, site excellence, audience engagement, story page excellence, writing excellence and multimedia excellence.

The seven Distinguished Sites are Zephyrus (Edina High School, Edina, Minn.); Knight Errant (Benilde-St. Margaret’s School, St. Louis Park, Minn.); The Kirkwood Call (Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.); Eagle Eye News (Tyrone Area High School, Tyrone, Pa.); The Red Ledger (Lovejoy High School, Lucas, Texas); The Rider (Legacy High School, Mansfield, Texas); and The Legacy Press (Klein Collins High School, Spring, Texas).

In all, 67 sites piled up nearly 150 individual badges.

“We wanted to get rid of ambiguity in what makes a good site,” Jason Wallestad, SNO’s co-founder, said. “The badges represent six components of a modern news website, and we wanted schools to be able to tackle the pieces in the order that made sense for them.”

As a result, the SNO team created standards they hoped staffs could implement at any time.

“Staffs often talk about contest season,” Kari Koshiol, SNO trainer, said. “We are hoping that the standards for these badges mean staffs go beyond that one-time push to become a habit.”

To apply for each badge, a staff had to meet clear criteria, which allowed them to earn the badge and improve their site. Advisers praised its positive effect on their staffs.

Justin Elbert, adviser at Klein Collins High School, said he is thrilled to have a more skilled staff.

“For multimedia, we actually had to teach them how to do video,” he said. “Now we have people on our staff who can make videos — we would not have had that before.”

Elbert applauded SNO for being more than just a hosting service and for pushing schools to do better. He said the criteria outlined by SNO for each badge are spot on, and the students’ efforts will have a lasting effect.

Dianne Smith-Harper, adviser at Travis High School in Richmond, Texas, said her students jumped into the process with enthusiasm. The Distinguished Sites program provided the incentive and feedback they needed to earn four badges.

“I think this program is absolutely the most helpful tool we’ve had since online news sites became more of our focus than print newspapers,” Smith-Harper said.

Encouragement and feedback from SNO helped, too. Badges weren’t awarded automatically, and initial rejection caused students to learn and improve.

“These concepts helped focus our attention on where it should be,” Elizabeth Barniskis, adviser at Edina High School, said. “At first they were overwhelming. We felt we could not earn any of the badges, but we started with one, and earning that initial badge motivated us to keep going.”

Whether motivated by earning badges or just a spirit of competition, advisers said their students drove the application process, one badge at a time.

Jason Toncic, a new journalism adviser at Glen Rock High School in New Jersey, said the standards helped to guide his staff’s creative process on the way to collecting three badges.

“Many of them pushed us to refine what we had been previously producing, leading to a product of which we’re proud,” he said.

Solid journalistic writing forms the basis of a good website, Valerie Kibler, said. Kibler, 2010 National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year, said she appreciated the immediacy to motivate and help her students at Harrisonburg High School in Virginia to earn three badges.

“It’s nice to have an incentive that recognizes the little steps instead of having to wait until the end of the year for evaluations,” Kibler said.

Kibler’s students and others won’t have to wait that long. The 2015 SNO Distinguished Sites program will be announced in late fall with entries accepted beginning Jan. 1.