The SNO Report: From the newsroom to the classroom

While SNO works with many middle schools, high schools, and colleges, we’re lucky enough to host a few elementary school papers as well. One of these is The Colonial Times, from Colonial Elementary School in Pelham, New York. We recently spoke with Rich Zahradnik, who teaches the fourth and fifth graders that comprise the Times’ staff.

Zahradnik is an accomplished journalist in his own right, having worked in the field for three decades before becoming an educator. It all began at 15, when he wrote a letter to the editor criticizing a local school board member. She called his mother to complain.

“I realized I could write things that would have an impact,” he said. “I was sold.”

After studying journalism in college, Zahradnik landed a job at an independently owned, local daily. He began writing business news, then national news, eventually going on to report on everything from film to finance to sports. “I was obsessed with understanding media itself,” he said.

When the paper was acquired in ‘86 by media giant Gannett, Zahradnik and two of his colleagues–who knew nothing about running a business—set out to publish their own. The Peekskill Herald was “badly undercapitalized,” he said. “Running your own paper is the hardest work. You’re responsible for the staples, tax forms, postage, everything.”

It was gratifying work, too, though. It was also something that would have been impossible just a few years prior. The brand-new Macintosh had just begun to replace expensive typesetting equipment. “This affected news producers, not consumers,” said Zahradnik. “But it lowered the barrier to entry to publishing.”

What did affect consumers, of course, was the Internet. Like many journalists and journalism educators, Zahradnik has mixed feelings about digital publishing.

“Everyone receives news at the speed only newswires once operated at. We can read pieces we would never have seen before,” he said. “[But] bloggers in basements are not the same as feet on the street—at city hall, the school board meeting, the police precinct. When everyone’s rewriting everyone else, who will be left doing original reporting?”

After the Herald, Zahradnik went on to work at some big-name outlets—CNN, AOL, Fox. He said each newsroom had a distinctly different culture. “CNN was entrepreneurial. Fox often felt like a political campaign… AOL spent its time obsessing [about] click-throughs.”

Zahradnik began teaching after he quit journalism to write novels full-time. “I wanted to give something back,” he said. He volunteered to start a newspaper club at his son’s elementary school. After discovering WordPress and SNO, he realized that a digital paper would be ideal for young writers.

“Say you assign 16 kids 16 stories for a print paper. If one story doesn’t come in, you’ve got a problem. [With a website], the readers know nothing of the missing story.” Plus, he said, his fourth-graders’ stories are often too short for a print paper, but look just fine on the web.

Zahradnik’s students do a surprising amount of work on the Colonial Times, which is now in its fourth year of production. Kids decide what to cover and who will cover it. They write full stories and headlines. They also do on-screen layout for the paper’s two print issues per year.

“The only thing they can’t do for either outlet is copyedit,” said Zahradnik, “but there are a lot of grownups that can’t do that, either.”

Zahradnik believes fourth and fifth graders have some unique qualities that make them especially great reporters. “They jump into everything with energy and enthusiasm, yet still have an intelligence about the world that’s worth hearing,” he said. “My kids make a refreshing change from the cynicism and ‘I-can’t-do-that’ of the newsrooms I’d been in for 30 years.”

For now, Zahradnik is happy to be teaching part-time. “Great teaching is great theater and takes tons of energy,” he said. When not teaching, he’s writing mystery novels. He lives with his family in Pelham, New York.