Georgia Russello loves her job. She gets to meet interesting people, learn new things every day and serve her neighbors in the small New York town she calls home. In many ways, she could be like any other editor at a community newspaper. In one way, she’s unlike most managing editors: Russello is a senior at Pelham Memorial High School.
The staff of the Pelham Examiner, where Russello started as a reporter her sophomore year, consists of 42 students aged 10 to 18 — all of whom take the job seriously. “The independent newspaper for Pelham” isn’t just a fun extracurricular to put on college applications. It’s essentially the town’s only paper, putting out information Russello says people otherwise just wouldn’t know.
A glance at the paper’s website one late November evening shows stories on the holiday trash pickup schedule, the kickoff of the firefighters’ annual toy drive, criticism of school administrators’ response to a student’s Snapchat post causing false rumors of a threat and a state panel’s report that the local board of education consistently violates state open meetings law.
Stories like these are why Russello got involved in the student-owned outlet. She started watching school board meetings when they went online during COVID-19 and saw how much was happening that could really impact her — and everyone in Pelham.
The Examiner can’t cover every story potentially affecting the approximately 18,000 residents in its readership area, Russello says, but it does its best to cover key issues like police reform and school board meetings, as well as offer obituaries, announcements and opinion pieces.
That’s more than in many similar communities across the country. Half of all counties in the U.S. have only one newspaper, according to research from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, with more than 2,100 newspapers and 36,000 reporting jobs disappearing since 2004.
Since April 2020, media news outlet Poynter reports, companies that own more than 100 local papers in New York state alone have faced staff cuts. Six weekly outlets have shut down.
“I think of towns that don’t have local journalism,” says Russello, “and that makes me sad.”
Sure, the Examiner gets its share of “snark” from readers, mostly based on age — unfairly, according to Russello. She knows there’s mistrust — and misinformation — out there. She knows news can be overwhelming. She’s had to become a savvy news consumer herself, remembering to take a step back and trying to get perspective.
But, she says, “We should know what’s happening around us” because it’s “important for the well-being of society as a whole.”
It’s important for people to have a say on issues that affect them, Russello says, and things that may not seem important if one isn’t paying attention can impact everyone.
That’s where her job comes in: showing people how what’s going on could impact them and offering digestible, actionable information. “You’re reporting on fact, not what you think,” says Russello. Ultimately “the goal is to be informing the community.”
That’s what the Examiner has aimed to do since it launched in June 2018. The digital outlet has earned awards from the New York Press Association for its news, education and health reporting.
It isn’t only fellow journalists recognizing the Examiner’s work either. Reader comments on recent stories include praise for “timely, accurate and professional coverage” and “fair and impartial coverage professionally presented” that is “filling a much-needed role of delivering accurate and timely local news.”
Pelham, it seems, is in good hands with the students of the Examiner. They are more than aspiring journalists: They are meeting their community’s information needs now.
The Freedom Forum supports high school journalists with the annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference and scholarships. Learn more and apply here.
Georgia Russello plans to continue pursuing journalism, hoping to find a college with a strong newspaper.
Her advice for when news gets overwhelming: Start somewhere. Start where it matters most. Start where you live.
“I can’t imagine what our town would be without it.”
By Karen Hansen, Freedom Forum content managing editor. You can reach Karen at [email protected].