2010 Newspaper Pacemaker Winners

8 or fewer pages

9-16 pages

17 or more pages


Jr. High/Middle School

2010 NSPA Newspaper Pacemaker Finalists

8 or fewer pages

9-16 pages

17 or more pages


Jr. High/Middle School

Judges’ Comments


Content is king.
Cover the lives of your readers through brevity and depth. Start with the fundamentals (sports, theater, debate and Homecoming). Expand on the issues (the recession, substance abuse, sexual identity and crime). Bring the national and international stories home with local angles in news and commentary.

Visuals support the content.
Give each section front a powerful visual (usually photos, but also illustrations). Develop concepts. Take risks. Crop secondary photos tightly.

Design introduces the content.
High-school readers expect and deserve clean, simple, spacious design that shows off visuals and content. Play those lead visuals big and secondary visuals smaller.
If the presentation is complicated and tight, you lose readers.

Typography and white space are the navigation.
Type and space distinguish the winners. Text type should be simple and silent, with no gaping letterspacing or wordspacing. Frame your lead packages with white space. That takes some bravery — but pays huge dividends for readers.


What the best publications did that set them apart:

Covered the news at their school
Lots of papers developed story ideas around current issues, but the best covered stories about what was happening at their school. That included student accomplishments (individual and group), student tragedies (accidental deaths, criminal behavior), changes in school personnel, the effect of budget cuts, etc. In short, they were newsy.

Undertook investigative and other longer-form projects
Two that stick in my mind are an investigation into inadequate services to students with disabilities in one paper and a three-part series on the effect of racism on students and teachers of color in another. Both used multiple sources.

Designed professional-looking pages
Consistent spacing, consistent typography, consistent use of color, smart use of photos and other art.

Understood their audience
Some papers that had good design, writing and editing seemed to be written more for their advisers or the contest judges than their real audience: students. Papers with a sense of fun in their layouts and writing and a laser focus on what their readers care about did better than papers that were trying to be too grown up.

Had great photography
When it came down to sorting out the top four or five publications, those with great photos came out on top. That meant photos shot when events were actually happening, composing and editing shots well, capturing human drama and personality, and running photos big when they warranted it.

Some common problems that kept publications from rising to the top:

Fat, flat leads
The first sentence of a story needs to be tight and bright. It sells the rest of the piece to the reader, so it should be the best sentence in the story. Too many stories had English-paper style introductions instead of leads.

Mechanical errors
As unfair as it sounds, if the first story I read in a paper had two or three typographical or grammatical errors in its first few paragraphs, that paper went to the bottom of my pile. People can’t appreciate what a writer has to say if all they’re thinking about is typos.

Poor use and choice of photos
Too many papers used two, three or four photos for a story when they should have picked the one best photo and run it big. Good photos catch people in action; a person or group should be posed only when absolutely necessary.


Winning newspapers:
Covered topics that are interesting to their core audience: high school students. Interesting topics are the kinds of things students will talk about on lunch break: Who’s that interesting guy? What’s the reason behind a new school rule or state/local law, and do people think it’s fair? What do those foreign exchange students think of us? Why do people get pigeon-holed into cliques? Why was the dance canceled? (Notice that these are all questions.) What’s the impact of sharing nude photos with other students?

Held educational institutions accountable by testing whether they were performing according to the rules (e.g., enforcing school rules, following safety procedures).

Expressed bold opinions in columns or on the editorial page, being willing to disagree with the school administration – or even (perhaps especially) willing to disagree with prevailing student opinion.

Dug for facts, not just good quotes. Are classes being cut? Name them, and show me which areas of study are most affected.

Ran corrections, demonstrating to their audience that they are willing to correct errors (which we all try to avoid, but which are inevitable, even in the best of professional newspapers).

Used infographics that both engaged the readers’ eyes and made useful or interesting information very accessible.

Don’t enlarge small images to fit large spaces – they pixilated and make your newspaper look amateur.

Avoid cutesy design elements that are difficult to read, such as no spaces between first and last names in bylines. All design should engage readers and facilitate comprehension of the content.

Don’t steal copyrighted photos. And if you are using a copyrighted photo with permission, note in the credit that you are using it with permission.

Don’t refer to singular nouns with plural pronouns. A “team” is an it, not a they. “Student council” is an it, not a they. Yes, everyone else makes this mistake, but journalists are the ones who are supposed to get it right.

If a topic seems boring to you, but necessary to cover, do your best to find out why it’s important and figure out how to make it interesting. If it’s not, and you can’t, confine it to briefs. No one reads boring stories.

Avoid worn-out, lazy, cliché ledes. Don’t start with “Imagine,” don’t start with quotes, don’t start with scenes from your reporting unless the scenes are compelling and directly relevant to the topic.


Best of the Pacemakers:
Good, strong, modular design that had all of the elements working in concert. Good action shots that captured the mood, feel and value of the story. Additions of visual breakout boxes that added value and helped tell the story more completely.  Good mix of design throughout the paper, putting a strong centerpiece with varying other pieces. Things were easy to find and helped me navigate the paper.

Photos that had action and reaction in them that provided inherent value on the page. Strong captions that provided the reader with not only a full understanding of what was going on in the image, but also why that image had value. Hierarchy of images down the page to prevent competing images.

Headlines added value and told me what I would be getting in the story. They were written in strong noun-verb-object structure. When coupled with a  deck head, the pieces worked independently and didn’t repeat or contradict one another.

Stories were on important topics that showed relevance to the audience. The writers selected topics that were germane to their readers and provided them with a clear reason they should read the pieces. Stories were varied in terms of news, sports, features, profiles and more. A broad array of coverage existed that provided all readers with something of interest.

Stories had multiple sources that added value. News leads were strong, concise and valuable. Narrative leads had provided interest and engagement for the readers along with a solid nut graf that showed how this intro related to the remainder of the story. Attributions were plentiful and made sense. Grammar, spelling, style and more were all clearly prevalent in the writing. Stories were written to the proper length. They had no holes and yet were not overly long.

Worst of the Pacemakers:
Design made it impossible to follow the stories on the page. Forced blind leaps across images to continue reading, graphics that detracted from the stories, elements that failed to tell the same story or that contradicted one another. The use of giant or miniscule photos that didn’t provide value to the pages. The use of photos that were posed or that were dead art (shots of a building for no real reason). Poor headline hierarchy and bad visual decisions (no centerpieces etc.)

Photos that were too large or too small to read well. Lack of images with profiles (I want to see the people when you’re telling me all about them). Photos that were grainy, blurry, too dark, too light or pixilated. Bad decisions on which images to make primary and secondary in a photo package or essay (giant mug shot, tiny action shot).

Headlines lacked nouns, verbs or objects to some degree. Headlines that didn’t reflect the story (Golf wins tourney headline when they finished fifth but with a “moral victory” according to the coach). Boring headlines (Board of Trustees to hold meeting) or headlines that were too cute for their own good.

Stories that had bad leads, cliché leads, held a meeting leads, quote leads, “it’s been said” leads, “many people think” leads, “so and so is not your typical student” leads and other similar issues. Overuse of rhetorical questions within stories. Opinion creeping into stories either through the use of biasing adverbs (Fortunately, they finished third. [who says that’s fortunate?]) or through the lack of attributions. Attributions that went verb-noun to the point that it sounded like Yoda was writing the story.

Lack of sourcing (one source stories) or use of poor sources that didn’t really reflect added value (While Gen. David Petraeus says the strategy to move troops into Iraq via a paratroop tactic will work, Homestead High freshman Jimmy Jones says he doesn’t think this is the case.). Giant holes in a story created by lack of sourcing or unanswered questions (This is the second time the school has an Olympic Gold Medal winner. [OK, so what’s the first?]).

Opinion page was littered with columns that I could have gotten anywhere (an opinion on Obamacare or socialism). Personal rants on the opinion page that lacked broader appeal (I’m so pissed I got a parking ticket!).