LADD: Hoofbeaters Make It Real

Remember the reception to honor the Murrah Hoofbeat staff Tuesday, March 4, from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center (downtown at 528 Bloom Street). Come have cookies and punch, and congratulate these young journalists.

"What grade is Andy Johnson in?" Rachael Turner exclaimed into the phone, and then added as an afterthought, "Oh, I'm sorry to call you so late." She didn't sound apologetic, though; just determined. Rachael Turner was factchecking a story, and it happened to be 15 minutes shy of midnight Sunday, the night before Presidents' Day. She was due at Murrah High School before 8 the next morning, but was trying to put the finishing touches on the return issue of the Murrah Hoofbeat, which has not published for three years. Rachael, the editor, and fellow student Joy Travis and their teacher, Beth Smith, had been in the Free Press offices since early that afternoon sucking on sunflower seeds and teaching themselves how to design ads. They wouldn't leave until 3 a.m. when they had laid out the last page, using one of our Macs. As timing would have it, we were also on press deadline, but everything that could go wrong for the Murrah kids had gone wrong: lost digital photos, mashed fingers, artists who flaked out. So they ended up closing their paper a few hours before we did, but it worked out. They rushed through our door with a finished 12-page paper by the next afternoon.

Beth Smith first called me in November. On her cell phone, she told me breathlessly that her class wanted to start putting the paper out again, no one would help them, they didn't have decent computers and didn't know how to do Quark anyway and would the Free Press be willing to help them?

"We'll help you," I assured her. That night, I couldn't sleep for thinking about those young people without the tools or the opportunity to put out a high-school newspaper. I thought of Ms. Hodges, my journalism teacher at Neshoba Central High School, the one who got the local weekly paper to publish "The Countdown," so we could have a forum for our ideas. The woman who edited the hell out of my stories with a red Flair pen and helped shape my future. The woman who encouraged me to voice my non-conformist ideas for all the school and the community to hear. Suddenly, nothing seemed more important than helping the Hoofbeat staff.

Turns out, Beth's class had been through a lot before she called me. Apparently, another publication is supposed to be their media sponsor, but the students and teachers say they've had trouble getting phone calls returned from their liaison since their last Hoofbeat halted production. (Some of our freelancers were at Murrah three years ago, and report similar difficulties.) And it's been hard to interest a teacher adviser since the last one stopped doing it. But when Beth—a young, energetic Clinton native who happens to be a Army Reserve helicopter pilot—started teaching her creative-writing class last fall, she and her students decided to go for it, despite all the obstacles. None of them had ever put out a paper before, Beth included. They didn't have the equipment to do it—Beth has one working PC in her classroom with no graphics programs and a couple broken-down Macs—but they just assumed they would get help somewhere. So they started writing stories and trying to figure out how to produce the paper.

About 2:45 this morning, as I sat on our office sofa and Joy finished laying out the last page, Beth told me about the demoralizing weeks last fall, trying to get someone to help them do the paper. About being stood up for meetings. About a Mac loaded with Quark that their corporate sponsor has apparently bought them, but won't give to them because they don't know how to use it. About signing up at the last minute for an Ole Miss-sponsored high school journalism conference and being told they would have to bring sack lunches because it was too late to guarantee enough food for them. About the embarrassment of showing up, paper bags in hand, to find plenty of lunches and other high school press corps running around in printed "Press" T-shirts and discussing the intricacies of journalism. About picking up an issue of the Jackson Free Press, the one with the teen-rights story on the cover, at the conference.

"We went through a lot," Beth told me. "But we're almost there."

Indeed, just since I've known them, the Hoofbeaters, as I think of them now, have lived a comedy of errors. They are always running, running, running—from class to the Free Press offices to the Jackson State Mac lab where our art director and graphics professor Jimmy Mumford taught them to use Quark in three power sessions. They leave an endearing trail of floppy disks, artwork, ad proofs and copy in various states of edit. They are the ideal mentees: You don't need to tell them something twice. After seeing our advertising media kit, they whipped out a rate card, dimension sheet and ad contract—and quickly sold a good base of ads (even leading Stephen to ask this weekend: "Now, how did you get that Stamps ad?"). They quickly learned how newspaper production works, and that a "dummy" is at the heart of it, that one traffic cop has to be in charge. And they learned Quark faster than anybody I've ever seen. Determination feeds adrenaline.

The students themselves are becoming my friends and colleagues: Quick-witted Joy is the new Quark master; Rachael the fidgety editor who seemed to learn overnight how to give orders; Tribetta, the detail-oriented and calm writer (and ad saleswoman) who does what it takes. Mark. De Shundra. Shannon. Stephen. Aseelah. Alexis. Amille. These students have touched me in the last month or so, reminding me of the real meaning of community journalism and why it all matters so much. They also show me how badly young people need tools to learn and to express, and how uneven the playing field is right here in our own city, and in my own neighborhood.

I won't say it's been easy for them, or for us. That would be a lie. We operate on our own shoestring. And I wouldn't have planned to have the Hoofbeaters underfoot on press weekend, as we were trying to put out a 32-page music issue. But there was something so magical about watching these student journalists learn that I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. (Which is good because we'll probably do it again for their March issue.)

Meantime, I have two invitations for Free Press readers. First, we plan to host a reception for the Hoofbeaters at the Smith-Robertson Museum to honor their achievement on Tues., March 4 from 4:30-6 p.m. Please join us. These kids deserve a deafening round of applause. And, second, if you have the means or the connections, please help these young journalists. They need good Macs, licenses to graphics software (Photoshop, Quark, Illustrator, InDesign), a scanner, a decent digital camera. We will continue to share ours with them, but they really do need tools to call their own. Call me at 354-5291 if you have ideas for them.

Donna Ladd is editor-in-chief of the JFP.

Previous Comments


My name is Chris Tutor. I work for The Clarion-Ledger as a page designer. Late last summer two of my co-workers and I teamed up to teach several Jackson high school students how to use Quark Xpress and some of the very basics of journalism. We held several sessions of intense Quark training. It was a totally volunteer effort and many days off and personal hours were donated to help these kids get their school papers going. Even more of my co-workers gave their time to attend a Lanier High School class to discuss reporting techniques and writing skills. So imagine my suprise when I read Donna Laddís column in the JFP condemning The Clarion-Ledger for not helping Murrah High School. Murrah was one of several schools invited to our Quark training sessions. They chose not to attend. We even scheduled a special one-day class exclusively for Murrah students. Not one student or teacher showed up for the class. I understand the JFPís reasons for attacking the big corporate newspaper. Alternative papers are supposed to question those in power and sometimes The CL makes an easy target. But next time, do a little research. At the very least, make some phone calls to verify your accusations. Perhaps an invitation to The Clarion-Ledger staff to help local schools would have been more appropriate than an attack. Chris Tutor

chris tutor

I must say, Chris, that's an interesting posting. You are inserting quite a bit into my column that just isn't there: As any reader can see, I never even mentioned the words "Clarion Ledger," much less "attacked" it. This piece is about the Murrah kids' accomplishments in the face of difficult odds. I didn't say whether I even knew what the publication was that wouldn't help them last fall; nor did I identify the "corporate sponsor" that wouldn't give them their machine until they learned Quark. You are putting words into my mouth and, seemingly, outing your own company here--which I'd argue is an odd foundation from which to offer journalistic criticism. I will add a couple things, though. I think it's great that you volunteered to give Quark classes to high schoolers last summer, and I applaud you for it--and certainly hope you and your co-workers will keep volunteering to help young journalists when they need it. But it is possible that the Murrah kids/teachers weren't prepared to attend your classes when the CL scheduled them, but really needed help during the fall actually getting their issue out. That's when I met them, and I am well aware of how desperate they were then; they would have gone anywhere to learn Quark, with help from any publication. The JFP was simply there when they needed us, and I applaud them for having the courage to ask us. It's about them, not us. They're an amazing group of young people. I have long mentored young people and would-be journalists who haven't had the opportunities the rest of us have had. And here's my advice and invitation to all our readers: Even if you work for a corporation, you don't have to always think corporate. Sometimes stepping outside the typical boundaries--formally scheduled workshops, for instance--will help you reach people you won't otherwise. If you have some skills to mentor, find kids (or older people) who want to learn and teach them ... at their convenience, not yours. Just "be the change." Donna



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