‘Juno’ What We Mean: Bizarre High School Baby Boom Story Rocks Daily

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By: Joe Strupp

Editors at the tiny Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times knew they had an intriguing story in March when they broke the news that at least 10 girls at the local high school had gotten pregnant, and at least some by choice.

The story arose out of concerns over the ability to keep the high school’s day care center running for another year in the face of such a spike in pregnancies.

“Then they talked about the problem of how a number of kids had gotten together and talked about how cool it was to be moms together and go to school together,” Editor Ray Lamont recalled about the 1,100-student high school.

For at least two months, the story was mostly a local issue with the Daily Times covering related aspects, such as a debate over distributing birth control at the high school’s health center and the concern over the day care center continuing funding through next year.

But when Time magazine came to town several weeks ago, then published its own story last week that included references to a “pact” among some of the girls about getting pregnant, the story broke open again. “The whole thing went crazy by Friday morning,” recalled Lamont, who said his five reporters have been inundated with the story ever since. “We are still a little shell-shocked.”

As of the beginning of June, the number of pregnant girls at the high school had reportedly risen to 18, but it is unclear how many of them have been part of this group that had allegedly sought to get pregnant, Lamont said. Another twist occurred at the end of the school year a week ago when the nurse and doctor who ran the high school health clinic quit.

“We are trying to keep everything focused on the community,” Lamont said. “It has been fairly consuming in the past week.”

Lamont said he has had at least two of his five-person reporting staff full time on the story since last week, with each reporter at the 10,000 daily-circulation paper contributing. Once Time published the story on its Web site Wednesday, CNN and other cable outlets jumped in, as well as foreign news organizations from the BBC to a Dublin radio station.

Today, both AP and USA Today featured the story prominently. Time’s story was the most popular on its Web site this morning.

“It is a case study of how things can take on a life of their own,” said Daily Times reporter Patrick Anderson, who has been the lead writer on the story. Among the paper’s complaints is the national press reporting of the alleged “pact” between some students.

“The idea of the pact is not something we had reported and not something we have found,” Anderson said. “It took an already unusual story and turned it into something operatic.”

Lamont went so far as to devote a column to the issue Saturday, criticizing other outlets for putting forth the pact angle and explaining why his paper had not: “? frankly, no one had used that term in describing the girls’ intentions to us — as no one apparently had with local school and other officials, either. And despite the media storm, we believed it important to advance the story from the point we had left off before. That meant turning to a new talking point — the day-care facility, which is licensed to handle just seven children and now faces a monumental case of overcrowding. And it meant delivering legitimate news our readers had not seen before — including that the number of confirmed pregnancies rose to 18 before the close of the school year last week.”

Today, both AP and USA Today reported new doubts among school and town officials about the existence of such a pact.

The Daily Times has maintained a major presence for the story on its pages with at least one or two stories a day, while satellite trucks and outside news agencies have flooded its town with reporters. More are expected with a major city government/school district meeting planned for today.

Lamont said the story has had an even greater impact on the paper’s Web site, which has devoted most of the main page to a running collection of stories and photos. He said online comments for stories that average less than 20 per article are running more than 100 or so for some of the pregnancy stories. “It is off the charts,” he said. “For us, that is a lot.”

The paper’s Web site is www.gloucestertimes.com.

Lamont also said the paper has given over most of its letters page to related viewpoints, noting letters on the issue have come from as far away as Los Angeles, Chicago and England.

“We are still providing coverage of our other towns,” Lamont added. “You can’t block out all that is going on around you.”

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