Catchers of the Wry? Student Paper Produces New Book

By: Samuel Chamberlain The easiest way to measure the success of The Black Cow, Westlake Academy's student newspaper in Texas, is probably by the numbers. The Black Cow launched in August 2005. At the 2006 Texas Interscholastic League Press Conference (ILPC), the paper won five awards. The following year, it won 27; the year after that, 47; and this past April, it took a whopping 55 awards.

Impressive stuff. But according to the paper's adviser, longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram metro columnist Dave Lieber, the awards don't even begin to measure the passion the students have for their work. And now there's a new book, The Best of the Black Cow, a collection of writing from the paper's first three years selected by Lieber.

"I feel reborn when I work with these kids," says Lieber, who also provides an introduction for the book. "I go to my normal job, and all I hear is talk about layoffs and job cuts. I come here, and I feel fantastic about the work they do."

The work is even more impressive considering that the Black Cow is entirely self-sufficient, surviving primarily on advertising ($7,500 buys a full-page advertisement in all eight of its yearly issues) and subscriptions. Furthermore, because of the paper's status as a K-12 free public charter school (40% of the students are Westlake residents, the rest are selected by lottery), some of the senior editors have been working on the paper since its founding four years ago.

One of those students is Nick Ford, an 11th grader at Westlake who started at the paper as a 7th-grade photographer, and has worked his way up to executive editor. He's primarily in charge of laying out the 40-page edition. "I was a photographer my first year, and the person in charge of layout was going to a different school so he showed me how to put the paper together," says Ford. "It usually takes a whole week, working two to three hours a day to put it together."

"He has tremendous instincts," Lieber says of Ford. "I like to watch him work with the layout, and graphics and figuring out what goes where."

Sarah Titus is another long-timer, who started at the Black Cow as a book reviewer in the 6th grade. "I was always a big reader, and when I saw the school had come out with a newspaper, I thought, 'This is cool,' so I went to Mr. Lieber and suggested a book review." Titus graduated from that review to a monthly opinion column, "Sarah Says." After becoming managing editor for news and photo last year, Titus was named editor-in-chief for the coming school year.

Among her plans as the Black Cow's top editor are a mentoring program for younger students (some kids as young as the third grade are involved in the paper) and a series of team-building exercises to strengthen enthusiasm. "We're pretty motivated already," she says, "but I think these programs will help us get even better."

Titus' writing is among those featured in The Best of the Black Cow. (For info on ordering, e-mail westlakepaper@ One of her featured pieces is a tribute to classmate Taylor Moon, who died suddenly in February 2008 of a rare strain of flu.

"Taylor had already mastered all the skills needed in the game of life," Titus wrote at the time. "But God allowed him to stay longer, teaching others his traits and characteristics, giving him time for his qualities to rub off on us." The piece won a first-place award for personal column at that year's ILPC.

"I was amazed," says Lieber about putting the book together. "I read work that made my eyes well up and I read stuff that would make me laugh hysterically. I mean, these kids aren't even old enough to drive legally, and they're producing this great writing that touches all these emotions and comes from the heart. Just about the only thing they can't do is make a deadline."

The book, which runs 223 pages, bears the unmistakable red cover and design familiar to readers of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. According to Lieber, the resemblance is not coincidental. "These kids are the Holden Caulfields of the 21st century," he says. "They're rebellious, sharp, keen, witty, haven't quite figured it out, but they're successful. I thought it would strike a chord." The book even opens with a quote from Holden. It also includes the original flyer announcing the newspaper and calling for staffers, and the name-the-paper contest form.

It closes with a song lyric by '80s popsters Timbuk 3: "I'm doing all right/Getting good grades/The future's so bright/I gotta wear shades."

"I looked at the editors when I first started and they seemed to have so much on their plate," says Titus. "But then I realized that if it's something you really enjoy doing, you'll find the time to do it. And with the writers we have, who are so inspired by what they do, I think the Black Cow can go far."


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