If you're 16 and reading this, Pepper Hayes has a request: Would you consider transferring to Cottonwood High School?
She and her newspaper staff are looking for a few readers.
"It's frustrating when you spend hours putting out a paper, then see it thrown in the garbage," says Pepper, 17, who is editor-in-chief of Cottonwood's Colt Roundup. "Sometimes, I'm here until 8 at night working on the paper, then some of the teachers won't even pass it out to the students. They'll leave it by the door and nobody will take it."
She tosses back her long auburn hair and sighs. "It's really pretty sad that nobody wants to read anymore."
Like any newspaper editor, Pepper knows that she is facing tough odds, trying to get readership in an age of e-mail and instant news. Her task is made even more daunting by the scope of her readership: Time-strapped teenagers who would just as soon wade through a biology textbook as read about the junior prom queen in the Roundup.
Pepper and her news crew of 20 eagerly shared their thoughts on teens' disinterest in reading over a Free Lunch of pepperoni pizza in the room they share with the school yearbook staff.
"The kids in this class are the cream of the crop," adviser Carol Morgan told me as the students dug into their slices. "The newspaper means a lot to them. They really want to make a difference."
Indeed, the Roundup staff is dedicated and enthusiastic, even with an embarrassingly small budget and only two computers to put out the 12-page monthly. The staff isn't afraid to take on controversial issues, although it sometimes means losing a few friends.
"I told the truth about the football team — that they'd only won one game and aren't that great," says sports editor Spencer Belnap. "After the story ran, a bunch of the players threatened me."
Fellow sports writer Greg Hargis laughs. "Well, at least you know somebody read it," he says. "Almost everyone I know is getting through school without doing much reading. Their spelling is horrible and so is their grammar. It's pretty pathetic."
To entice students to read the paper, the staff doubled its sports coverage this year and added fashion news and a horoscope column.
Manuela Campbell was appalled to learn that one of her responsibilities as associate editor was to "dumb down" any big words and edit stories to an eighth-grade reading level.
"It's crazy," she says, "but everybody looks at reading as a chore. In one of my classes, people said, 'Why read when you can watch TV?' I guess I'm considered weird because I like books and magazines."
"It's wrong that so many people can get this far in school and not know how to sound out words or use correct punctuation," adds news editor Katie Ashby, who hopes to become an English teacher one day and do her part to help tackle the problem.
"When you see the paper torn up all over the hall, sure, it makes you feel bad," she says. "But it also makes you mad because you know how much work went into it. You almost feel like you're wasting your time."
Even more unsettling to Roundup reporters is that apathy toward reading isn't just a teen issue.
"We've become a nation of slackers," admits 15-year-old Zachary Noyce. "Everything is about computers and television. When you think about it, we could all do a lot better."
He and other staffers wonder if the day is coming when high school newspapers will only be found on the Internet. The school paper is more than a training ground for future writers, says Hayes. It's the pulse of a high school.
"If we could just figure out a way to get everyone to open a newspaper," she says, "wouldn't that be a miracle?"
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