How high school journalists can be part of a news ecosystem

The front page of an edition of the Nighthalk News magazine with a headline that says "The Drug Crisis."
The Nighthawk News edition on the drug crisis in the school’s community.

By Uma Bhat

On the shores of the Outer Banks, the opioid epidemic is a silent killer. Stories about beach side developments, tourist attractions and local festivals dominate headlines across the OBX’s local news media.

But when a senior at First Flight High School in Dare County, North Carolina died of an opioid overdose in January, the staff of the school’s news magazine, the Nighthawk News, knew they had to shed light on the drug crisis’ impact on the local community.

“I think it was really important to bring that part of our life on the Outer Banks that doesn’t really get talked about,” said Maggie McNinch, one of three 2021-22 editors-in-chief of Nighthawk News.

This is just one of many hard-hitting stories the student-run media outlet produces — not just for other students, but for their community.

In Dare County, established local news sources include the Island Free Press, The Outer Banks Voice and OBX Today. One of the island’s only surviving weekly newspapers, the Outer Banks Sentinel, merged with The Outer Banks Voice in 2019.

The 2021-22 editors-in-chief of the Nighthawk News, posing in their caps and gowns in front of the school.
Editors-in-Chief for 2021-2022: Kayla Hallac, Maren Ingram, Maggie McNinch

McNinch, a rising first-year at UNC-Chapel Hill, interns for a local magazine, the North Beach Sun. Though McNinch sees the value of her work at The Sun, both McNinch and her advisor at Nighthawk News, Steve Hanf, agree that Nighthawk News is filling critical information gaps in the community.

“We’ve actually had some people tell us (at the Nighthawk News), ‘You’re my favorite news source on the Outer Banks’,” said Hanf, a former full-time journalist.

The Dare community frequently engages with Nighthawk News.

The news magazine staff will often distribute print copies in local cafes and restaurants. He said a student who wrote about her father’s cancer diagnosis received words of encouragement from a tourist who found her email printed at the end of the article. Another assignment written by a student covering an upcoming local festival received 25,000 views on the news magazine’s Facebook page after being repeatedly reshared by local realty companies.

Hanf tries to run his journalism class like an actual newsroom as much as possible. Students are trained in basic news writing and move on to cover stories in the local community. In recent years, students on the Nighthawk News have shifted to publishing more in-depth feature stories, like the ones published in the magazine’s issue covering the drug crisis, he said.

The magazine’s staff of fewer than 30 students published six stories on the opioid crisis since the senior’s death, including a full-length feature interview with the senior’s mother and local law enforcement.

McNinch said the story is one of the most important she’s covered during her high school journalism career.

Taylor Newton, a rising senior at First Flight and a photojournalist for Nighthawk News, said the newspaper’s high quality and widespread recognition in the local community have allowed it to make an impact that spans far beyond the walls of First Flight High.

“It’s just a bunch of high school kids producing very high level work,” Newton said.

The conversation around student journalists filling community news gaps is an increasingly relevant one. Teri Finneman, associate professor of journalism at Kansas University, recently published a paper on how students are meeting news needs in places without local news. Nighthawk News, consistently recognized as a top student newspaper at both the state and national level, is one example of what a stable and funded program with a dedicated and skilled teacher can provide for a local news ecosystem.

The Nighthawk News recently had two students – including McNinch – named runners up in the NCSMA North Carolina High School Journalist of the Year competition. Nighthawk News staffers are in attendance at the 2022 NCSMA Summer Institute.

Newton said that he’s received compliments and has become well-known for his photojournalism. In addition to working for Nighthawk News, he takes photographs of First Flight sports teams for another local news organization’s website.

“The impact from a school level to a community level is huge – it’s not something that’s normally seen down here,” he said. “And I’m glad we’re able to produce this level of content in a place that doesn’t have it normally.”

Because Nighthawk News is student run, its strength lies in the staffers’ connections with their community at First Flight, Hanf said. High school journalists should remember that they aren’t just student reporters, but the authority on what’s going on at their high school, Hanf said.

“You have the best access to your star athlete, because you know that person, you sit in chemistry class with that person,” Hanf said. “Whereas the writer for the News & Observer has to go get permission from the AD or from the basketball coach to talk to the star basketball player.”