TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The March issue had been a solid one, forged in the usual stress and tears of Room 506. The plan for April was the same: Put out a good newspaper. Only it would be Marin Fehl’s last.
Marin, 18, has been editor-in-chief since the spring of her sophomore year at Hillsborough High School, where she’s also an A student. She will admit she is pretty much always losing her mind. The main culprits are International Baccalaureate, bottomless iced lattes and all the ways the world stymies her newspaper plans. It’s worth it, though, to hold those crisp pages and feel the hard-won pride: We made this.
She had overseen coverage as the coronavirus grew from a brief into a news story and then the full-blown cover. With her best friend, she had dropped stacks in classrooms March 12, then hyped the online edition on the 13th, the uneventful day before spring break. Marin was exhausted, but there was a giddy sense that break might stretch out an extra week or so.
At a friend’s house that night, Marin thought, weird — that might have been my last day of high school.
Four days later, the governor called off classes at least through mid-April, and Marin messaged her staff through tears: Even if March might have been our last issue... I’m proud of all of you.
In successive blows came the death of prom and playoffs and all the year-end pageantry of senior dreams. Even those crazy-grueling three weeks of IB essay exams, which Marin had been grinding toward for four years — and yes, anticipating — were canceled. No more IB banquet or senior picnic. No more deadline nights in Room 506. After 13 issues and 244 pages — she counted — her tenure at the Red & Black seemed to be falling away.
As the losses piled up, Marin got a text from a friend and former newspaper mentor. Neither could believe it was all over, just like that. “But wait,” Marin wrote.
Thirty minutes later, she made a call.
“Here’s what I want,” Marin said. “I want to publish a digital magazine. We need the Red & Black, pandemic edition.”
Joe Humphrey, journalism teacher and newspaper adviser, already knew Marin’s answer when he cautioned: “It’s a lot of work. Are you sure?”
There was a legacy to uphold. The Red & Black, begun in 1889, is the state’s oldest high school newspaper. Marin wasn’t going to let an issue pass her by.
The students, she knew, could be rallied. They were covering pandemic news for their website, HHSToday.com. For this last edition, Marin imagined something evergreen, beyond the statistics — words and images that captured their suspended lives. There would be essays and profiles. It would be a first draft of history, in a historic time.
She and Jaden Shemesh, the web editor, hashed out a plan and gave the staff a GroupMe pep talk: “We’re right there with you and we’re here for you,” Marin wrote.
Marin’s innate and endless drive, her constant need to pour herself into a project, didn’t always work in her favor. Often, it meant unspeakable bedtimes and shouldering way too much work — newspaper included.
Journalism was an elective, like band, and students had to opt in. But not everybody knelt alongside Marin at the altar of The New York Times and The Washington Post or had done a life-altering, fifth-grade book report on investigative reporter Ida B. Wells. Not everybody had written college essays about journalism or dreamed of vicious edits on their copy.
So time and again, she was handed Word files two weeks late with no quotes and no photos. This last edition would be no different, she knew, and maybe even worse. She saw a supercut of her future: The nights she’d text Jaden in a panic, the shoddy drafts that would make her cry out, “Oh, my God, please.” It would be like the March issue — a mess until it wasn’t. Humphrey texted her: “One more, Marin.”
On April 14, two weeks from when Marin hoped to publish, she carried her laptop to the downstairs guest room, closer to the wellspring of WiFi, and sat on the rug.
With each new Zoom sign-on came glimpses of teenage bedrooms in pixelated frames: Walls in pink and teal, stuffed animals and Lionel Messi posters. The journalists wore scrunchies and AirPods, waiting out the stop-start silences.
“Ladies and gentlemen, one of the top-performing newspapers in America,” Humphrey deadpanned, as one student futzed with his video and others logged on late.
Marin laid out the timeline: Once stories were submitted, she would critique, and writers would address her comments. When edits were done, a skeleton crew of page designers would work on layout, then Marin would review it all — line by line, loose thread by loose thread.
For now, they had space to fill. Her staff called out ideas: What about “Tiger King” and Animal Crossing, our universal homebound culture? The Democratic campaign? Essential workers? Jaden floated quizzes like “Which Zoom Virtual Background Are You?”
“I’m getting so good at recognizing your voices,” Marin said. Her glasses glinted beneath blunt, brown bangs.
There was so much to cover. Students were pouring stress into new hobbies — like Marin with her homemade sourdough — and buckling under the weight of online classes, part-time jobs, siblings’ needs and Bright Futures hours. It was their job to bottle all of it.
“I know that the reporting process is kind of sucky right now because we’re sitting in our homes and you can’t just go grab random people on the H patio,” she said. “Anything that students are currently talking about and are angry about, we want to be covering.”
She smiled, shoulders tense. If they needed help, she said, call her, FaceTime, text — anything.
School plodded on. Marin’s psych teacher assigned discussion board posts about children’s cognitive development. Her English teacher wanted 400 words on “The Things They Carried”. For biology, she drew diagrams of the digestive system.
Then there was the magazine.
Over the years, Marin had sometimes wondered why she subjected herself to journalism’s pressure cooker. She’d been a shy kid, crying behind her mom when people talked to her. It was her middle school English teacher who had encouraged Marin to own her voice. In high school, she learned to be a fly on the wall to report features and to feel an editor’s pride in helping a fledgling writer craft a good story. Stories were the “why,” and campus had no shortage.
Many of the 17 staff members were new, leaving Marin and a few others, like Jaden, as the harried veterans. Like the industry itself, they had adapted. There used to be a copy editor; now, it was Marin. Everyone came together once a month before the paper went to press, staying late in the darkened high school, yelling, panicking, caffeinating.
These days, Marin felt guilty. She used to be able to lean over a newbie’s shoulder or host game nights with boba tea where everyone vented and laughed. Quarantined in suburban Odessa, stuck behind a screen, Marin was always accessible — but never enough. In her worst moments, she wondered if this even mattered. Soon, she’d be packing up to study journalism in a faraway state — if college began as planned.
Even Jaden, whose steady optimism tempered Marin’s good-hearted chaos, had low moments. Their generation already shared a fatalistic streak, growing up in the specter of climate collapse and mass shootings. To pile on a global pandemic?
Jaden had planned to steer coronavirus coverage online, but the shutdown cost his dad’s business 90% of its revenue. Jaden told Marin he needed to step back, so he could help his family, tacking on DoorDash deliveries for extra cash. Other staffers knew the pain. Asher Montgomery, next year’s editor-in-chief, hung out at her mom’s Seminole Heights bar, sending emails and prepping food deliveries in between her reporting.
Leaning against the pink guest bed in Odessa, Marin could hear her mom lecturing college students on fine arts and her dad corralling fourth-graders through a virtual drawing lesson. Her dogs, Juno and Olive, crowded her lap. Some days, she escaped to her old Acura with her laptop to edit in peace.
There were days marked by the red cells on her Excel spreadsheet — too many missing stories. Days when staff members wouldn’t call her back, when she ate only half a banana and drowned in her phone’s to-do list. She refused to be shy about wanting a paper so good, she’d be proud to frame it. You want to be able to prove to your reader that what you wrote is worth reading within the first couple of sentences, Editor Marin commented on one story. Especially with high schoolers.
To herself, sitting half a day straight at her desk, she said: “No, Marin, don’t spiral. Keep typing. Pretend you’re a machine.”
“Oh, look. My prom dress is hanging up in the closet just six feet away. No, don’t feel upset about that. You aren’t Kim Kardashian; you know that there are people that are dying.”
“I don’t want to do my job. But I do. I want to do my job more than I’ve ever wanted to before.”
Late one Friday night, Marin and Jaden shouted to each other over the phone in a stress-fueled harmony that rose higher and higher until they had it: They would call the issue Pause.
The theme echoed the 36 pages of stories they’d begun laying out, which had turned out more personal than planned. Essays and nostalgic photos were threaded throughout, individual voices speaking to a collective moment of life on hold.
They had lined up stories of students braving the cash register at Publix and a 400-meter sprinter robbed of his last season. They had quarantine fashion (sweatpants, mostly), letters from teachers and Humans of New York-style features. Marin capped it off with an open letter to COVID-19: Your biggest symptom, it seems, is a goodbye that we never got to say. She signed it: Sincerely, Class of 2020.
“What we’re doing is important,” Marin told her crew, shyly pleased, on a late April video chat. “I don’t give inspirational speeches — but you’re great.”
Their deadline had passed, slipping into early May. Marin had not conceded the delay easily. But Humphrey had a pitch.
They could print the edition and mail it out, he told the class. At least to every senior, and hopefully to the whole school. They had some money left over. Students’ eyebrows shot up. Marin nodded, her smile almost mischievous.
Soon they’d go back to work, chipping away at the layout. Marin would keep fine-tuning, subsisting on cold brew coffee, until it was done.
“Pretend that we’re having a deadline night in 506,” she told them.
Everything was wrong: She’d soon snap on gloves to pick up her cap and gown at a drive-through. She’d return her textbooks early and take home an unsigned yearbook. Graduation could end up on a live stream.
But there would be a magazine.