Ripples advisor steps down after 18 years

June 14, 2020

After 18 years, Mike Halloran is stepping down as advisor to Ripples. To commemorate his last issue with the paper, Shannon Carlson and Ella Kamm virtually sat down with him to discuss how the paper has changed, what he’s learned, and what he’ll miss most. 

Shannon Carlson (SC): To go all the way back to the beginning, do you remember why you first took on the role as advisor? 

I have to go back to even before I was the advisor to answer that question. I worked at St. Francis High School, and my principal was a man named Rick Monroe, who would later become principal at Shorewood High School. He asked me to start the student newspaper at St. Francis High School, they didn’t have one. So I did. We got it going from nothing to something. As part of the urging me to do it, he would bring me copies of Shorewood High School’s student newspaper, Ripples, because his son went there at the time. He said, ‘I think this is a really good newspaper, check it out.’ I would keep reading it and thinking, ‘This is a really good newspaper.’ 


Then Mr. Monroe went on to Shorewood High School, and a year later hired me and, as it happens, Troy Thibedeau, to come from St. Francis High School to Shorewood High School. I was a full time teacher at St. Francis High School. The Shorewood opening was for eight tenths of a full time position, but it included the advisorship of the student newspaper, and that was really an appeal for me. From the very beginnings of my conception of my job at Shorewood, it was linked intimately to my position.


SC: Did you have any experience in journalism beforehand?

Not a great deal, I had written a couple of things for a couple of trade publications prior to becoming a teacher, but I sometimes tell colleagues in various capacities that I’m sort of journalism adjacent. My long time role as advisor, but also my uncle and my grandfather were both practicing journalists and did a lot of really great work in that department. 


Ella Kamm (EK): How long does the typical student newspaper advisor remain in their role? And what is it like to be a student newspaper advisor in the American school system?

I think the kind of classic experience of the journalism advisor probably bifurcates. The two paths are, burn out fast and last for a few years, and take the long road. Sometimes people last for quite a while, but if you sort of average those, typically what you get is about a ten year career as a newspaper advisor. That’s a lot of people burning out early, but that’s also a lot of people for whom it becomes part of their identity as an educator, and part of their identity in the community. That’s one of the things that I find to be so rewarding about advising the paper, is the connection with the community you can have over time. I guess I fell into that latter camp of people who have it become part of their identity and stay with it for a long time. I remember the longtime, beloved advisor who preceded me in this position was on for like twelve years, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, what a remarkable period of time he spent as an advisor to that paper. 12 years, holy cow.’ So, yeah, here I am, nineteen years later. 


To the experience in American public schools, it’s oftentimes very fraught, very difficult. Advisors lose their job over conflicts about what the student press publishes. I remember a time fairly early in my career where one person put it fairly interestingly. They said, ‘You know, when the high school football coach has a player make a mistake on the field, everybody forgets about it two or three possessions later, but when a journalism advisor has a student make a mistake on the field of play, it’s published, and it’s out there, and people’s jobs are threatened if a mistake is made.’ And that was a pretty ‘woe is me’ perspective, and I never fully adhered to it. But it kind of impressed me early on, and I often wanted to work very hard on behalf of my students, who were out there doing their work, when we met up with criticism. I wanted to push back and say, ‘Hey listen, they’re learning, and just as any student is learning in an extracurricular activity, mistakes will get made.’ People needed to be patient. So that makes for kind of a tension filled experience for some people, but by the same token, those are just individual instances that happen. By and large, what happens over the course of your position is you connect with students in ways that, for me, have been the most rewarding. Just watching people do the work. The caliber of people like you two that show up to work on this publication make it an honor and a pleasure to work for. I get to work with you guys all the time, and that’s what keeps me going.


SC: It probably varies paper to paper as far as the dynamic between the advisor and the staff, but what do you see your role as? Has it changed over time?

I feel like it’s been pretty consistent over time. It’s been really important that all key decisions for the paper get made by the students. It doesn’t mean that I don’t play a role in those decisions, it doesn’t mean that I don’t maybe affect the outcome of those decisions, but it does mean that those decisions that get made are the real purpose. So, that process is, for me, really important. As an advisor, my role is to kind of be standing alongside and watching the work that gets done. If questions pop up, and people need help, to be there and help them, but over time, also, my role became one of being a bit of a historical reference point, because habits, traditions and working conditions tend to morph over time. I’ve always felt it was good just to remind people, like, ‘Hey, this is traditionally how it’s been done. If you want to make an active departure from that, do that in an informed way, but if you’re looking to do what has been traditionally done, here’s what has been traditionally done.’ One of the ways the three of us have talked about it has been in the transition from one editor in chief to the next. Lots of times, outgoing senior classes want to name an entire editorial staff, and most of the time I have to say, ‘Well, try not to do that unless you really think it’s important that you do that.’ Very often, they say, ‘That’s right.’ I think the term ‘advisor’ is a good one. To stand on the side and advise, and to be there when people need it, whether it’s figuring out how to disable text wrap on a textbox, or it’s figuring out whether we wrote a libelous article. All sorts of levels, but that’s what it is.


EK: Is there any moment from Ripples that stands out that sums up the experience for you?

Lots of times there’s sort of conflict around stories. I’m not even 100% sure I remember what the story was about, but there was a conflict with another staff member who had a great deal of pull in the community, both the school and Shorewood. That staff member went into see the principal at the time, who was not the current principal, and said, ‘If my name gets put in an article on this topic, I’m going to sue this district for libel,’ And the principal dragged me into the office and said, ‘This is what this staff member said, and this is going to be a problem, so you better not write this story.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t call something libelous that hasn’t been written yet, and I can promise you we won’t write a libelous story. What this other person is trying to do is to censor the student press, and I won’t have it, and I don’t think you want to have it either.’ That principal reluctantly agreed, and I think the principal was in the second hardest spot. The hardest spot was occupied by the student reporter who had to report the story. That student had to do so in the face of one of the most powerful people in the school district at the time, and it really made an impact on that young reporter. That was one, another time happened recently. It happened just a few years back when we had the other incidence of libel presented to us about one of our stories, and for the first time to kinda admit, ‘We came pretty close, you know, I don’t know how hard we can go to the mat on this one.’ That was the first time we ever pulled a story in eighteen years. So of course that’s also a remarkable one, but I think we learned a lot about ourselves at that point. That was Shannon as a freshman, I remember because she was writing another story at that time that we had to kind of go through what libel means … Both of those sound like negative examples, but those experiences are valuable experiences, and [students] always learn a lot. You sort of have to clench, you have to worry, you have to be under some stress, but on the other end it’s really valuable. So, for those reasons, events like that stand out. 


SC: How would you say Ripples has changed over time? 

The technology change was kind of happening as I got on, and it is true that we literally pasted articles together onto pages, printed them on sheets of paper, cut out the articles, pasted them onto the page and had to print photographs at Walgreens, crop them and use a cropping tool. None of which we do anymore. If you compare that layout process to the layout process we do now, certainly technology has changed a lot, but those are by and large cosmetic changes. Another change that’s happened is in my first or second year of advising, a trusted colleague pulled me aside and said, ‘Ripples is an old boys club, and the voice of Ripples is predominantly male and you’re ignoring and shutting out, either willingly or unwittingly, female voices.’ It was a female colleague that told me this. That shocked me to hear it, and I didn’t realize that. That year we had our whole staff document every quote in every issue of the paper, categorize the sources as community members, students and staff members and then each category was split in half: male and female. They counted up every quote for the entire year, and they found out that they weren’t preferring male voices, it was fairly balanced, but we did recognize that most of the major players on the staff were male. Most of the editorial team was male, the advisor was male, and they had the tendency to go to a lot of the same male regular sources, so it felt to a lot of other people that it was a male dominated publication. I think you can tell by now that that’s changed pretty drastically, and that’s just one of the changes that I see over time, that it’s gone from being a very male dominated thing to a female dominated thing. There’s a lot of things that didn’t change, too, but those are the things that did. 


SC: How would you describe the role of Ripples in the community?

If I have a regret, it’s not polling the high school community on its opinions on the high school newspaper, because I think that would be really interesting. You can kind of take for granted what people think about it, and get anecdotal feedback through the years that is positive. But one of the things that in this context I worry a little bit about is just a little bit of that mission creep. I don’t know if people still have that super high regard for the publication. I think they do. But a survey would tell us for sure. Ripples, you know, for crying out loud, is nearing 100 years of publishing. All of us stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. All of us are doing something that generations of other people have done before us in our community, and that really leaves a mark. That’s one of the humbling things about this job, the sheer number of people who’ve done what we’ve done, in one capacity or another through the years, is just remarkable, and I think the community recognizes that. I think they know that 30 years ago there was a Shorewood Herald, then there was a Shorewood this, a Shorewood that, now there’s no Shorewood paper at all, but there’s this thing called Shorewood Ripples that, if you’re in the know, you can get your hands on. People are reporting the news in our community, and those people are high school kids, but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to read the stories, and from recognizing that that kind of reporting still matters in a local community. I think publications like yours are one of the most important elements of a community, and I think the community recognizes that on some level.


EK: Why did you decide to step down, and why this year? Why not wait until the hundredth issue?

Yeah, I didn’t think so much about this year, as opposed to the hundredth year or the hundredth issue. Because that’s coming no matter what, whether it’s me or whether it’s someone else is unimportant. It does take a lot of time, and it takes a lot of effort on behalf of the publication, and just over the last few years, I’ve found myself wanting more of that time back. It’s really about the time, more than anything else. I still want to know about what’s going on, I still love the work that the publication does, I’ll read every issue that comes out, it’ll still be on my bookmarked toolbar on most of my devices. It’s not a desire not to be associated with the publication anymore. It’s just the sense that there is likely somebody who is going to take it for it’s next 10 year, 20 year, ride. And that that person too, will be along for a much longer ride than they thought they had actually. I’m surprised that I stayed on for 18 years, it’s pretty remarkable. Another reason for now, though, is the stability of the staff at this point. There’s an experienced staff here. I came on in my first year as advisor and I could just sit and watch the veteran staff work. The next advisor can just sit and watch veteran staff work. You guys don’t need direction. You don’t need to be told how to do what you’re doing. You’ll need advice when the time comes, and the next advisor will have that. But you are a talented and veteran staff, and that’s a good time to make room for a new advisor. 


SC: Are you worried about next year? Is it going to be hard for you to watch us and not say your normal advisory things?

I’ve thought about that a lot. The last thing that I want to be is that old advisor who creeps around in the background and criticizes the new advisor for all the decisions they’re making with their staff. The last thing I want is for the students to run in and say ‘So and So wanted us to do this, Mr. Halloran, what are you going to do about it?’ That’s probably not going to happen, I will probably tell those good students, ‘Sounds like you have an issue with your advisor to take up.’ If I’m there to help anybody after this, it’s the new advisor. I love you guys but y’all don’t need my help. You’re great. The new advisor is going to need my help, because it’s hard work. 


SC: What are some of your favorite Ripples traditions?

Among my favorite Ripples traditions are editorial meetings. To me, they never get old. I love the last 5 years or so, where we started to make a circle. 

SC: That didn’t happen before?

No, you didn’t always sit in a circle like that. That was some organic thing that happened a few years back, that I think is awesome. You get that in 

that circle, and you have all these young people taking up the issues that present themselves in the paper, and deciding, in a really responsible way, which one is gonna be the best one to write about. And most of the time you get way off track, you screw around, talk about stuff that doesn’t matter, and you get goofy and you just say weird things, right? But inevitably, you get back on track, and the decision is a good one. And I love watching consensus build in a room, and in the last few years, that’s what that event has been like. Those editorial meetings, on Monday and Tuesday nights, are awesome. Every day of layout is great. 

I also love before the school year, in August, sometimes even in late July, when student journalists show up and get ready to make the first paper, to come out in the first week of school. Advisors across the country freak out. They’re like ‘What?! You put out 10 issues a year and you put one out the first week of the school year?  Like, who are your students that they would come in in the middle of summer? Who would dream of such a thing?’ And it’s true. I’ve never had to push people to do that. It’s just what people do, and I think it’s great. So that’s another one of my favorite things about the paper. You know, they sound very mundane, these favorite things, now that I think about it, but those are the things I like the most. I love how you guys work, and the work that you do. 


SC: Where have you seen your past students go?

I was just between meetings a little while ago and my wife was calling for me from the first floor, I’m upstairs right now, and she said, ‘Hey, Mike, hey!’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Casey Tolan’s got a story on CNN, you might want to read it.’ And that kind of stuff happens all the time. I can follow Ripplers in publications across the country. Casey used to write for the San Jose Mercury News, he used to write for the Pacific Standard, he’s now getting stuff picked up by CNN. That’s awesome. But he’s just one of the kids who’s doing this. We’ve got somebody who’s writing locally for a daily newspaper in a really high profile way, we’ve got people who are going across the globe to do journalism on a freelance basis, one guy working out of Nairobi right now.


That was one of the things that was most important to me as the advisor, the relationships with the students. And it’s the kids, who do what you guys do who have been just some of the most interesting people to reconnect with and to stay connected with. One just got a job as a professor at Dartmouth and had her first child, and I see that on social media. She reached out about three years ago, about the possibility of advising the student newspaper at Shorewood, because she was transitioning between a couple of things, and I wasn’t ready to step aside at that point. But if Annika Konrad wanted to come and do it, I would have easily stepped aside and said, ‘This is the perfect person.’ Things like that, just being able to keep in touch with them, is just super rewarding. And I don’t think that just classroom relationships are going to fill in for that. I hope to stay in touch with you guys and everybody that I’ve known. That’s a pretty tall order. <3


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