Someday You Could Be… a Founder of a School Newspaper Program Like Lara Bergen

By IndyKids Reporters

Lara Bergen is the founder and director of Press Pass NYC, which is an organization that helps New York public schools create and keep school newspapers. In the past  2 ½ years, Press Pass NYC has helped create 19 school newspapers in middle and high schools. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity for print. To listen to the full interview, check out our podcast, IndyKids Voices.

Grace: What do you like about newspapers?
Lara Bergen: They keep me informed on what’s going on, so that I don’t have to go out and talk to everybody and ask all the questions. I really like having journalists to rely on to make sure I’m getting the information that will help me be the best-informed person and live the best, safest, healthiest, most empowered life that I can.

Farzad: Can you tell us more about what inspired you to create Press Pass NYC? 

Lara Bergen: What inspired me to create press pass NYC was teaching high school in Manhattan for a couple of years at a small school that did not have a student newspaper. And I just decided to start one in a class where I had some freedom of what the curriculum could be. And I also had students from different grades with different interests and skill sets. So I thought a student newspaper would be a great way to give them some independent work but also, [a project] as a class.

I actually am not a journalist by training or anything like that. For most of my career, I wrote children’s books and was a children’s book editor, which I really loved very much. But when I was teaching, and I started this student newspaper, I just realized how much great learning these students were doing and how much the rest of the school appreciated what they were doing, and how proud [the students] were of their work. So that really inspired me. If it made such a difference in my school, I had this feeling it can make a big difference in other schools, with other students.

Noel: How does Press Pass NYC work, meaning, what is the program like for students? 

Lara Bergen: We take applications from schools that want to start a student newspaper. Most have never had that. Some had a newspaper, but it went away for some reason: some schools because of COVID, some schools because whoever was doing it left or just people stopped being interested or having time.

We look for schools that want to have a student journalism program. But…they don’t know where to start. And the teachers who are going to be responsible for working with the students and making it possible for the students to do this don’t have any training in journalism. So we have a one-year teacher fellowship program. That helps teachers learn how to be really great, fun, inspiring advisers. We also have a student fellowship program, where students from the different schools that we work with apply and come to workshops. We do journalism work together and [go on] trips and talk to each other about what it’s like to be starting a newspaper at their school. We also give schools grants so that they can go on trips. They can go to national conferences, or they can buy equipment that they need.

Aida: How many newspapers has Press Pass NYC helped to start?

Lara Bergen: We’ve helped to start 19 student newspapers: three in middle schools and 16 in high schools.

Luca: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with running Press Pass?

Lara Bergen: There is so much else that teachers and students both have to do. Of course, everybody’s worried about getting their credits in and graduating and passing Regents. And that can take a lot of focus away from the journalism program. So, to really start a student newspaper, you need a class. You need some class time every day. Some schools think they can just do it as an after-school club, and I don’t think that gives enough support to the students or structure to the program. I think it’s a struggle on the part of the schools to find this time in their course schedule, too, [so that it’s] enough for both the teacher and the students to get the learning they need out of it–the different journalism skills learned–and also the time to do their reporting work and put it together.

Viviana: How does Press Pass help future generations?
Lara Bergen: [In] New York City, where we work right now, there are a million students in our school system every year–maybe fewer since 2020. But that means every year 100,000 students graduate and become voters in New York. They will be parents. They will be going to college. They will be doing jobs. They will be citizens. I think the more journalism that’s happening in high school, the better prepared they will be for all of those things. …I also hope that it helps this crisis that I’m sure you hear about with local journalism around the world. We need more journalists. We need more journalists from communities who aren’t traditionally represented in professional journalism. But we also need, for local journalism to work, a local journalism audience.

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