In the basement office of The Boiling Point, the acclaimed newspaper of Shalhevet High School, a message on a dry-erase board from faculty adviser Joelle Keene reminds everyone on the staff how to keep the paper vibrant.
It’s her “French Fry Rule,” which dictates that a news story must be absorbing enough that a reader will continue reading even if someone with French fries passes by.
It is from this room — with her disheveled desk, walls adorned with framed front pages of the newspaper, a black leather sofa in the corner — that approximately 50 Shalhevet students every year produce an award-winning publication as writers, editors, photographers, artists and designers.
With as many as eight issues each school year, they have made The Boiling Point one of the most celebrated student newspapers in the region. For the past five years, the Columbia Scholastic Press Association has awarded it the Gold Crown in the hybrid news category, recognizing outstanding publications in print and online.
“The job of The Boiling Point is to teach journalism, which means delving into complex issues,” said Keene, a member of the school’s faculty since 2003 who also serves as the school’s choir director and music teacher.
To that end, she oversees a product unafraid to take on contentious issues and determined to cover as many topics as possible, with an online edition, shalhevetboilingpoint.com, updated with a regularity that would shame larger newspapers. Its motto is “When we know it, you’ll know it.”
The boldness is apparent in the most recent edition, which was published early in the new school year and reflects at least one issue that came to — well, a boil — last spring. A front-page story delves into a controversial issue in the Modern Orthodox school: What should students call female faculty members who have rabbinical ordination from an Orthodox institution?
The issue also includes a feature story, “Is Reading Being Replaced?” which investigates how much students read today outside school, and a column that speculates about the Dodgers’ World Series chances.
The driving force is Keene, a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Tacoma News-Tribune and music critic at the Seattle Times.
Besides her French Fry Rule, other Keene-isms are written on the dry-erase board: “GQUP,” an acronym for “Good Quotes Up High;” an explanation of what constitutes a “Cool Mistake” — such as writing, “People tragically died”; and what constitutes an “Un-cool Mistake,” like “saving things in the wrong place so they can’t be found during production.” There is a quote from the late New York Times media reporter David Carr, that says, “The more reporting you do, the more complicated the story gets.” A quote by Keene follows: “which is not a reason not to do it.”
A passage from Leviticus also appears on the board, saying, “Don’t be a talebearer [but] don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” which Keene said she believes encapsulates the responsibility of being a journalist who tells stories through a Jewish lens: Do not gossip, lashon harah, but don’t ignore the responsibility of speaking up when events demand it.
“Who says the Torah didn’t anticipate journalism?” Keene said.
Keene’s responsibilities include working with reporters on assignments, ensuring they meet deadlines, and meeting the challenge of running an independent paper while remaining sensitive to the school administration’s agenda and policies.
“We want everyone feeling comfortable reading The Boiling Point, but we don’t want to shy away from issues,” she said.
Rami Fink, 14, the son of Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, joined the newspaper’s staff this year. A freshman, he said he is interested in writing about politics, world news and in exploring the issue of kosher versus halal. On a recent afternoon, he sat down on the sofa and took out his laptop to work on his first story — one about a recent Shalhevet flag football game against local Modern Orthodox high school YULA Boys High School, a local Modern Orthodox school.
“I’m super excited to be working here,” he told the Journal.
The Boiling Point began as an all-opinion publication, providing an outlet for students to rant and vent—thus, its name.
“Apparently there was a lot of rage,” Keene recalled.
When Keene joined the faculty in 2003, the paper “was dormant,” she said. “Somebody at the time considered himself an editor but it had not come out for a couple of years.”
Now, it’s hyper-active, with a staff as committed as she is.
On some deadline days, students juggle homework and extracurricular activities, and stay in the newsroom until 2 a.m. finishing the paper. Keene recalled one time when some students even brought out an air mattress.
“The air mattress was not with me; I don’t remember an air mattress, but I remember getting home probably close to midnight on several production nights,” Leila Miller, an editor-in-chief emeritus, told the Journal. “I remember it was maybe the first night of Chanukah, one of the nights of Chanukah we were in the newsroom and people were kind of sad. Honestly, you want to spend Chanukah with your family, not putting out a paper, but you know we did it anyway because we had to, and because everyone wanted to see the paper come out. You make the sacrifice.”
Tobey Lee, the sports editor, said balancing the demands of the paper with his other academic responsibilities is worth it.
“It’s quite challenging, managing my time with my schoolwork and my other extracurriculars,” the 10th-grader said. “I’m involved in a lot: the debate team; model congress; I’m in the choir; I’m on cross-country. I still have to do essays and tests like any other normal high school student but I think that when I have to do my job as sports editor and this big position of managing the sports section, this is one of my top priorities,” he said. “This is one of the most important things I am doing.”
To support the students’ efforts, The Boiling Point has an annual budget of $10,000 from the school and an additional $2,200 per year in advertising revenue, which helps pay for computers and cameras and anything needed to keep the website running and fresh, Keene said.
Keene attributed the newspaper’s success to the feeling of ownership the students have over the newspaper.
“It’s not my paper,” she said. “It’s the students’ paper.”