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After a season of turmoil and a name change, Forest Grove High Schools student paper returns to tradition

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD -  Twins Tess ODay (left) and Kate ODay are tackling the layout of The Viking Log while editor Yasmine Weil-Pourfard (right) is setting the tone of the coverage.For the third time in four years, Forest Grove High School’s student newspaper has a new adviser — and an old name.

Mike Mlynski, a former journalist-turned-English teacher, has taken over for Allison Marks, who led the FGHS paper for two years before relinquishing the adviser post last June.

“I’m a newspaper geek,” said Mlynski, 53. “Ultimately, my goal for the students is that they turn out a great product that informs others and highlights what’s happening in the high school community.”

The publication had been known as The Viking Log for more than six decades until 2010, when it took the name The Forest, in part because of a change in advisers that resulted from a months-long controversy over stories it had published.

That May, then-Principal John O’Neill pulled issues of the paper from classrooms after a feature containing sexual innuendo created an internal flap. Other editions that explored issues of teen sex and drug use were deemed inappropriate by O’Neill, who re-assigned the former faculty adviser. Marks, an English teacher, ushered in a new era for the newspaper in September 2010, when it became The Forest under her tutelage. by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Viking log instructor Mike Mlynski plans news coverage with writer Genny Gregory

That fall, a group of former Viking Log staffers, disenchanted with what they considered editorial heavy-handedness on the part of school officials, set about creating their own independent paper, the Viking Log Underground.

It published one issue in November 2010 before running out of funds, said former editor Jordan Meyers, a 2011 FGHS alum who’s now studying English at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Value of the Fourth Estate

But that turmoil is all hindsight now. Mlynski, who has taught English at FGHS for 13 years, has taken the reins at The Viking Log. His credentials include covering Forest Grove schools for the Hillsboro Argus in the mid-1990s, when he competed with former Oregonian reporter Dana Haynes and former News-Times reporter Jim Hart for the best local bylines in the business.

“We all tried to get the jump on each other on stories,” said Mlynski, who changed professions to public education in 1999, earning his master’s degree in teaching at Pacific University in Forest Grove. “It was a good time.”

Haynes, who spent 20 years in Oregon newspaper newsrooms, remembers Mlynksi as a competitor. “He was on a weekly and I was on a daily, and I still had to work my tail off to keep ahead of him,” said Haynes, now a novelist. “The guy just had a terrific sense of community, and of story.”

Working as a reporter “showed me the value of the Fourth Estate in terms of keeping the government accountable,” noted Mlynski, who added that he wanted to “build up leadership again” at The Viking Log, whose staff shrank appreciably after the classes of 2011 and 2012 graduated.

“We need to find ways to make this system work,” he said, acknowledging that the class/club hybrid’s 3:30 p.m. time slot — outside the regular school day — places it in conflict with sports practices and other activities.

‘Nod to tradition’

The first order of business when students assembled as a staff in September was to vote on the name of their paper.

“The kids overwhelmingly wanted it to be The Viking Log again,” said Mlynski, a Cornelius resident and the father of three grown children. “It was the consensus of our newspaper’s leadership to rename it.”

The change did not reflect a sour attitude toward The Forest, he added. “The feeling was, ‘Let’s just go back to what it was.’ It was really a nod to tradition.

“The Viking Log picks up where The Forest left off.”

After determining the paper’s name, the small but intrepid group of reporters, editors and one main photographer, senior Thomas Stanton, got to work on their first issue, due out by the end of this month.

“We are in a rebuilding mode,” noted Mlynski, who said one challenge was to find a time to get everyone together.

Previously, the Viking Log was a class, scheduled during the day. This year, it was assigned to an “eighth block” slot, right after school lets out, two or three days a week. Students involved with the paper still can earn credit for their participation, or participate without the expectation of earning a credit.

Another of Mlynski’s tasks is to recruit more students whose schedules allow them to be part of The Viking Log’s staff.

For Yasmine Weil-Pourfard — a 16-year-old junior who also serves as the Forest Grove School Board’s student liaison, president of the Poetry Club and a member of the cast for FGHS’ fall play — serving as The Viking Log’s editor-in-chief is a dream come true.

“All the years before this, I wanted to be on the newspaper staff but I didn’t get in,” said Weil-Pourfard, who describes herself as “really artsy” and unafraid to challenge norms. “It was really exclusive. You basically couldn’t get in if you weren’t a senior.”

This year’s staff includes “a few sophomores, mostly juniors and a couple of seniors,” Weil-Pourfard noted. Though only three students showed up on the first day, they were ready to get to work nonetheless, she added.

Stanton, whose grandfather, a professional photographer, taught him how to use a camera, is especially fond of shooting sports.

“I don’t like doing portraits,” he said “I’m more of a guy who goes out and takes pictures of the action.”

Rejiggering the paper’s masthead was one of the group’s first projects. Juniors and twin sisters Tess and Kate O’Day have been doing the heavy lifting on the graphic arts end of things, blending front-page features from the former Viking Log and The Forest into a cohesive design.

“We’ll have both trees and a Viking ship,” noted Weil-Pourfard.

Selling ads

The Viking Log’s maiden edition will likely be only four pages long as the staff revs up its fundraising machine — the paper gets no money from the school district other than a stipend paid to Mlynski as adviser.

“We’re working on selling ads and subscriptions — that’s primary,” he said. “There isn’t much time to sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya.’”

Stories will include features on the homecoming court and Halloween traditions, as well as a news item on new teachers at the school. Staffer Chelsea Christison “has written two good stories and they’re already turned in,” Mlynski noted. “Deadlines are important,” he observed.

Jenny Gregory, a senior who wrote for The Forest last year, is writing an opinion piece on the high school’s new schedule. Dylan Pine is handling the new teacher overview.

Students have received two printing bids and are in the process of making a decision, said Mlynski. Plans are to publish one paper per month, skipping December because of Winter Break.

Fretting over deadlines and the bottom line is a reality Mlynski said he won’t soft-peddle to his students. “I want to really stress mimicking a real newspaper,” he said.

Free speech questions

FGHS Principal Karen Robinson said the decision to place production of the student newspaper in an after-school slot was based on student forecasting numbers received last spring. “We didn’t have enough students to make it a class,” she said.

She does not plan to review issues of The Viking Log before they’re printed, leaving decisions on content to Mlynski’s judgment and that of his students. Forest Grove School District policies governing student publications, which were revised in August 2010 after The Viking Log came under fire, say school-sponsored media “cannot contain material that ... is libelous or slanderous, obscene, pervasively indecent or vulgar.”

Yet, questions over where administrators can draw the journalistic license line continue to crop up each year. The website of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit watchdog group headquartered in Arlington, Va., notes that school officials are required by law to “demonstrate ... reasonable educational justification before they can censor anything.”

And, Oregon is one of seven states that have passed laws in recent years bolstering student free expression protection.

‘About everyone’

For her part, Weil-Pourfard is circumspect about where her school newspaper has been, where she wants to take it and what kinds of topics she and her staff would like to broach in their endeavors.

“The name change (to The Forest) caused a lot of controversy my freshman year,” she said. “People were upset. Then, when the Viking Log Underground came out, it caused even more division. It wasn’t good.”

As lead editor, Weil-Pourfard plans to adopt a platform of inclusiveness she hopes will come through in the paper’s pages.

“I want it to be about everyone,” she said. “I would like to unify the school through the newspaper.”

Mlynski is clear on his role as well.

“The adviser is responsible for the newspaper’s content (and) to ensure that it adheres to community standards,” he said. “My view is that students have all the rights guaranteed them by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which come with an accountability component.

“If they’re ever worried about restrictions to freedom of speech, I’ll encourage my students to ask, ‘What’s the responsible way to express myself?’”

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