Farewell Letter From Your First Editor In Chief

Dear future staff and leaders of The Daily Howl,

I want to share with you a story about my time on the paper. You might find it interesting, maybe a little funny — dare I say, even inspiring? I guess you’ll just have to read it.

“The pen is mightier than the sword” is a metonymic adage, coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The truth of these words pulses in the federalist papers, Watergate Scandal, and Harvey Weinstein expose. That message rings true in the articles published in The Daily Howl as well. As the founder and first Editor in Chief of this paper, it’s these words that I choose to place my faith in, and in hindsight, I know them to be indelibly truthful in their message. 

My freshman year I helped establish the journalism club, partly as a favor to the former Assistant Principal and partly because of my addiction to The Rachel Maddow Show. Or maybe it was my steadfast belief that there is no place cooler than the Yale Daily News newsroom in Gilmore Girls. Whatever it was, breaking explosive stories in a buzzing newsroom amongst the sound of furious typing seemed like an exciting club to start. 

Motivated by the naive spunk of a newly minted freshman and the fortitude I gleaned from surviving middle school, I decided to run for Editor in Chief. At the time I could barely distinguish between the structure of an article and the average English class essay. I had no idea what the difference between an editorial and a feature was, let alone how to cite sources or work the SNO website where the paper was supposed to be published. And run a staff? Teach others what I, myself, didn’t know how to do? Absolute insanity. But I was impassioned, proactive, and curious about the world of reporting. That tenacity propelled me towards the knowledge I needed to be successful; towards resources from National Scholastic Press Association, Los Angeles Times High School Insider, Student Press Law Center, Associated Press, and Journalism Education Association. Reading the New York Times and The Signal, watching MSNBC, and most importantly: writing, writing, writing, was how I learned to be a journalist. So by the time the pandemic hit, I was covering COVID-19 like it was my beat. I was hosting club meetings with 20+ students over zoom every month. Together, we were publishing The Daily Howl. 

Clearly I have ample evidence to support the claim that anyone, and I mean anyone, can be a journalist. Or an editor. Even Editor in Chief. All it takes is a curiosity about our world, some time, a little effort, and most importantly, a passion for something. Sports, food, movies, politics, the trade relations between the countries in the EU. I mean passion for anything. I found my spark by amplifying marginalized voices, particularly stories from people in our community who are seldom heard. In my time on the paper, I learned to listen closely when someone has something to say, and if a person entrusts me with a story, I must be a meticulous messenger. 

I take my job covering news seriously. Particularly, campus news because the students make up the reader base of the paper. At the first homecoming dance in Castaic’s history, a girl I didn’t know ran up to me at the photobooth and said, “I know we don’t know each other, but I just wanted to warn you that there’s a guy grabbing girls on the dance floor right now so be careful.” Nothing had ever screamed this is news! More than that moment. My pen was my sword and that night I wielded it. I swiftly searched for witnesses to interview, jotting down quotes and allegations — all in a dress and heels. There were girls in corners crying, brothers and best friends threatening the unknown perpetrator, and the administration trying to calm everyone down. When I got back to my computer, my hands flew across the keys. I had so much to report on. This was news. This was a story. I published the breaking news in the paper’s Thanksgiving themed-issue. Unbeknownst to me, the story was just getting started.

The day before Thanksgiving Break of my junior year, the former Assistant Principal hacked into the student-run website and took down my article. My Chief of Staff and I were stunned. In our two and a half years leading our student-run paper, the administration had never tampered with the paper. I was more than stunned, I was livid. My Chief of Staff and I, along with our journalism advisor, met with the former Assistant Principal who had censored the article. That meeting, and the hurtful allegations attacking my character and the veracity of the piece, will forever be burned into my mind. “Sensationalized” and “inflammatory” were the words used to describe my article, before telling me that since the former Principal owned the paper, she got the final say on content. I was floored. That can’t be right, can it? After both my journalistic integrity and personal character were attacked during that conversation, the backdrop to the questions swirling in my head was self-doubt. Was I not allowed to publish truthful content that the administration didn’t want out?

Self-doubt is a poisonous thing. If you don’t believe in yourself, your integrity, and your story, then you not only disappoint yourself, you betray the people whose reality is the basis of your story. I owed it to myself, and to the girls at that dance, to make sure that I confidently understood the rights of the student press in public schools. I contacted the Student Press Law Center. 

“It was absolutely unlawful and illegal prior-restraint censorship,” the SPLC lawyer  explained to me. I jotted his words down as my self-doubt streamed out of me. That day I learned an important constitutional principle about the First Amendment as it applies to student press. With very few exceptions, public school administrators cannot edit articles or stop a student paper from publishing stories. The Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines made clear that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates. California Education Code 48907 further protects free press in public schools. I was right, and I had the law to back me up. 

Since my article was no longer breaking news, I decided to republish it as a feature, with more information, more quotes, more story. I filed FOIA requests (legal requests for public records, in this case police records) and interviewed people on and off record. I talked with ASB officials and sat down with the former Principal. I posted on socials about what I was writing to see if I could get any more sources. The same day, a survivor reached out to me with her story. She felt the administration had done nothing about the assaults and wanted this piece to spread awareness and inspire prevention, so she was willing to go on record. She placed her trust in me to do that, so I was meticulous. And I had to be brave, just like her. 

On Friday, December 10, 2021 I published the next issue of the paper with my feature on the front page: ‘Addressing the Sexual Assault Reports at Coho Dance’. My intention in sharing the facts from that night was for readers’ stomachs to sour — because discomfort activates our moral compass. Mine started spinning when that girl came up to me at the dance. I wanted everyone else to feel it too. After school that day, the survivor texted me to say thank you. I cried the whole drive home.

By fighting for my article’s republication my story shined a light on safety at dances and was a catalyst for collective action by the student body — it even went on to receive a national award. But for the first time, I felt the heavy burden of integrity that professional journalists carry each day. Journalism is not a facile profession. The job requires us to wager against corruption, even when the world is wired in its favor. Journalism requires integrity, passion, and bravery. Courage in the face of adversity. Curiosity. An open mind. An unflinching ability to stand up for what’s right. And if you get knocked down in the process, you must possess the perseverance to get back up and keep at it.

My experience set a precedent that I hope will remain. At times it will be challenging to withstand the pressure. Freedom isn’t taken in one fell swoop, it’s slowly chipped away, gradually and persistently until that right no longer exists. We must be resolute and persistent in our defense of student press freedom. Objecting, when we could just stay quiet. Standing, even when it’s so much easier to sit. So that’s what I ask of the future staff writers, editors, chiefs of staff, and editors in chief of this paper: to fight, tooth and nail, to retain the boldness to publish freely and without restraint or fear of repercussion. Read the paper’s founding editorial policy, I wrote it as a guide for you. Know your rights so you understand when they are being stripped from you. 

A pen in the hand of a journalist possesses the power to amplify voices and inspire action. As I have tried, I believe you will too. Never let your pen dry out or your sword rust. Choose to prove to yourself through action that you are a powerful journalist. 



Ava Paulsen

Your first Editor in Chief