High school journalists make headlines on MTV series 'The Paper'

Tom Jicha
THE PAPER - 10:30 p.m. EDT Mondays - MTV
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

There still are people with an affection for newspapers. Some are actually young people. Perhaps "The Paper," a new reality series on youth-oriented MTV, will expand this base.

Set at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla., "The Paper" follows the staff of the student newspaper, The Circuit, from the spirited competition for the position of editor in chief last spring to the mundane but challenging efforts to get out the paper each month.

The eight-part series is a reality show but in no way a game. There is drama, but none of it is scripted or contrived. These teens are ambitious, passionate about journalism and as serious as Woodward and Bernstein, so tensions occasionally explode into emotional outbursts. There are no rewards beyond personal satisfaction and priceless training for adult life, whether it be in the media or some other occupation.

The characters are vivid and distinct, but not hoping to be discovered by TV or film. Imagine "The Hills" but with the young people acting responsibly and doing something worthwhile.

Amanda Lorber and her successful campaign to become editor in chief are the focal points of tonight's premiere. Lorber, bless her, says on camera, "Journalists are the most important part of the world." In a later interview, she says working in journalism "is my life's goal. This is what I want to do with my future."

All of the students on "The Paper" are driven. Lorber, who took Journalism 101 as a Cypress Bay freshman and worked on the school paper during her sophomore and junior years, is presented as almost obsessive. As the deadline for making her case for editor in chief approaches, she sacrifices her social life to prepare her resume, staying up until 2 a.m. to polish her talking points. Included are the reasons she regards some of her strongest competitors as less worthy, which breeds resentment.

As luck would have it, the day the application is due, she develops strep throat. Her mother steps in and delivers her application to Rhonda Weiss, the Journalism 101 teacher who oversees The Circuit and makes the decision on who gets the position.

Now that she has the top job, Lorber's intensity occasionally grates on colleagues. Adam Brock, the paper's advertising manager, said he and Lorber used to be best friends but are something less than that now. "We tolerate each other. I'm not going to lie. It has been a rocky road."

Brock acknowledges that blame for the tensions is shared. "I am by far the most dramatic person you will ever meet." This trait often manifests itself in screaming bouts. (In fairness to the young people, loud differences of opinion occasionally erupt at the most respected mainstream newspapers.)

However, Brock allows that Lorber has been an effective manager. "We produce an amazing paper. I didn't think Amanda would be a great leader, but she has done it."

The Circuit covers the customary topics for a scholastic publication: student council elections, campus issues, social events and sports. However, under Lorber and managing editor Alex Angert, it expands into topics not usually associated with high school journalism.

Angert has produced pieces on the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, using faculty members who served in one or the other as a resource. He tapped his father's memory bank for a feature on the `60s hippie movement.

"We push boundaries because the school allows us to," said entertainment editor Cassia Laham, who has assigned projects such as sending reporters to learn and write about religions other than their own.

"We've always been interested in in-depth features," Lorber said. "We like to dig, find funny and interesting things."

Conflict makes for compelling TV, so the rivalries and disagreements are a big part of the first episode, the only one made available for screening. In addition to business manager Brock, managing editor Angert also admits to a newfound antagonism toward former close pal Lorber now that he reports to her.

"We've had a lot of ups and downs and some falling outs. There was a time we didn't like each other. Now we're civil," he said.

"We definitely have disagreements," Lorber said. "Competition can do things like break up friendships."

MTV being MTV, there also is a limited romantic angle. News editor Giana Pacinelli and layout editor Trevor Ballard have been a couple for almost a year and a half, a relationship they expect to continue in the fall at the University of Florida. Some call them the school's power couple. Pacinelli says that label makes her uncomfortable. Ballard concurs. "It's a very unique relationship. We're close, but we give each other space."

The fact that their duties at The Circuit really don't intersect much has helped them to avoid some of the fallouts others have experienced, he feels. This doesn't extend to his dealings with Lorber. "I have a very strong ego," Ballard said. "I do have a lot of issues with Amanda."

Pacinelli hopes to land a position at the college newspaper in Gainesville, although she isn't sure print journalism is her career path. "I've always liked writing, but I want to go into TV."

Ballard had an auspicious entrance into the field. A huge sports fan, he wrote about the Marlins on his personal blog when he was in eighth grade. His work was noticed and wound up on the front of AOL Sports, he said. Nevertheless, writing isn't his forte, he feels. "I'm a math nerd, pretty much." He's undecided between engineering and economics as his major, he said.

Dan Surgan hopes his experience writing for The Circuit will lay the groundwork for an interesting specialty: becoming a humor columnist. One of his idols, of course, is Dave Barry. Surgan is aware that the troubled state of newspapers is not funny, but realizes there are many avenues for someone with a way with words and a humorous turn of phrase. "Print is struggling, but there are so many different directions to go: TV and other forms of media."

He had aimed to go to Penn State but his finances won't allow that. Instead, he intends to choose from a less-expensive in-state college and perhaps transfer to a major university later on.

Brock is probably most responsible for Cypress Bay High being chosen as the venue for the MTV series. A fan of the cable network, he said he noticed a pitch on for a school newspaper to be featured in a series. He approached Weiss, who gave him the green light to throw The Circuit into the mix.

Neither expected much to come of it. "What are the chances we'll ever be picked," Brock recalls thinking.

Weiss, who was the editor of her newspaper at Twin Lakes High in West Palm Beach and has been teaching journalism at Cypress Bay since the school opened in 2002, had the same attitude. "It sounded like a lot of fun, but it seemed like such a long shot."

Cypress Bay beat the odds. MTV crews first came onto the campus in February 2007 to record the campaign for editor in chief, then returned this past August through December to focus on how the new regime is doing.

The parents of everyone depicted had to sign off on their offspring being shown on TV, Weiss said. In retrospect, she has no reservations about allowing the cameras into her world. "Since the trailers were posted (on the Web), there has been a lot of interest. It hit me, `Wow, this is really exciting.'"

Pacinelli wasn't sure the TV series was a good idea, or something in which she wanted to participate. "I'm a really private person." Her desire to get into TV swayed her favorably toward the project. Now she's as excited about the show as everyone else. This includes students who aren't part of the core story and will only be seen in the background. "Everyone wants to see if any of their limbs made it into the picture," she said.

From the limited footage they've seen, the young people feel they have been treated well. "I thought it was great," Laham said after MTV held a special screening of the pilot for the school. "It really captured us, our passion and competitiveness."

Surgan agrees. "It's a good representation, pretty much who we are. I love everything about the show. I hope it brings a greater awareness of journalism."

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