The Southerner Online won Grady’s first Online Pacemaker award from the National Scholastic Press Association after a year of virtual school.
The Pacemaker Award is the highest award given to high school publications and is often called the Pulitzer Prize of high school journalism. The Southerner is one of only 13 online newspapers in the country that received the award.
“We oftentimes say the Pacemaker represents the best of the best,” said National Scholastic Press Association Associate Director Gary Lundgren, who runs NSPA’s contests.“If you win a Pacemaker for your newspaper in this, your online site, it is one that we can hold up to high school journalists across the country to say, ‘This is at the highest possible level.’”
Dave Winter, who preceded Ellerton as adviser, led staffs that won seven newspaper Pacemakers while at Grady and three online Pacemakers as an adviser at McCallum High School in Austin, TX. This year, Winter served as one of six judges for the online awards.
“I follow the work that you all have done all year, and I think you guys have earned it,” Winter said. “We’ve always been good reporters at Grady because I just think you guys took it to the next level … Several times I’ve read you all’s articles and just been like, ‘Wow.’”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Southerner transitioned to a fully online publication. After this change, The Southerner staffers were happy to see their work acknowledged with a Pacemaker this year.
“It just makes me feel really good because it’s really reflective of all the work that so many people put into this paper,” said Kamryn Harty, one of four current Editors-In-Chief. “It’s just awesome that we’re being recognized for this work that we’ve been doing throughout our four years, especially this year.”
The staff has worked mostly from home without traditional means of in-person communication since Atlanta Public Schools went to virtual learning in March of 2020.
“It was confusing because I don’t think people realized how long we would be gone,” said Katherine Esterl, who was an Editor-in-Chief during the 2019-2020 school year. “Some of it was just, ‘This is a quick transition for the next few weeks and eventually we’ll be back in person to put out a final paper or something.’ And that didn’t happen.”
Tyler Jones, who also was an Editor-in-Chief last school year, says the staff put a lot of work into the paper’s transition to an online platform.
“We weren’t in the office, and we weren’t able to print …so the website became our entire focus,” Jones said. “It made us sit down and focus on what we were doing with the website, which was a great thing for The Southerner.”
The pandemic gave the newspaper many story opportunities.
“I think the sprint ended really strongly,” Esterl said. “There was coverage of everything from community members who are dealing with personal cases of COVID to the school shutdown and how the school is going to respond to canceled graduation and prom.”
The staff has also adapted to new working conditions and a new influx of stories.
“I really think that there was an effort to step up the immediacy of what we do,” adviser Delbert Ellerton said. “We just really became a lot more efficient over the last year because we were forced to, and it was very satisfying to see the staff’s work recognized.”
In addition to the work done by students, staff members say that Ellerton’s advisement has been key to the website’s success.
“Mr. Ellerton was always pushing us to refine what we did: get more sources, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, edit it, look it over again, restructure it, think about it in a new lens,” Jones said. “He was constantly pushing us to make it better, which is probably how he helped us the most.”
This award is the tenth Pacemaker awarded to The Southerner by NSPA and the paper’s first Online Pacemaker. It is also the publication’s first Pacemaker since 2014 and Ellerton’s first Pacemaker as adviser.
“I think those things kind of go in stages,” said Riki Bolster, who advised Ellerton as a staffer in the late 1980s and later won two Pacemakers with the Southerner. “Someone will recognize a newspaper as really excellent and then the next time it shows up, they still see it as excellent, and then other papers come in and take away the limelight. So, to have it back being on top is awesome.”
The break in recognition at the Pacemaker Awards was a source of motivation for Ellerton.
“It was kind of daunting to come in, especially behind all that success because you didn’t want to be the person that came in and basically failed,” Ellerton said. “A lot of that pressure is self-inflicted because nobody’s telling you [that] you have to do this, but you do know what the expectations are.”
Although the Southerner did win a Pacemaker this year, there is still pressure to maintain the success.
“Anytime anyone wins something big, there is increased pressure,” Co-Editor-in-Chief Ava Smith said. “At the same time, I have full belief and faith that we will be able to do that next year and the following years will be just as good, if not better. There is definitely increased pressure, but it’s nothing that I don’t think we can handle, and I’m really excited for next year.”