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Shawn Vestal: A new generation keeps the spirit of local journalism alive

The third issue of the city’s newest newspaper was put to bed this week, full of stories from the staff of enterprising young – emphasis on young – journalists.

The reporters have filed their stories, photos and comics. The editor is editing. By Wednesday, the West Central Express will be on the stands, in the schools, at coffee shops and available for discerning West Central readers.

Top stories: A report on the city’s renovation of Dutch Jake’s Park. A piece on the basketball team. And coverage of street repairs all around the neighborhood.

The reporter who filed that final story, Nya, even found herself, in the course of gathering information, having what might be the definitive experience for a Spokane journalist writing about city government in the Mayor David Condon era: talking about the city’s new stormwater runoff tanks, being built in concert with new infrastructure projects.

“It’s COS – no, CSO,” Nya said. “Combined sewer overflow.”

She is one of several Holmes Elementary fifth- and sixth-graders who comprise the staff of the West Central Express in its second full year as an after-school program. The newspaper is a project of Spark Central, the Kendall Yards nonprofit that has bloomed into an invaluable resource for kids in West Central and around the city.

Spark Central focuses on closing the “opportunity gap” that is built into the after-school lives of kids in low-income neighborhoods, where there is less access to supplemental programs like sports, clubs and creative activities that people in other school districts might take for granted.

The West Central Express offered something unique to students at Holmes – the chance to write, photograph, make art, discuss, question and offer something of service to their neighbors.

“The part I like is that we get to choose any topic we like,” said Arianna Carter, a fifth-grader who worked on the Express for the past two years. “Anything we want to share with people, we get to write about.”

In last year’s issue, Carter wrote a profile of the school’s principal. This year she wrote a comic about three mice in a boat who come across a shark.

Like all newspapers, the Express reflects the interests of the people who produce it and its intended audience. It’s niche, not mass, media. And so the Express has written about neighborhood news – like the aforementioned road construction – in ways that are not that far from traditional newspaper fare.

But the kids are also alert to the possibilities of writing about their own specific experiences, writing about anime, video games, school lunches and the perennial playground game four square in the first couple of issues.

“I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of what the kids would be interested in writing about,” said Erika Prins Simonds, the program coordinator for Spark and leader of the Express project, and a journalist herself. “It’s been interesting to see what they chose and how they go about learning about those topics.”

Spark Central publishes 2,000 copies of the paper, which is underwritten by the Inlander, and makes them available at Holmes and all around the neighborhood.

Working on a newspaper gives the kids a chance to connect to their community, and it helps them in ways that have nothing to do with journalism. Like other Spark projects, it’s focused on helping the kids build creative confidence – the ability to adapt, think critically and overcome the fear of trying something new.

Plus, “when the paper comes out, it’s really cool to see how proud the students are of the work they’ve done,” Simonds said.

I think the West Central Express is a heckuva paper, and these kids did a wonderful job. I’m very heavily biased on the subject of the paper and Spark Central overall, which is run by friends of mine, including founder Jess Walter, author, former S-R reporter and favorite native son.

I have participated in workshops and readings there, and have served as editor of the newspaper project – though in name only. Simonds does the real work and makes the real decisions. The student staff has met once a week for an hour after school, and Simonds has kept them on task and moving forward, along with help from volunteer Kat Smith and me.

At our last newsroom meeting of the year this week, most of the reporters had filed their stories already. Simonds was having them taste and rate produce from a community garden – radishes, turnips, kale. They would then rate them, and average out the individual ratings.

Then the students worked on drawing some three-panel comics, while I interrupted to ask them questions for this column. I talked to fifth-grader Navaya Zickfoose, whom I had helped find information for her story about Dutch Jake’s Park.

Navaya is a quiet kid with sly sense of humor, who often answers questions in disarmingly simple ways. I knew she had found facts about the park from the city website, from a neighborhood news release, from other news reports about the project. I knew she’d included some information about the history of Dutch Jake, about safety concerns at the park, about the timeline for completing the work.

I asked her to tell me how she’d done the story.

She shrugged quickly and said, “Google.”

Spoken like a true reporter, who’d rather ask than answer.