Howl staffers compete, win, at Dallas, TX, national convention

Cactus, cattle, and tumbleweeds. Texas is in no short supply of any of them. It is the state, after all, where everything is supposed to be “bigger.” And in the early morning hours of November 16th, as the staff of Oswego East’s first online news magazine the Howl stepped into the desolate streets of the historic stockyards in Dallas, TX–with a Sergio Leone soundtrack whistling them back to a time of dust and guns and 10-gallon hats–the only thing that could have been bigger was the potential these student journalists would demonstrate at the annual JEA / NSPA National High School Journalism Convention. Armed with notepads, writing utensils, and an appetite for awards, their combined strength was only matched by the pungent smell of manure that hung in air like a gunslinger’s carcass swinging from a tree branch of justice.

The stockyards were silent as a ghost town, considering the fact that nothing was open and nobody was around. You could almost hear the whisper of the wind, echoing through the desolate streets, and you could almost see lonely tumbleweeds blowing around. However, the Howl staff was still able to have fun. Abby and Brandon ventured to take on the mechanical bull, and despite the bull’s victory, a valiant effort was made by both.

The staff then headed to one of Dallas’s most popular tourist attractions: Dealey Plaza, the area most known as the site of the unfortunate and thought-provoking death of President John F Kennedy. Momentarily distracted by Mr. Query’s conspiracy theories about how the assassination was orchestrated by figures up to and including the United States government, the staff visited the 6th Floor Museum of the former Texas schoolbook depository, the “bird’s nest” of the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The museum tour was quiet, sobering, and comprehensive. And as though to herald one of Kennedy’s renowned speeches, the staff then decided to ask themselves what they could do for their country. The answer, of course, was clear: to become better journalists.

Thursday evening concluded at a local Mexican restaurant near the hotel: Taco Cabana. Mexican food is in no short supply in the Dallas area, and there may have been more authentic spots to visit, but the pedestrian Mexican cuisine was complimented by Mr. Query’s intermittent shouting at a lobby TV and he participated–alone, so very alone–as the sole participant of Wheel of Fortune. (To his credit, he solved each puzzle in record time, with more and more white tiles remaining in the puzzle. Unfortunately, with each puzzle he won, the staff’s own embarrassment at this behavior became more pronounced.)

After a night of rest, the Howl headed to the JEA convention, where a bounteous amount of information was obtained by all. Everything is bigger in Texas, and the journalist’s brains seemed to enlarge accordingly, taking in tips, strategies, and techniques. The crew then took it upon themselves to apply that information in the write offs, where Abby McDowell competed in the staff editorial category, Brandon Biagini in commentary, Maria Siragusa in news, and Alison Standish in sports.

A bundle of nerves circulated through each young writer’s body as they headed off to compete in the write-offs. Despite the panicked rush of adrenaline that surged through their minds like herds of stampeding cattle all throughout the intense and stressful episode, the OE Howl staff still managed to lasso the competition and come out on top, with Brandon and Abby placing in the honorable mention category and Alison placing in the excellent category.  

That evening, the staff–with all the culinary options Dallas, TX, laid before them–opted to go to Jack in the Box. Most of the staff had never enjoyed this particular burger franchise and looked forward to what it stood to offer. What, indeed. Query ordered a side salad complete with wilted, brown lettuce, and Ben almost finished dinner wearing his entire meal, upended as it was in his lap. Another checkmark for the staff!

The staff then visited the Dallas Panic Room. For the uninitiated, a panic room is a paid-for suspense-thriller experience that tasks participants with discovering clues in a “locked” room that will lead to the group’s successful escape from the room within a single hour. Tonight, the journalism staff was “locked” in a snowbound log cabin that would apparently collapse and kill them all if they didn’t escape within the hour. (“So, you want us to get out of a snowbound cabin and escape into … the deadly snowstorm?” Query asked the panic room’s host. A blank stare was most of the response to that burning question.) Over the course of the next hour, some of the student journalists proved themselves absolutely essential to survival, solving riddles & puzzles with every passing minute. Meanwhile, other student journalists were about as useful as a side salad at a Jack in the Box. One hour and nine minutes later, the staff finally erupted from the panic room, posed for a picture in the company’s lobby, and returned to the hotel for the night.

On Saturday, the staff attended more classes. They then received a valuable website  critique from a credible expert. They obtained tips and pointers that will eventually result in an outstanding website, a site that only begins to reflect the excellence possessed by the young journalists of Oswego East. The Howl then left to experience some amazing Texas barbecue from Pecan Lodge and to engage in a long, productive staff meeting.

While the delicious scent of authentic, takeout Texas barbecue from Pecan Lodge wafted all throughout the hotel lobby, the OE Howl staff was hard at work. They put their heads together and oriented all their focus towards workshopping pieces, sharing notes from the convention, and brainstorming ideas for future projects. The hurried adrenaline of passionate and prospering seekers of journalistic excellence was clearly manifested by all.

It was an exhausting yet altogether satisfied staff who returned to the freezing wind of Chicago that Sunday morning. They hope to use every bit of what was learned over the weekend to contribute to a better website, more engaging content, and a stronger team.