Journalism’s Falcon Press newspaper continues winning tradition

Walking down the second-floor English hallway, one quickly enters a zone of creativity and individuality when approaching Room 220, otherwise known as the Journalism room.

The seasonal decorations on the board outside the door spark inspiration for students. Standing in the doorway, it’s easy to observe the posters, pictures, past awards, and bright, white lights covering the walls. Upon entering the classroom, the colorful and warm environment seems welcoming to students, creating a sense of community.

Throughout the day, Journalism students work diligently and collaboratively to write stories, make videos, and update social media accounts, all in an effort to deliver the school’s most important information to the masses.

There are three different Journalism classes at the school: Journalism I, in which students learn the ins and out of Journalistic writing styles, story types, photography, videography, etc., while the Journalism II and III students are responsible for the production portion of the website. The amount of students involved has grown tremendously over the years, from ten kids to nearly 100 when Journalism teacher Erin Tonelson took over the program ten years ago.

“Taking Journalism has influenced me to want to pursue a Journalism career.  Ms. Tonelson has inspired many students to be more involved in school and has created a family within her classroom,” Journalism III student Erin Bailey said.

The program has also won a number of state and national awards over the past decade including eight first place Virginia High School League (VHSL) gold medal distinctions, one national gold medal with double distinctions from the National Scholastic Press Association and five gold medals and one silver medal distinction from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

“The silver medal was won during COVID when I only had the production class for a semester.  That in itself shows that the staff cares about their work and the program overall,” Tonelson said. “The awards are great, but knowing that the class makes and has made a difference to so many students over the years is what I care most about.”

Tonelson answered some other questions about the program as well.

Q: How long have the journalism classes been around at Cox?

A: “ I think Journalism has been taught in this school since the 60s or 70s.”

Q: What made you want to teach Journalism?

A: “I majored in English and Journalism in college and minored in communications; after college I moved to Florida to write for a newspaper. I wrote for ODU as well. I like seeing kids pursue journalism in college and past college.”

Q: How did the production portion of the class start?

A: “We started with printed newspapers and that’s how I was taught. We used a program called INDesign which was difficult to learn initially and took A LOT of time; we would produce five papers a year. Six years ago we found that online was easier and more cost efficient, because everyone was going online. We realized we could update easier and the process as a whole was easier all around.”

Q: How has the program grown/improved?

A: “I started out with a combined Journalism 1, 2, and 3 class with ten kids and now there are separate Journalism 1 classes and Journalism 2 and 3 classes and it’s grown to 100 kids. It’s grown through word of mouth and making it more interesting and relevant to the kids.”

Q: What is the process for applying for Journalism awards?

A: “It’s like entering a contest, you pay a fee and send a link. It is judged by certified journalism instructors from around the country.”

Q: How do you think the Falcon Press earned these awards?

A: “Because there’s so many students and the students are so diverse there are opportunities to get all aspects of school and community life from different perspectives.”

Q: When did Falcon Press receive its first and most recent award?

A: “I’ve been the Adviser since 2009 and I entered the first contest during my second year teaching Journalism in 2010-2011, so the first award we earned was in 2011.  The program seems to have always been great here though and the paper has been winning awards since the 70s. Our most recent award was earned during COVID when I only taught the class virtually for one semester; a silver medal from Columbia University.”

Q: What do you think makes this program successful?

A: “Without a doubt, it is my students who make this program successful.”