Q&A: Washington student editor discusses paper’s in-depth focus on much-criticized community

“Skyway is ghetto” — the provocative headline of Renton High School’s student newspaper led readers into an issue that worked to open their minds to the Seattle, Wash.-suburb Skyway as a whole, including the more pleasant parts that stereotypes often refuse to acknowledge. The 22-member Arrow staff put out an impressive 40-page May issue in which staff members explored the neighborhood — from its bus line to its park to its middle school. They went to Ezell’s Famous Chicken, to the library, and on rides with a police officer. They talked to someone who lost his brother there, to an elderly resident of a health care facility, to workers at the bowling alley.

In an email interview, Arrow Editor-in-Chief Vanessa Abenojar shared how the issue came to be.

Tirrito: How did your staff come up with the idea for this issue? How did you decide which aspects of Skyway to cover?

Abenojar: We thought of “Skyway ain’t so bad” around the beginning of the year because last year we did an issue about the zip code 98118’s area and thought, why not do an issue about a closer neighborhood? The thing that was significant about Skyway, as you can tell in the issue – people would say it’s ghetto and it kind of is, but it’s really not so bad.

We actually tried to cover every part of Skyway we knew about; there would have been more to this issue but not all would fit, of course.

Tirrito: Skyway is your hometown and you are very open about that throughout the issue. How did that connection play into the way you approached this issue?

Abenojar: I made the issue personal. I’ve actually had arguments with people about the area in the past so this was very fun for me. Some of our staff members also live in Skyway as well and I believe they had the same approach.

Tirrito: Your staff explored Skyway, sometimes going to places reputed to be dangerous or scary. How did your staff members make sure they stayed safe?

Abenojar: I don’t think that they went into their adventures thinking it was dangerous or scary because even though Skyway isn’t where everyone at Renton High lives, there’s always someone you know that lives in the area.

The most [staff did] to “stay safe” was telling us when they were going and where. Skyway was not an unfamiliar place to any of us, so that was a safe enough bet for the students.

Tirrito: The use of “Post-it” notes throughout the issue was very interesting. Sometimes you even placed them on otherwise blank pages. Where did the idea come from and what was their purpose?

Abenojar: The Post-it notes told the story. It’s the narrator, and in the beginning it told the readers to “stay with me” to help the reader understand where they’re going.

Tirrito: You were liberal with white space and large images. Were you able to afford that luxury by making this an online-only issue, or did it come out in print as well?

Abenojar: It came out in print as well. 1,900 copies, which totaled up to about $1,000, I think. We fundraise our own money. All of our issues are printed.

Tirrito: Was your staff concerned about the way this issue might be received? What kinds of feedback have you gotten?

Abenojar: We were concerned about not making Skyway look bad enough because we had so much good things to say about the place.

Some people have even asked me what it’s about, “Why did you say Skyway is ghetto?” or “Skyway IS ghetto, what do they mean?” But that’s when they just see the cover.

Some people look in and when they see Alajawon, they got a little emotional.[Editor’s note: The Arrow reports that Alajawon Brown was a 12-year-old boy shot in Skyway in 2010.]

We got some good feedback about our writing and the way we structured the whole publication.

We knew it would get our school’s attention because Skyway is one of the school’s main neighborhoods. This was most talked about issue I’ve ever been apart of; it’s kind of overwhelming. My parents were even confused; when they saw the print publication, they said, “You wrote a piece about the house? What the…?”

Tirrito: What advice do you have for other student journalists who might want to produce a similar issue?

Abenojar: I would say that if you have something to say and you have evidence to back it up, then blow it up, don’t hold back, don’t overlook the little things and be sure to feed your staff because 40 pages will make someone crazy without food. Give your story voices people would want to listen to, because when I read the articles in the Skyway edition, I can hear all my staff members and that’s what I love most about the publication.