An underground news operation: How student journalists paved their own space at their school

The current staff of Devil’s Advocate, established in 2018, is working as Ellenville High School’s underground news source. Jasmine Shiffer, the editor-in-chief of the outlet, is top row, second from the right. (Devil’s Advocate / Alex Shiffer)

NEW YORK — After Ellenville High School’s newspaper was cut, a group of students (and a few supportive adults) created a news app called Devil’s Advocate to bring student journalism back to the school. The app serves as the school’s underground news outlet, operating completely independently of the school. 

Ellenville had a well-established newspaper through the 2016-17 school year, but it only printed twice a year and students barely read it, according to Jasmine Shiffer, editor-in-chief of Devil’s Advocate. By fall 2017 the paper was cut because students lost interest, Shiffer said. 

In early 2018, Jasmine Shiffer’s father, Alex, was developing a project called NewsAtomic to help local publishers digitize their content. Alex Shiffer is the owner of the local paper The Shawangunk Journal and co-founder of a software company called Zelacom.

Six months into developing NewsAtomic, Alex Shiffer, Jasmine Shiffer and Amberly Campbell, the Journal’s publisher, had a conversation about the lack of student journalism at Ellenville High School and in the district at large, where only half of the high schools had a student news outlet. 

They decided to develop a content management system called SchoolAtomic, where students news organizations could publish stories, photos and comments to an app. 

The app launched in fall 2018 and now students and members of the community can download the Devil’s Advocate app to access this content. The app is free and available to all smartphone users. Content from Devil’s Advocate is also available online to people subscribed to the Journal.

Jasmine Shiffer is responsible for publishing content on the app every school day. Devil’s Advocate has published a range of content including a story about a student getting pulled out of school because they were not vaccinated, music reviews (the latest being Justin Bieber’s ‘Yummy’) and photo galleries from school events. 

The benefits of going independent or underground

The staff meets after hours at school, but the news app operates independently from the school. Because it’s not technically a school-sponsored publication, the Devil’s Advocate is an independent news outlet, which limits the school’s ability to censor it. Being an underground outlet does present challenges: they don’t have an accredited adviser to teach them, or funding from the school.

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the authority school administrators have over school-sponsored publications, allowing them to censor student journalists under circumstances they interpret broadly. But for non-school-sponsored publications (independent or underground news outlets), the Tinker standard still applies. The Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) student speech must be “a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities or invade the rights of others” for a school to legally censor it. So when students work on an underground news outlet, their administration can only censor it if it meets that higher standard. 

There’s no teacher telling us what to write … we’re writing the truth and whatever we think students deserve to hear

Currently 14 states have passed laws that restore school-sponsored media to the Tinker standard through New Voices legislation. The student-powered nonpartisan effort works to restore and protect student press rights on the state level. Right now, New York is working to pass a New Voices law.

According to Shiffer, Ellenville administrators have taken issue with a few stories the Devil’s Advocate has published, including an opinion piece that criticized the school for staying open for what it cited as political reasons during bad weather and a power outage. The column was criticized at a school board meeting and Alex Shiffer even had a meeting with the superintendent to discuss it, but there have been no attempts to censor the students directly or shut down the app.

“Our operation is completely non sanctioned by the school,” Shiffer said. “There’s no control from them. So I think that our freedom comes from that — that there’s no teacher telling us what to write, that we’re writing the truth and whatever we think students deserve to hear.”

Gaining traction

When Devil’s Advocate started in fall 2018, the staff consisted of five students including Shiffer. Now the staff has 11 members. They also hold interest meetings for underclassmen who want to become involved. 

Shiffer said she is hopeful that after she graduates in June, Devil’s Advocate will continue to move forward with new people leading the charge. She hopes the news outlet will continue to stay underground, but is content with the possibility that it may get officially adopted by the school.

She said it has been a long process to get students to read their work, but slowly more people are showing interest. The app now has more than 300 downloads.

Campbell said the Devil’s Advocate’s online presence through the Journal has also given community members a better insight into student’s daily lives.

“To really read the words of the students straight out of their mouths and to get a better understanding of what their lives are like, has really opened their eyes to not only the struggles students have these days, but it’s just a window into their lives that you would not get any other way,” Campbell said.

They need to have a press and they need to be able to express what they believe

The SchoolAtomic CMS has already gained traction outside of Ellenville, a village located in Ulster County, New York. 

Washburn High School in Minneapolis and Livingston Manor High School in Livingston Manor, New York adopted the app officially. Neither operates as an independent or underground news service, so administrators can have more control over the content they publish. 

Alex Shiffer said six more schools in various cities have expressed interest in the concept, but they are still in the working stages of creating their own news apps. Although students are able to run the CMS themselves once it’s developed, he’s had to help them build the framework for their individual apps.

Alex Shiffer said he hopes this project teaches students the important role journalists play in their communities.

“The problem with student journalism now is even more dire than freedom, its existence,” Alex Shiffer said. “I think that is what is critical to get kids to understand: that they need to have a press and they need to be able to express what they believe in a semi-independent way, just to be an informed citizen and a member of a democracy.”

This year on Student Press Freedom Day, the Devil’s Advocate staff focused on growing their readership. The staff handed out free brownies to any student, teacher or staff member that downloaded the news app. The team made more than 200 brownies and gave away almost all of them to people in the school. Many students also signed up to join the Devil’s Advocate staff. 

Devil’s Advocate celebrated Student Press Freedom Day in January. Staff members gave away over 200 brownies to students and teachers who downloaded the news app. (Devil’s Advocate / Alida Goldsmith)

“It’s been very inspiring for the writers just to be part of this very real and current endeavour — it has revitalized a lot of enthusiasm for kids and it’s been really wonderful to see the engagement in what we do,” Shiffer said. “… It really brought a large chunk of the school together and I’m really proud of that.”

This level of interest gives her hope that student journalism in her school will survive after she graduates.

SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6318.

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