Fall 2023, News
Central High School Wields a Powerful Pen
By Sarah Wengert
Jane McGill is your typical high school senior, except for her mighty pen and journalism superpowers. At just 18 years old, this whip-smart, award-winning force is ready to be reckoned with—as she and her peers prepare to reckon with a world in need of remedy and renewal.
“My generation is coming of age in a time of incredible social upheaval,” says McGill, noting
existential threats like climate change, the war in Ukraine (with its accompanying nuclear threat), political extremism, systemic racism laid bare and uncertainty surrounding artificial intelligence. “I think when young people look around at the world, there’s this deep desire, motivated by the number of social and ecological issues we face, to do something. I think we’re incredibly motivated to engage constructively and fix a broken world.”
McGill is already doing her part as a senior at Omaha Central High School, in her third year with the school’s iconic, student-led newspaper, The Register. She served as arts and culture section editor her junior year and is now in a ranking editorial position. McGill, an Omaha native, also had a summer internship with The Reader. After originally drifting into journalism as a creative writer, she fell hard for the fourth estate, a term used to describe journalism
as the fourth power in a functioning democracy.
“Central has an absolutely phenomenal journalism department, I think one of the best in the state,” McGill says. “That environment instilled my love of journalism. Now it’s what I intend to do for my career, and it was 100% the Central journalism department that led me down this path.”
McGill’s Register author page is home to a mix of lighter fare like movie reviews, stories about the debate team, and the school’s first robotics tournament, alongside articles about the politics of Taylor Swift, the future of Nebraska journalism and how the demographics of honors classes perpetuate inequality among students. Regardless of the gravity of the topic at hand, her work is well-researched and stylishly written.
In fact, even if you don’t attend Central you might have read McGill’s work if you follow local news. Her article on LGBTQ+ students at Omaha Catholic Schools circulated widely among adults on social media, as did her story about a rash of teachers leaving Central that dug into causes such as personal reasons, pandemic-related issues, burnout, compromised work-life balance, lack of faith in leadership and more. One teacher even stated a moral objection to being asked to teach a language he wasn’t certified in.
“After discovering my love of and talent for journalism, it’s become my career goal,” McGill says. “That started with my ‘teachers leaving’ story. I’d never taken on a project of that ambition before and when I saw the tremendous impact it had, it really taught me the incredible power of well-researched, thoughtful, nuanced journalism to make a big impact on communities. My passion became that kind of journalism. So, I’m planning to study journalism in college—I don’t know where yet—to go into in-depth investigative journalism.”
McGill says some story ideas come from her observations of the school and world around her, but since becoming known for her role on The Register she also receives tips from fellow students. Going from her regular chemistry class to her advanced placement (AP) history class one day is what first inspired her to write the honors gap article.
“Two-thirds of the (chemistry) class were students of color, then I go to AP U.S. history class, and you could count the number of kids of color there on one hand—and both of them had 30 kids in each class,” McGill says. “Everyone experiences that, there’s no way to go to Central and not see it … to walk around the school in the hallways and see the diversity of our student body, then walk into an honors class and just see that vanish. But no one was talking about it, no one was writing about it. I think it’s important to take the inequalities so pervasive everyone just accepts them and say, ‘This shouldn’t be just a foregone conclusion. Why is this the case?’ That’s what I try to do with my journalism.”
In the wake of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s controversial policy on transgender students, McGill used a similar investigative, intersectional lens in her story about LGBTQ+ students in Omaha Catholic High Schools (OCS). Her piece included an interview with former Skutt student Percy Stefan, whose self-chosen senior project focused on “discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth at Catholic schools.” He surveyed 26 LGBTQ+ Skutt students and uncovered painful stats, like 70 percent of respondents confirming they experienced discrimination at school and more than half of them saying discrimination led them to consider skipping school. Even worse, 50 percent of respondents said they’d seriously considered suicide due to the discrimination, and 26 percent reported attempting suicide because of it.
For the article, McGill interviewed more OCS alumni, six then-current OCS students, and requested comment from several OCS administrators and the Omaha Archdiocese.
“People who know Catholics, especially at our age, we know queer people in Catholic schools but we don’t know a lot about the number of kids or what their experiences are like in terms of how marginalized they feel on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “One of the limits of that article is there isn’t a lot of data on this group, so I really tried to emphasize their experiences.”
While that important story took McGill outside of Central’s walls, CHS has been a good training ground for covering a diverse population.
“When people have complex, overlapping identities, which is inevitable at a school with the kind of demographics Central has, considering those is important to covering people,” she says.
McGill’s style of journalism is greatly inspired by Ida Tarbell’s work. Tarbell was an American muckraker and writer around the turn of the 20th century who’s considered one of the pioneers of investigative reporting.
“She did probably the most famous piece of investigative journalism ever, after Watergate, taking down Standard Oil,” McGill says. “Her motto ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ is my mantra and drives my journalism—the idea that we have a responsibility to shine the light on people that are suffering, to bring those voices that aren’t heard into the fold, and to talk about people and their experiences that aren’t often discussed.”
While Tarbell is a chief influence, McGill also lists fellow writers and journalists Hannah Arendt, Mavis Galland, Margaret Sullivan, Elizabeth Bruenig, Hannah Dreier and Willa Cather as inspirations. Additionally, she’s learned from many folks closer in space and time, including freshman English teacher Marcy Mahoney for helping improve her writing, former Register advisor/journalism teacher Hillary Blayney, and current Register advisor Brody Hilgenkamp. But McGill’s “biggest influence in terms of journalistic direction” was her peer/former editor Noa Gilbert.
“[Gilbert was] a tremendous influence on me,” she says. “They are incredibly involved in their community and in advocacy, and I credit them with getting me more involved with my community and more interested in local politics and what was happening at my school. When I started, I was very focused on national politics, political culture, and what’s happening in Washington D.C., and in my first years of The Register they refocused me and said, ‘You need to focus on what’s happening in your community.’ That was a profound influence and got me more interested in local politics and what’s happening in my most immediate surroundings.”
McGill’s work has received formal recognition, including a 2023 Superior Award for press law and ethics at the National High School Journalism Convention (sponsored by the Journalism Education Association/JEA and the National Scholastic Press Association), the 2023 Student Journalist Impact Award (a national award from the JEA and Quill and Scroll, the international honor society for student journalists), and the Nebraska High School Press Association’s 2023 Nebraska State Champion in newspaper newswriting.
“[The student journalist impact award] goes to the student journalist of the year who made the biggest impact at their school and [in their] community,” McGill says. She won the Impact Award for her “teachers leaving” story, becoming the first student from Nebraska ever to win the honor.
McGill has also earned the most classic of high school accolades—a superlative. She was voted “most likely to be actively preparing for the end of the world” by The Register staff. But she hopes she and her peers can help us all avoid a humanity-inflicted ending.
“We need to be a problem-solving generation,” McGill says. “There are a lot of problems to solve, and I think that’s the challenge and the promise of our generation—finding solutions, living constructively and healing the rifts that divide us. Everyone needs to find their own way to help heal the world and contribute constructively. Journalism is how I do that. I want to spur change through equipping people with the information necessary to make change.”