The SNO Report: Lessons in writing reviews

There are a million and a half of them out there.

Of course I’m talking about entertainment reviews, talking heads weighing in on this new Ariana Grande album and that “Crazy Rich Asians” movie. You publish your take and enter the fray.

When we sat down with Detroit-based music journalist Gary Graff in October and asked him about his work, having the confidence to be yourself in your review writing was a big takeaway.

Honoring that, we don’t want put any pressure on you to change the way you write your criticisms, but we thought a lot of what he said could help you get even better and applied to writing beyond just music reviews.

Here are some of the highlights:


“When you’re talking about sound, that’s the hardest thing to write about of all the arts. Movies have plots and visuals, theater has plots and visuals, even visual art has visuals you can describe. Sound is its own beast, and to be able to convey what something sounds like and interpret and contextualize it, it’s a great challenge.”


“To do anything that involves criticism, you do need a critical vocabulary, the right words to not only describe but to put things into context and give the reader a sense of what’s going on.”

“You need to dig even deeper than you have. Yeah, you know what happened in the 90s, but you need to know what happened in the 1890s — or when we’re talking about music, the 50s and 60s. Go listen to all those Beatles albums. Know who the Rolling Stones were. Know who Chuck Berry was.

“Perspective and context are everything. Your review needs to be authoritative. You need to write with authority and authority comes with a knowledge of history … of context, and a real perspective on that artist, the genre and the overall history of the art, whether it’s music, movies or whatever.”

“You need to read about where these artists came from, who were their influences and go back and listen to those. … There are original pieces of music but there is no original music anymore. So, do the leg work. Dig in and find out where your music came from.”


“You can drive yourself crazy if you try to do that, just like you can drive yourself crazy trying to be the first one out. You have to divest yourself from worrying about what the rest of the world is doing and just do your truth. Do your article your way. Don’t compromise your criticism just to be the first or to be vastly different.”


“I want to know where the creative motivation is. What drives them? What makes them tick? Really delve into that. That comes from asking about how did you get into music? When did you start playing? What did it feel like the first time? How long did it take you to get good at it? Did you ever think about giving up? The most important thing is listening. Be ready to swerve off. If they say something that sounds interesting, follow that rabbit hole as long as you can.”

The SNO Report: Recruiting and marketing your class

You don’t have enough students in your journalism class for it to be an elective, technically, but the guidance office is looking the other way; at least, they are this year. So, you know you need to step up your game.

The future of journalism is at stake here!

That’s the situation Chris Grazier, adviser to El Cid at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, Calif., found himself in last year.

This year, his class has grown by three times as many kids and the publication is thriving.

How’d it happen, and what can you do to grow your own publications staff? It’s all about knowing what buttons to push. It’s all about recruiting the marketing. At least that’s what Grazier told us, when we talked to him on our podcast recently.

Here are the best tips for how to do it:

1. Spread the word in other classes you teach and have your staff do the same
“You’ve got to continually be selling your product and selling your class. … My big sales pitch to my other English classes as well … ‘Hey, there’s only one cat on this campus that can get you published and help you start building a for-real portfolio.’ Once you get one byline, you want another. I can see it now, ‘By Tommy Smith, El Cid staff writer!’”

2. Go out recruiting in classes during and leading up to registration week
“I send out the editors. We gotta get out to those English classes, particularly those honors and AP English classes. So, the kids go out and sell it in the classes and sometimes I’ll pop in unannounced and give them a little two minute fire-them-up spiel of the importance of the written language, being a good writer.”

3. Push your awards when talking about the class and publication
“Once you start winning awards, word spreads. Writing good stories and having those lead to awards … The SNO Distinguished Sites platform really gave us a platform to toot our own horn.”

4. Market the site through other school-related communications
“We made it into a little news story in El Cid. I worked closely with our communications director, who then promotes it not only on the school website but in her different communications, quarterly newsletter or updates through an email blast. Word got out that we were a SNO Distinguished Site.”

5. Be visible teachers and students — everyone should know who you are
“I’m standing out in the hall, outside of my door, like a fruit cake every day.”

6. Develop good relationships with people who can help you spread the word, like counselors
“I bumped it up with the counseling department. We talk about networking. You have to be good to people. We have a pretty big slate of electives that we offer here. … I think the counseling ladies sold it a bunch.”

The SNO Report: What Is A Caption?

What is a photo caption?

Not knowing is going to cost you several of our SNO Distinguished Sites badges, or at least delay your attempt to earn them. In asking there to be captions and credits on all images and graphics — original and outsourced — we’re not just asking you to fill space. We want you completing real photo captions.

The photo displayed at the top of this email is an example of doing everything right.

What’s right about it?

  1. The subjects of the photo are identified by name and grade.
  2. The caption is written in active voice. Phoebe, Evie and Emma are rehearsing the song. The song is not being rehearsed by Phoebe, Evie and Emma.
  3. Along the same lines as the last point, there’s an action happening in the photo that’s being described in the caption.
  4. It’s clear in what setting the action is happening (“during tech week”) and even why (“for the fall musical”).
  5. The photographer is credited. Nice pic, Emily Ziessman, of St. Louis Park High School!
  6. Taking the caption a step further, there’s added context for a reader who may just be looking toward the caption for information. That reader now knows, “Opening night for ‘9 to 5 the Musical’ is Nov. 9 at 7 p.m., with more performances to follow next week.”

That’s a full photo caption and credit.

Writing full captions and credits is part of how you prove you care about the way a story looks online. Paying attention to those details influences how your reader thinks of your publication.

Now, what is NOT a caption?

  1. No caption is not a caption. Read that a second time, if you have to.
  2. A caption is not just a list of names. “Phoebe, Evie and Emma.” is not a caption.
  3. A caption is more than a statement about a photo. “Rehearsal for the musical” or, worse, “Rehearsal photo,” is not a caption.
  4. A caption is not just a photo credit, but it DOES include one. “Photo by Emily Ziessman” is not a caption.

The same rules apply to original art, graphics and outsourced photos.

In those instances when art, graphics, album covers and other borrowed materials don’t portray an action happening, how do you write a caption?

  1. A summary sentence or one that provides context works best. Examples include:
  2. Maybe you have a photo of a painting. A summation of the corresponding story, such as “Students submitted work for Saturday’s community art show, where Phoebe McKinney won first prize,” works really well.
  3. Maybe your photo is the movie poster for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Context such as “‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ opens at Random Local Theater on Friday” is great to have.
  4. Each of these examples, and any that are similar, need a photo credit, too. What studio produced “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Whose painting is it?

Here’s an added primer on crediting borrowed photos.

Now that you know, stress that your staff always writes full captions and credits on all images. Then, at least one requirement that shows up on several Distinguished Sites badges shouldn’t be such a problem any more.

The SNO Report: Did you see those galleries?

Late last week, we bought our photo galleries new clothes and new toys. Did you notice? The display and function of them got an upgrade. Here’s what changed:

When viewing in full screen, we reformatted the space to allow for a larger area where your photos can really pop. The big changes in this view, however, are in how your readers will interact with the gallery from now on…

  • We got rid of the old left/right arrows in the top corner and replaced them with the new carousel arrows that display on hover on the left and right edges of the screen
  • We incorporated a clickable thumbnail row of images that can be placed above or below the primary display area — a different way for readers to engage
  • A cool effect: When the reader is done with (or tired of) the gallery, they can get out of the full-screen view by scrolling down on their mouse or trackpad

You can format slideshow options — like using a dark or light color scheme, picking a highlight color and location for the thumbnails — on your SNO Design Options page, under “Story Page Extras.” There, you’ll also have an option to pick between Overlay and Inline gallery displays.

Inline galleries allow the reader to engage with them without going full screen…

  • The new carousel arrows will hover over the photos in inline, allowing the reader to move between images without going full screen; whereas, in the old days, readers had to click a button on the photo before they could start interacting in full screen
  • In the Design Options, there’s an option to activate auto scrolling, so as soon as the reader gets to the story page, the carousel is queued to start moving
  • The reader can still take the gallery full screen at any time and won’t lose their place

There are also more functions that ever for a working slideshow on the homepage, using, as always, the SNO Photo Gallery Widget…

  • We’ve made it interactive without clicking to go full screen, same as inline galleries
  • There are three main options in the widget for functionality — Slideshow, Slideshow with Thumbnails, and Thumbnails — while you can also setup auto-scrolling settings
  • The “Thumbnails” option displays the photos as small thumbnails (a carryover feature) that can be clicked and enlarge to full screen. The difference is that the thumbnail sizes are automatically configured based on the size of the widget area you’re putting it in

You can find our new SNO help site article about these changes, right here.

The SNO Report: 5 things your site should have

The days are so few between holiday breaks, which means you’re running out of time to actually accomplish the things you set out to, on your student news site this semester.

Whether you splurged and bought a site this year or simply committed yourself to recommitting to it, we sure hope you’ve been successful.

However, we also know how overwhelming it can be to get started — or restarted. It’s great to want your site to look like any of our Award Winners, to not be satisfied until it does, but those schools have been tinkering for years to get to where they are. It takes time, people!

We’re not going to magically send you there in one email, but we want to help you meet that New Year’s resolution. You wanted to actually make a difference in the appearance of your site. The best way to do that is by configuring a site design that’s functional. That doesn’t mean looking like any one of our Distinguished Sites necessarily. If you strip away their decoration, these are five things every functioning site has going for it…

Five fixes you can make before you begin Christmas shopping.

CUSTOM HEADER: Your site should have a brand — an identity. You do that with a color palette, often your school colors or black, white and gray. Those colors often come from your custom header image at the top of your site. You may call it a logo, banner or flag. Go away from the basic Text Header and design a custom header graphic — often done in Photoshop, working from a canvas that’s no bigger than about 200 pixels tall.

SHOWCASE: But not that showcase. Get rid of the Showcase Carousel and replace it with a far more customizable and user-friendly SNO Story Carousel or SNO Story Grid widget, commonly placed in the Home Top Full Width or Home Top Wide area of your website. This is where you ought to be displaying your best stories — not only that, your best photos. Create a category, like “Showcase” or “Top Stories” to be selective of what goes into that space. Take your pick of carousel and grid configurations in our own little shopping mall here.

YOUR PILLARS: We’re talking about the categories (or sections) in which you’re publishing most. Those should be displayed on the homepage of your site using Category Display Widgets. You don’t need to go crazy having 20 categories out on your homepage. Do whatever your capable of. Displaying 3-5 categories is exactly as many as you need, and those are typically your bread and butter categories — News, Sports, Features, Opinions. Well, whatta ya know, there’s four right there!

SQUARENESS: The places you put all your widgets should ideally come to a pretty even (or squared) endpoint at the bottom of your homepage. You should create a homepage that, when sketched out as boxes, looks like a square made up of smaller squares or rectangles. It helps sometimes to sketch out a plan for your site, or to sketch out your site as it currently looks and diagram where you could move blocks or where you could add something else to create a squared homepage. It’s OK to act like you’re John Madden or something. An underrated issue to getting and sustaining the square: Using horizontal photos as often as possible.

How about a quick example? Let’s say you have those four main categories and a carousel for Top Stores, as we’ve discussed. Carousel goes in Home Top Wide, pick a category to align next to it in Home Top Right, and then put the remaining three across the page in Home Top Left, Center and Right.

Boom. Roasted.

INTERACTION: If it’s an extra block your missing to fill that last remaining blank space on the homepage, consider something that can be done online only. Maybe it’s a widget displaying a Twitter or Instagram feed. Maybe it’s a reader poll. Maybe it’s a video widget.

This list is just five things. There are 23 requirements total for the Site Excellence Badge, of the SNO Distinguished Sites program. That’s #goals. Start with these five and you’re site will be fully functional, so now you can focus your attention on publishing content.

Your site already checks off all five? Well, then, what are you even doing here! Get out there and publish more content.

The SNO Report: It’s SNO Distinguished Sites Season

Your favorite time of year is back, the time of year when you can begin applying for our SNO Distinguished Sites badges.

Like Best of SNO, this year you’ll submit for badges on your own site dashboard, in the tab for SNO Badges. There, you’ll get started, track your progress, submit to Best of SNO, and receive notifications from our awards coordinator.

It’s easier than ever before to track the badges you’ve earned and what still needs improvement from the others you’re still working towards.

As is the case every year, each badge has a few minor adjustments to its requirements.

But there are a couple notable biggies.

Site Excellence Badge

Worded differently in the past, your homepage must be customized beyond the basics (i.e. the template you started with). Specifically, many of your homepages still use the dated technology of the Showcase Carousel, Teaser Bar A, Teaser Bar B, and Top Story Display Area.

To earn this badge, you’ll have to replace those features (found on your SNO Design Options page) with features available on the Widget Control Panel.

Multimedia Badge

It’s time you tried podcasting. To earn this badge, you’ll need three podcast episodes that meet all seven of our requirements. Those include episodes being interview-based, 5-15 minutes long, using music and including a structured intro and outro.

Those are two of the most significant changes to the game this season. Good luck!

The SNO Report: Create a Breaking News template

There might be a pretty good opportunity for breaking news coverage next week as the midterm election results start to come out.

Presenting your coverage online, here’s the big thing to think about: Where’s it going to go? 

Is it time to finally use the Breaking News Ticker? Add headlines to it throughout the day as you gather small tidbits of information.

Does all your coverage go in the widget for News? But is that underselling its importance?

It probably is, only because there’s so much you can do to showcase it by manipulating the layout of your homepage — for even just that single Tuesday in November.

Go create a Design Snapshot right now to save the current, everyday layout of your homepage, so you can quickly revert back to it after Election Day. Once you create that Snapshot, start plotting out the Breaking News “template” of your homepage for Tuesday. Sketch it out and take inspiration from other places. Designers at The New York Times have been thinking about their breaking news template for months — you can bet they’ll have a different-looking homepage, beyond the changes we did an entire podcast about, with them.

Consider, for example, the layout we’ve created on Best of SNO to showcase your midterm election coverage.

Here’s how we did it:

  1. Having a number of versions of our header gave us the flexibility to flip from a white background to black one to emphasize the top section of the homepage where we were going to showcase your work. But maybe that’s not realistic for your publication — that’s OK, you can do everything else.

  2. We created a brand new category, titled “Midterm Elections,” (call it whatever you want) to file all the content into. All that is being pulled into the SNO Story Carousel widget at the top.

  3. The carousel is living in the Home Top Full Width widget area, which works really well for us because we don’t have any other widgets in that space, so suddenly having a wide, large space where content is displaying makes a major difference. But you might already have a large carousel or SNO Story Grid on your homepage, so…

  4. Maybe you’ll change the displaying category in your top carousel or grid to “Midterm Elections” (again, call it whatever you want) for a day or two only.

  5. Or, maybe you’ll use the Above Header Full Width widget area instead, keeping the new large, content-displaying widget away from the existing one.

Maybe you’ll use the Immersive Splash Page to showcase your one, big election story. Or maybe you’ll keep it so simple and display the stories from your new category in a Category Display Widget, but helping it to stand out by customize its widget styling.

The opportunities are almost endless and not just limited to Election Day.

Do this the week of the state championship football game.

Do this the week of Homecoming.

Do this over the holiday break.

Do this for graduation.

Do this when-ev-er.

We hope to see you guys mixing it up next week. There’s no bigger draw for increased readership than an event like this. Give those people something that makes a big impression.

The SNO Report: Covering the midterm elections

You can’t escape it. The political ads pouring into your poor mailbox and out of your television screen (here’s our favorite). The context applied to all news, or discussions of news, coming out of Washington, D.C. recently. The midterm elections are right around the corner.

On our podcast with The New York Times’ design team, they told us they were already thinking about the way their midterm coverage is going to look online.

Are you thinking about yours? How will you cover the midterms? How will you present the coverage?

On Best of SNO, we’ve already seen a ton of political coverage localized by student journalists. Three such articles covered the experiences of students working for political campaigns, which you can read here and here and also here.

On the editorial side of it, we’ve republished a column about “Developing Your Political Ideology” and another calling on students to “Vote early and local.”

Covering your local elections is especially important and it’s something you ought to be doing, since a subset of your readers are probably voting for the very first time.

That means covering it, first, at a bare-bones level:

  • How can your of-age readers vote? Or where can they register to vote?
  • What does a ballot look like? Or what else can you tell them about the Election Day process?
  • Who are the candidates?
  • What do the different political offices being pursued in the election actually do?
  • Where do candidates stand on the issues, especially those issues that matter to the age group of your readers?
  • What’s a Democrat? What’s a Republican? What’s it matter?
  • Why does voting matter?
  • Or for readers who aren’t of age, how can they still get involved?

How many of these questions have you answered for your readers? (Hint: The more the better.)

A lot of those answers can be found by researching the information. They’re mostly information-based reports, rather than relying on interviews. But what about interview opportunities? What about sending reporters to cover the events?

Here are a few stories about student journalists who went out and did it:

Start by covering school board and city council meetings. Go as a class and make it an assignment.

That’ll help you get even more prepared to cover politics leading up to, during and after these midterms. Think of it like covering your Homecoming Court election — you identify the candidates, share information about them with readers, you cover the big announcement, etc.

Maybe you have a potential Homecoming candidate with a great story to tell. You’ll only find out by going and talking to them — that includes politicians, too.

Here’s an excellent example of how a student publication covered the 2016 election: “2016 Election one-stop shop,” from West Side Story.

Here’s a great example of students covering the results of a local school board election: “Blue wave in North Penn School Board election,” by The Knight Crier.

Now, get out there and do your thing. Good luck!

The SNO Report: Covering Sports On Your Site

As the calendar flips to October, fall sports season is hitting its stride. That means every game has higher stakes and the postseason is right around the corner, if not already here for some.

So, there’s a lot to cover. What could you be doing?

Previews and gamers

Some teams play so frequently — volleyball, for example — that it’s hard to keep up with previewing upcoming games and writing recaps afterward.

Other sports — football — setup perfectly for you to schedule coverage around its one game each week — and football can be quite a readership draw. Preview the upcoming football game every week to offer readers a perspective on what’s happened earlier this season and what’s coming. With postseason play coming up, do this with other sports, too.

Then, get out and cover those things. Take notes of important plays and game trends, interview the coaches and players afterward and write up a recap.

Being at the games helps you improve your coverage and allows you to find extra coverage you wouldn’t otherwise.

Weekly athlete features

Here’s a piece of new content, produce weekly, that you can count on — and that your readers can count on. It may also be a good chance to use the Side-by-Side story page template, too.

Photo galleries

Send someone with a camera to as many sporting events as possible and have them produce a gallery from the game, whether it’s standing on its own or as a part of a story package.

Live blogging

Here’s an idea. It’s so easy to update your articles, so create the shell of one for, “Live updates from (insert game here)” and have a reporter updating it throughout an event with a play-by-play or occasional observations.

You could end up with something like this.


Live tweeting updates from a game is about the same as a live blog. Reporters should have Twitter accounts or access to an official publication Twitter account to send out updates from a game.

Also, use Twitter on your site that displays a feed where readers can find your live tweets. It’s popular to display your own, but when you have a sports page, why not use the school’s athletic account to maximize the information your readers can get there?

Live videos and recaps

Use video to recap games, especially if you have a broadcast program, but you may also use video to be a resource for your readers who can’t be at the game. Help by streaming the games live.

Scores and schedules

Use our Sports Center add-on to publish schedules for the season, update them with the final scores as the season progresses, and even list the rosters for your teams.

Even if you don’t have the add-on, use the SNO Sports Score Scroller widget to add and display a ticker of recent sports results for your school.

The SNO Report: Best Of SNO Is Back, With One Major Difference

Alright, we’ve tortured you long enough. Best of SNO is back, baby!

But wait… There’s nowhere to submit my story! Ahh! Am I going crazy? Why are you doing this to me! WAS THAT A GHOST I JUST SAW!

Frankie says “relax.” Gone are the days when you had to fill out a submission form on the site to submit your article. Welcome to the future!

We’ve added a feature in the dashboard of your site that allows you to press a button that sends your article our way. Right there in the toolbar where you click “Stories,” “Breaking News” and more, you’ll click “Best of SNO” — that’s how you’ll get started.

This new feature is constantly sifting through all of your content, marking stories as eligible or ineligible for submission based on several factors, listed below (and listed on your site’s “Best of SNO” section under the “Submission Guidelines” tab).

  • Stories must be at least 300 words in length, with the exception of videos, which are eligible when that video’s embed code is pasted into the proper Video Embed Code field.
  • Stories must have a featured image.
  • That featured image must have a photo caption and photo credit.
  • Stories must have a byline with the writer’s first and last name.

All of the other ideological requirements, like the story being engaging, concise and relevant, standing out from the crowd — that kind of thing — remain the same.

Eligible stories will be listed under the “Eligible Stories” tab of the Best of SNO page in your dashboard and ineligible ones will be listed under, you guessed it, the “Ineligible Stories” tab. View your list of ineligible stories and there’ll be a note there explaining what’s making it ineligible.

Before you do any of that, please review the “Site Data” tab, which should be the first thing that shows up when you click “Best of SNO” in your toolbar. The site data lists important information for us like the adviser’s name and the school’s name. Verify that all of it is correct; if not, fix it.

Now, a few things about submitting…

  • Everyone can view the page to see if their story is eligible, but only site “administrator” accounts will have the ability to submit.
  • Only three submissions are permitted per day, per site. We read all submissions, so cut us some slack on this one.
  • When you hit “Submit” on an eligible story, it goes to the “Submitted Stories” tab and also is added to our master list for review.

At that point, it’s all out of your hands, but you can see the status of each submission (it’s either Pending, Accepted or Rejected) in that “Submitted Stories” section. You can also retract a submission if you change your mind about it.

Your overall progress toward the Excellence in Writing badge is tracked in the middle of the page. There, you’ll see how many stories you’ve submitted this year, how many are being reviewed, how many were published, and how many you’ve submitted (out of three) that day. You still need three stories published on Best of SNO to earn the badge.

OK. You’ve heard enough from us. Now show us what you’ve got!