In the newsroom of Homestead High School's student newspaper, Joe Laughlin pointed out a whole wall reserved for words of wisdom from past editors – short phrases scrawled with Sharpie markers on the yellow cinderblocks.
Laughlin, The Spartana's current editor-in-chief and 2013 recipient of The News-Sentinel's Sterling Sentinel journalism scholarship, said he lives by the slogan left by an editor a few years ago, before he joined the staff.
“The ability to write is the power to change,” the previous editor wrote.
Laughlin said he joined The Spartana as an associate sports editor in his sophomore year mainly because some of his friends worked on the paper, but he soon learned he could influence school issues as a student journalist.
Early on in his time with The Spartana, the paper ran an editorial that raised questions about representatives of religious groups who were “perusing the lunch room and made some students uncomfortable,” Laughlin said.
The editorial sparked complaints about what some people saw as inappropriate religious activity on campus, and district officials soon banned the groups from the school, Laughlin said.
“I realized if I want to truly affect school policy and make the school a better place, I could do that best through the written word,” he said.
Laughlin, a senior, helped lead the bi-weekly paper to a Best of Show award last year at the National Scholastic Press Association convention in Seattle. He also played three years of varsity soccer and worked multiple part-time jobs while maintaining a 4.2 grade-point average on a 4-point scale.
A panel of three judges from The News-Sentinel chose Laughlin from among nine candidates for the $3,000 Sterling Sentinel award. The judges praised Laughlin for his work ethic and dedication.
“Joseph Laughlin shines in every area we look at for Sterling Sentinel,” said Leo Morris, editorial page editor of The News-Sentinel and one of the judges. “Not content to merely lead as editor of one of the best high school papers in the state, he pushed his staff to ever higher levels of accomplishment.”
Homestead Spanish teacher and newspaper adviser Justin Peeper cited one night in October when Laughlin organized a forum for district school board candidates, then worked into the early-morning hours at a student's house to have a special edition of The Spartana ready for the next day.
As the 1 a.m. printing deadline approached, one of Laughlin's staffers realized she had left her laptop, which contained crucial files, inside the locked high school.
“He sent two of his editors to the school to bang on the doors, set off their car alarm or do whatever it would take to get the attention of a custodian,” Peeper wrote in a recommendation letter.
The editors found a custodian, retrieved the laptop and raced back just in time to meet the deadline. But Peeper said staff never could have put out the paper without Laughlin's leadership.
“Less than 12 hours later, Joseph and his staff had passed out more than 2,000 copies of The Spartana,” Peeper wrote. “I know of no other student who could have facilitated what Joseph did.”
This fall, Laughlin plans to attend the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he will study economics. He said he might put the $3,000 Sterling Sentinel scholarship toward a study-abroad opportunity, perhaps to visit Chile or another country with a developing economy.
Laughlin said he would like to become a business consultant and someday pursue journalism again as a national columnist focusing on economics, such as Ezra Klein of The Washington Post or Paul Krugman of The New York Times.
And the parting words of wisdom he plans to scribble on the yellow cinderblock wall?
Maybe “Nothing is new under the sun,” Laughlin said – an admonishment to learn from people who came before.
“Imitation is a wonderful way to learn, I think,” he said.