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A Paper of Surprise : Remote Valley Depends on School Publication for the News

Times Staff Writer

Front-page headlines this month in the local high school newspaper have included:

“Property Taxes Due April 10,” “Bond Issue for Prisons on Ballot,” “Hospital to Open Monday.”

Strange headlines, indeed, for a high school newspaper.

The lead editorial in a recent issue began: “The Reagan Administration support for insurance liability law reform is welcome news.”

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The insurance liability controversy is certainly an unlikely subject for an editorial in a high school paper.

But the Surprise Valley Hornet Buzz is not your ordinary high school newspaper.

It is also the only community newspaper for the 1,700 residents of four tiny towns and surrounding ranches in 70-mile-long, 10-mile-wide Surprise Valley, tucked away in the remote northeast corner of California.

The Buzz, as it’s known around here, is written and published by 20 of Surprise Valley High School’s 67 students. And it covers all the news in the valley--births, engagements, weddings, deaths, meetings, events, political campaigns, controversies, crime (what little there is), tragedies, sports and features. It also carries high school news.

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All 650 post office box holes in Cedarville, Eagleville, Lake City and Fort Bidwell receive a copy of the Hornet Buzz free every Thursday. Another 100 copies are mailed outside the area.

“The Buzz is the best form of communications in the valley. Everybody gets it; it’s not just high school stuff. It’s community, county and statewide news. The kids do a first-rate professional job,” said pharmacist Dave Bilodaux, 53, owner of the century-old Cedarville Drug Store.

‘Thorough and Accurate’

Donna Donald, 60, Surprise Valley Hospital administrator who has lived and worked in rural areas throughout the state, said: “This paper is as thorough and accurate and does just as good a job as any small rural paper I have ever read.”

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Jake Merritt, 61, journalism and business education teacher and one of seven teachers at the nine-room high school, has spent the past 16 years directing publication of the Buzz.

On Valentine’s Day, Gov. George Deukmejian presented Merritt with the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.'s high school journalism teacher of the year award.

One wall in the Hornet Buzz newsroom is covered with awards received by the paper over the years, and a sign posted on the door leading to the newsroom proclaims:

“IF YOU WANT TO WORK, THIS IS THE PLACE AND YOU ARE WELCOME. IF NOT, KEEP OUT.”

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Staff members spend 1 1/2 hours of class time every day putting out the paper. They often augment that with work after school and on weekends.

“We’re usually in here until midnight or later on Wednesday nights when we go to press,” Merritt said.

Stories are written on 10 word processors and on typewriters when the computers are down. The paper is “printed” on two copying machines since the school can’t afford a printing press.

Students also sell the advertising--more than $10,000-a-year worth. That, along with donations from readers and money the students earn by publishing an area telephone book, also on the copy machine, keep the Buzz in the black.

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Most recently, residents and officials here say, the Buzz’s persistent coverage of the campaign to reopen the 22-bed Surprise Valley Hospital after three years of closure contributed to the success of the drive. The hospital reopened early this month after a $200,000 grant was obtained from the state to renovate the 36-year-old building and voters in the valley overwhelmingly approved a $150-a-year assessment for each of the 600 homes in the area.


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