Voices no longer 'captive'
Independent outlets offer teens options beyond school bounds
Almost none of the area high schools had newspapers in 1984 when two Bristol Press reporters started a community newspaper written for and by teens.
Steve Collins said he and his wife, Jackie Majerus, started The Tattoo for local kids who had no writing outlet. But the paper is no longer local — it publishes stories on its Web site by kids who live in 22 states and 17 countries.
“Our mission is to train young writers who are interested in journalism — to try to teach them how to be good, solid reporters,” Collins said.
The first edition was one page inside the Bristol Press, but Collins said a 1996 issue about teen suicide compelled him to take the paper online so it could reach more people. Now The Tattoo is so big that the two reporters are forming a nonprofit so one of them can do the job full-time.
“We started off with a little kitten and now it’s like we’re trying to hold onto the tail of a tiger,” Collins said, adding that once the paper went online, more students started contacting them to write — especially students whose school papers “weren’t worth anything.”
Collins said the problem with high school journalism today, and part of the reason why students approach The Tattoo and other independent papers, is not necessarily what he would call “censorship.”
“In the vast majority [of high schools] … there’s no one connected to [the paper] who would even think of doing anything controversial, and that’s really the bigger problem,” he said.
Today many teens across America are taking time out of their day to write for a publication that is not affiliated with their school.
Sure, they write about friendships, community involvement, applying to college and how to be healthy. But they also write about suicide, sex, broken homes, mainstreaming and gang violence — issues some high school administrators call “controversial.”
The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial sponsored a contest in 1970 that asked high school students to submit writing about important social issues.
According to Keith Hefner, executive director of New York City-based Youth Communication — publisher of three magazines: two by and for teens and one by parents in the foster care system — the lack of submissions said a lot about the state of high school journalism.
As a result, the RFK Memorial conducted a two-year investigation, called the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism. The commission asked Jack Nelson, co-author of “The Censors and the Schools” — about pressure groups that influenced the content of American schoolbooks — to compile the results into a book. The results were published in 1974’s Captive Voices.
“[Captive Voices] found that the high school press suffered from elitism. Kids could only get on the paper if you were in a high-track English class. … That was racial exclusion and censorship,” Hefner said. “It made the papers insipid.”
Hefner said the report called for communities to start independent, citywide papers that would not be subjected to the censorship of schools and would allow students of all backgrounds to get involved. The stories were to focus on real experiences of the students in that city, he said.
That was the goal of Chicago-based New Expression when it launched in 1977. Manager of Print Media Lurlene Brown said the Columbia College-based paper is now printed quarterly and has a circulation of 46,000.
Hefner followed in 1980 when he founded Youth Communication and printed the first issue of teen magazine New Youth Connections in New York City. It is now printed seven times throughout the school year with a circulation of 55,000 – 70,000.
“The goal is to improve [students’] skills and give them a voice … and provide an accurate reflection of their lives,” Hefner said. “Most of our readers are poor and they don’t get that nearly anywhere.”
According to its Web site, Los-Angeles-based L.A. Youth — which has a circulation of 400,000 in Los Angeles County — formed in response to the Supreme Court’s 1988 landmark decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The Hazelwood ruling said school officials generally may censor items in school-sponsored student media if they can present a reasonable educational justification for doing so, and if they have not traditionally allowed students to make final content decisions.
While teen community papers work differently in terms of circulation, distribution and how they are run, they have the same goal: to give teens a voice in their community and provide them an opportunity to learn from professionals in the industry.
A wider view
Students join independent papers for several reasons. Some attend a school with no paper, others are seeking to avoid censorship, and some are just looking to get involved in an activity outside of school. A draw for many is being able to interact with professional journalists, and having the opportunity to write for a broader audience.
“The difference between high school papers and the indies is [high school papers] aren’t allowed to print anything controversial,” said Kathleen Reilly Mannix, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Young D.C. Even when school advisers understand the importance of being independent from the administration, it is a difficult job, she added.
Jennifer A. Carcamo, a senior at High Tech High-Los Angeles, is editor in chief of her high school paper, HighTech Times. She told the SPLC in an e-mail that she founded her school’s journalism club, which led to the school’s adoption of a journalism elective. She said L.A. Youth gives her an opportunity to write about “things that matter … not just fluff news.”
“High school newspapers are more restricting than independent student newspapers like L.A. Youth. Although you are allowed to write about ‘whatever you want,’ oftentimes that’s not necessarily true because it might go against the school’s mission and the school might not permit you to write about it,” she said, adding that editors at L.A. Youth encourage students to write about controversial issues.
Collins said students who work for The Tattoo have an advantage over some high school students because they are working with professional reporters and they can virtually write about whatever they want.
“While there are some journalism teachers who are terrific, most of them aren’t,” Collins said. “The other thing is, not only can [students] write about anything, but we actually encourage them to,” he said.
Hefner said the editors working with students at New Youth Connections are highly skilled, full-time professionals, with a journalism background.
Hope Vanderberg, an editor at NYC, is a former professional reporter and editor. She said she works one-on-one with students and challenges them to think critically.
Anita Ames, an NYC writer and a senior at the Secondary School for Journalism in New York City, said her school has no paper and no journalism classes. The school’s Web site says that despite its name, there is no formal journalism program: “We are a school of words that surrounds itself in reading and writing.”
Ames said joining NYC has given her the opportunity to learn about journalism ethics. It also taught her that journalism can be challenging, because she now understands the process of having to write many drafts and meet deadlines.
Percy Lujan, an NYC writer and a junior at International High School at LaGuardia Community College, helps produce his school’s paper. While his adviser is open to most story ideas, he said stories usually have to be geared toward the school. NYC’s stories are “written in a way that makes teens interested and that they feel connected to,” he said.
Mannix said a big draw for students who work for Young D.C. is the topics they get to write about. Also, many schools require students to take the journalism course before they can write for the school newspaper, and Young D.C. does not require students to have any training. The community paper is also a good place for students to “spread their wings” and do something unrelated to school, she said.
Carcamo said her stories have ranged from an article on her family’s favorite healthy recipe to her position on the presidential elections. She has also written about her experience being censored in her high school paper.
Hefner said one advantage of working for a paper outside of school is that it offers students a certain amount of anonymity. For instance, he said, a student might want to write a personal story, but is too uncomfortable having that released in the school paper.
Writing for a paper outside of school also gives students a greater responsibility, said Lynn Sygeil, bureau director for Indianapolis-based Y-Press. Students at Y-Press have traveled to places such as Cuba, Ireland and Russia to report on issues happening outside of the United States.
“When you’re [published] in a mainstream publication, there’s a whole other layer of responsibility,” she said. “You’re not just reporting on your high school community — you’re looking for wider issues. In some ways, it’s making them literate citizens, but then it’s also making them critical citizens.”
Making it work
“Most people, when they think of something like a Y-Press, they have a profile of a young person who participates in everything … they think these are the best and the brightest,” said Sygeil, whose staff is made up of 120 young journalists. “But we really have a diverse group of people from all different backgrounds.”
Student journalists who write for community papers are from the city, the suburbs and surrounding communities or states. They write, edit, take photos, draw cartoons, choose story ideas and help design the publication.
Most publications are volunteer-only, meaning those who participate do so after school or on the weekends. Some teen publications run inside a professional newspaper, and others are printed and distributed independently to schools, libraries and youth organizations.
Y-Press, which shares an 18-year-old partnership with The Indianapolis Star and works out of their building for $1 a year, prints in the Star’s Sunday editorial section and publishes stories on its Web site. The adult staff consists of the bureau director, a writing coach who has 20 years of journalism experience and a radio coach. Y-Press currently collaborates with WFYI Indianapolis, and Sygeil said students prepare a five-day, one-topic series every quarter.
Dwight Adams, copy editor and content editor for Star, edited stories for the students at Y-Press for two years. He said the stories were very timely and usually of interest to teens and adults alike, which he thinks broadens the Star’s audience.
“[The writers] are very curious and dedicated young journalists,” he said. “Kids and teens partially are crying out to be heard and this page helps them have their concerns noticed.”
Students who write for The Tattoo write stories, photograph and draw cartoons, but Collins said he and Majerus edit stories, with the help of several former Tattoo members. If the student writers are local, they edit the stories with them face-to-face, but those who live in different states or countries e-mail their stories for editing.
Collins said he used to recruit by speaking to high school English classes, but now students approach him when they hear about The Tattoo from other kids or see the Web site. The only qualification for kids to get involved is being between the ages of 12 and 18, but Collins said those who become the most involved have to be “really self-driven.”
“It’s not like I’m a teacher,” he said. “We can’t hold anything over them. It’s not like if they don’t give us a story they’ll get a bad grade.”
The Tattoo usually has an online issue every month, and students submit their own story ideas based on news in their own communities, including the international writers.
The most difficult part of his job, Collins said, is making sure he has the latest equipment to keep the Web site up-to-date. While Collins said he and his wife — who have two kids of their own — prefer this gig over their normal jobs, it is a very costly operation.
Young D.C. is funded mainly through its paper’s board of directors, who also serve as story coaches, Mannix said.
“A really dynamic board of directors should have a certain amount of money that every director brings in because they can get you in the door of a foundation,” she said. “If you’re lucky they will also still be working full time by someone who will match their donation.”
Young D.C. has 40-50 students who work for the 17-year-old paper, which is printed nine times a year. Mannix said she reads all content for libel and grammar, but the student staff is in charge of writing and editing. College students who once worked for the paper in high school come back and serve as editors.
North Philly Metropolis was started in 2003 as part of an after-school program at St. Elizabeth’s school in Philadelphia, according to student Editor Peak Johnson. The quarterly paper is a part of Project H.O.M.E., which wants to end homelessness and poverty in the community. Students pay a registration fee and instructors teach journalism, video, web design, visual animation, robotics and music classes.
“We want to give teens a chance — let them know that what they say really does matter and they are a part of this big world,” Jackson said. “We want to bring the community in and make a difference.”
Filling a gap
“The sorry state of high school journalism exists not just in urban areas but all over the entire country,” said Hefner, executive director of New York City’s Youth Communication. “It means it’s one more area in which people don’t get the chance to consume that kind of news … Part of the blame should be placed on the adult press, which never has decided to cover the high school press as much as other things that they think are important in schools.”
Ames said she has asked officials at her school, Secondary School for Journalism, about getting a student paper, but the answer she often receives is that there is not enough money.
L.A. Youth Executive Director and Publisher Donna C. Myrow said there is no problem distributing the paper in high schools and middle schools, because so few schools have a newspaper of their own.
“There are major budget cuts in the state. California is facing a tremendous deficit … I suspect journalism is one of the first programs to go,” she said.
Since there are so few high schools with their own newspaper, Youth Communication papers have no trouble being allowed to distribute in the schools, Hefner said. And even if a school does have a paper, the stories in independent papers are completely complementary because they do not focus specifically on high school.
Mannix said if one teacher feels “threatened” by having Young D.C. distributed in their school, there is always another teacher who sees value in it.
Myrow said she used to shy away from distributing L.A. Youth in middle schools, but now more and more teachers are requesting the paper at that level.
“We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary and we’ve certainly in that time seen a change in the community and among our readership. More and more teachers are using our paper in their classroom.”
Nelson said while there is still censorship in high schools, since Captive Voices he has seen a change in student media. Students have more outlets such as community papers, giving students more avenues to fight censorship, he said.
“It used to be that adults could just sit down on students and shut them off,” he said.
It does not look like Ames, Lujan and Carcamo will be shut off anytime soon.
“For me, joining [L.A. Youth] has definitely benefited me so much that I know I want to become a journalist some day,” Carcamo said.
reports, Spring 2008