At 9 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark Hazelwood decision, which gave educators the ability to exercise “editorial control over the style and content” of student newspapers and speech under certain circumstances. Donna Myrow, a teacher and a mother of two living in Los Angeles, was outraged. She said she saw the decision as a limit on young people’s free speech and believed that teens needed an uncensored forum.
By 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, Myrow had convened about a dozen teenagers around her kitchen table to start a new citywide youth publication.
Today, 15 years later, Myrow is the publisher of L.A. Youth, a bi-monthly newspaper that features stories about everything from video games to feminism. The paper has an international readership of 300,000 – the largest teen-produced publication in the country. To Myrow’s initial surprise, the youth newspaper that she helped start out of her home was “snapped up faster than we could print them,” she wrote on the L.A. Youth Web site.
Since its shoestring-budget beginnings, the paper has grown to inhabit a 2,200 square-foot office with 15 computers, and it operates with printing and mentorship support from the Los Angeles Times. While working on the publication, teens learn how to dream up story ideas, assign articles, report, write and edit.
For diversity advocates in the news profession, youth media organizations like L.A. Youth – most of which work with low-income, minority, or disenfranchised teens – are seen as a possible anecdote to aging and monochromatic newsrooms, channeling skilled and underrepresented youth into professional journalism. But a chasm exists between youth and mainstream media organizations, and outlets like L.A. Youth say their graduates often do not pursue a career in the news media.
At L.A. Youth, where thousands of teens have passed through the doors over the years, Myrow figures that only about 10 have gone on to careers in journalism. “We have one at The Baltimore Sun and one at the L.A. Times,” said Myrow, who has never kept hard-and-fast statistics on the subject. “A lot are going into education and community service. But they get great clips for college applications, and they have the experience of effecting change, making school administrators sit up and pay attention when we publish stories that are the result of solid fact finding.”
Youth broadcast and print organizations across the country – from New York’s Youth Channel to Chicago’s New Expression to San Francisco’s Youth Outlook! – say they have helped underrepresented youth cultivate reporting and media skills. But they agree that most of their graduates don’t end up in journalism.
“One young woman is working for NPR in Alabama, and there’s a young man who is a TV reporter at an ABC affiliate in Palm Springs,” said Beverly Mire, deputy director of Berkeley-based Youth Radio, which won a George Foster Peabody Award in 2002. “A lot go into teaching.”
Many of these organizations don’t keep records of where their students go, so much of the information is anecdotal. At most of the publications, however, grooming young journalists is not the point.
“The purpose of the organization is more to give voice to youth,” said Elizabeth Kaufman of New Expression, the oldest teen newspaper in the country. “Youth must be heard and understood. It’s an opportunity for youth to address the issues that most directly affect their lives, and journalism is such a great way to explore those issues.
“To us, it’s secondary if they choose to go into journalism, but of course we try to give them good journalism skills,” she said.
Youth Radio’s Mire agreed. “If they go into journalism, that’s great, but it’s really more to give young people the skills and the confidence they need to go out into the world,” she said.
Journalism skills, then, are often the byproduct of youth development for many of these organizations. “Journalism is not our direct goal, and neither is production, actually,” said Tricia Wing of Youth Channel, which helps teens produce public access TV shows. “Our main goal is to provide an alternative to mass media to underserved communities, so there’s a space to network and share their views.”
Though many youth media-trained teens don’t opt to pursue careers in journalism, there are also those who do. Organizations like Youth Radio, Youth Communication Chicago (which publishes New Expression), and San Francisco’s WireTap describe their student population as a “mixed bag” – some youth do, in fact, join the staff explicitly to gain journalism experience.
For Aimee Landon, a reporter with L.A. Youth and the editor of her high school newspaper, joining a youth media organization was a good opportunity.
“I definitely want to go into the journalism profession,” she said. “I had minimal knowledge of journalism before I became a part of L.A. Youth, but L.A. Youth has helped me to grasp many journalism concepts and helped me to improve my writing.”
But Kevin Weston, the editor of Youth Outlook! who is in his mid-20s, says there’s still a deep disconnect between youth and mainstream media – specifically, he said, between what is perceived as legitimate and illegitimate voices. Youth Outlook!, for example, seeks to give voice to people who would likely never identify themselves as journalists.
“A significant number of the staff comes from The Beat Within, [a project for] people who are incarcerated, who maybe didn’t think of themselves as writers,” Weston said. “We’re working with young people who are or were homeless, as well as young people in college.
“I don’t consider myself a journalist – I’m a rapper, I’m a writer, I’m a poet. I don’t necessarily identify with the word ‘journalist.’ A lot of young people don’t either, even though that’s the work they’re doing.”
L.A. Youth’s Myrow said her students view themselves the same way.
“There’s no attraction for these youth to want to walk into a big newsroom,” she said. “What they get with us is an opportunity for free expression; they don’t see the mainstream newspapers offering that to them. They don’t identify as journalists, and that’s too bad because a number of them that have come through have real talent.
“They need to be nurtured. They haven’t grown up reading the newspaper to understand the importance of the newspaper; they are not going to get involved suddenly later on,” she said. “It’s a question we – and other people – ask all the time: ‘You must have all these budding journalists in your program.’ But we don’t. Something is wrong with that picture.”
Bernice Yeung is a San Francisco-based journalist and a board member of the SPJ Northern California chapter.