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From AJR,   November 1999  issue

Starting While They’re Young   

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

In West Virginia, high school senior Monica Robinson, writing for the Charleston Gazette's FlipSide, challenges the fairness of imposing a curfew on teenagers. Ella Hushagen, a senior taking pictures for the Seattle Times' Mirror, struggles in low light to capture the fleeting artistry of a chef's knife. Marcus Whisler, a junior exploring pop culture for TX., a section of the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, pumps out CD reviews and writes about subjects such as "straight edgers," kids "who don't do drugs and oppose violence."

Along the way, they've discovered at least one aspect of journalism. As Whisler says: "It's nice to get paid for what you do, but it's especially great that you're getting read... It's something people can relate to. It's not just my absurd idea or my absurd life."

Documenting the markers and minefields of teendom--and, as a by-product, enlightening parents and teachers--has long been the province of high school papers. But general-interest newspapers have entered that terrain in force, recruiting teen staffers in a quest to win young readers and their long-term loyalty.

An estimated 370 U.S. newspapers now regularly publish content locally produced by teens for teens, says Mary Arnold Hemlinger, grants and program manager for the Newspaper Association of America Foundation. "That might mean they just print a teen column once a week, but most of them print one to two broadsheet pages," she says. Some put out entire tabloids or monthly magazine sections. These papers and their advertisers actively vie for a chunk of the teens' discretionary spending, estimated at $120 billion annually among youngsters 12 to 17, according to a 1998 NAA study. The study also showed that almost seven out of 10, in an age group projected to reach 23.6 million next year, read a daily paper at least once a week.

The foundation in Vienna, Virginia, is one of several journalism organizations nurturing the fledgling Youth Editors Association of America with advice and seed money for programs. Founded in 1996, the association is "a mechanism of support and encouragement and a way to spread our gospel, so to speak, through the journalism community," says Marina Hendricks, editor of FlipSide and immediate past president of YEAA. (For details, see www.naa.org/foundation/yeaa/index.html.)

Hendricks and many of the association's 70 members gathered early last month in Ogden, Utah, for their fourth annual convention. They ran workshops on page design, recruiting and motivating staff, and bolstering advertising. They brought in a panel of 11 teenagers to critique pages, assess ideas and construct the ideal section.

And they recognized the work of their colleagues. Projects such as setting up a nationwide Internet chat room 48 hours after the shootings at Columbine High School helped editor Laura Crooks and the Spokesman-Review in Spokane win top honors among papers with a circulation of 100,000 or more. Among smaller papers, the Standard-Examiner's TX., or Teen-Examiner, claimed the top prize "not just for the section but the youth program overall," says section editor Kathy Miedema.

Training is a huge part of her job, says Miedema, who, when she's not copy editing for the main paper, supervises 45 teens ages 15 through 18. Together, they write, photograph, illustrate and collect quotes for one to two broadsheet pages published every Monday. TX. made its debut in April 1997.

TX. staffers meet monthly to brainstorm ideas and get assignments, usually with a two-week deadline. "We're out there doing slice-of-life stories," Miedema says, mentioning a recent cover story on "band nerds," those marching musicians who get up to drill at 6 a.m. Another concerned girls' opinions on "what makes a guy a hottie" or hunk.

But, Miedema says, "We've tackled some really tough issues," including teen pregnancy and school violence.

FlipSide also covers the gamut. The Charleston Gazette rolled out its youth magazine in 1991, publishing it monthly during the school year and distributing it directly to 13 area high schools. The paper also produces a FlipSide broadsheet page for the Sunday Life & Style section. Hendricks says her paper committed to the project to lure younger readers, but there was an altruistic goal as well. "Education funding in West Virginia being unpredictable"--and here she laughs ruefully--"journalism programs were at risk. Some schools didn't have a paper, so we wanted to give them a school paper in a sense, although it's for 13 schools."

Hendricks has a staff of 51, ages 13 through 18, recruited via ads in FlipSide. She welcomes anyone who completes an application. Other papers have more rigorous screening procedures. At the Staten Island Advance, for instance, only 42 of more than 250 applicants landed a spot at TeenAge, published Sundays.

Effort usually outweighs the financial reward, a worthy lesson for budding journalists. The going rate at Charleston's FlipSide Sunday edition is $10 minimum for an article, topping out at $20 for a cover story or art or photo package. TX. pays $1.70 an inch for stories and as much as $40 for a photo package, but "a lot of the work isn't compensated," Miedema says, referring to tasks such as maintaining a story-idea folder.

Still, there's a payoff. "To a teenager, it's a professional transaction," says Claire Regan, who, as the Staten Island Advance's content and design editor, oversees TeenAge. Students working for the paper "don't do it for the $20 per story [but] for the experience in the newsroom, for the journalism. And it's become, indirectly, a great recruiting tool for us." Regan says at least a half dozen of the Advance's staffers were once teenage correspondents for the paper.

As Hendricks says, "There's nothing like getting a call from one of your ex-kids who says, 'Guess what, I'm changing my major to journalism.' "