Young, Hip and Loud: Youth Papers Give the 411
In a spirited newsroom above Atlanta's Peachtree Street, amid the page proofs and status lists, the fast-food bags and soda cans, hangs a banner covered with scrawled messages, one of which proclaims: "VOX means freedom of expression-for those who are usually denied it." This is the office of VOX, an independent newspaper written by and for Atlanta teenagers. It is one of a growing number of city youth papers that have been popping up across the country, bringing their readers the 411 on everything from contraception to homelessness to restrictive school dress codes; and giving their writers, typically young women of color, not only an avenue for expression but a launching pad for an energetic politics of opposition. VOX, the brainchild of Rachel Alterman Wallack, then 23, began two and a half years ago with thirteen teenagers working out of an apartment. Today, VOX's youth staff, which makes all the editorial decisions and lays out the bimonthly on an eleven-inch Mac, has grown to forty-eight and occupies an office in the heart of town. Distributed to Atlanta metro-area schools directly by the staff, the paper has an estimated readership of 51,000. One reader, Marcelle English, was initially turned on to VOX when a teacher passed it out in class. Like two-thirds of teenagers in the South, about two-thirds of black teens and more than half of urban teens, she doesn't read a daily newspaper. "Myself, I don't read the A.J.C. [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]. Just the sports section and the ads on Sunday, that's it." But she and her friends started reading VOX because "we don't care what stock is up or down, we wanted news that pertained to us." She became such a fan that she joined the staff. That experience is replicated wherever these papers have found their audience. At least twenty youth papers exist nationwide, with an estimated cumulative circulation of more than 1.5 million readers. LA Youth (sponsored in part by the Los Angeles Times) has 300,000 readers; Chicago's New Expression has 60,000; San Francisco's Yo!, 50,000; and United Youth of Boston, 30,000. The reason for their popularity is simple: "We are the story," says Karla Rivera, a reporter for New Expression. And because for most of these papers "objectivity" is a style to be avoided, the writing commands attention through its vivid authenticity. This from Athena Lyn Duff's profile of an H.I.V.-positive friend who is homeless, printed in the Winter '95 issue of Yo!: She says she wants to leave San Francisco. "I'd miss you if you left. Would you write?" "Nah, I don't do that." There's a whole list of things that Jaz "don't do." She don't do sneakers, she don't do group homes, she don't do showers and she don't do staying in one place for very long... When Jaz is sick, it's hard to be around her. She's moody, coughs a lot, and looks like she's about to keel over and die. But when she's healthy we have a lot of fun together. We hang around at Coffee Zone, or on the sidewalk, coloring in coloring books and talking... Jaz is weird about money. If she gets ahold of $40, she'll loan $20 to some junkie who'll never pay her back, $5 will go to the guest fee at a hotel for the night, then she'll buy you lunch, get herself a mango because she's never had one before, then blow the rest on cotton balls and hair dye at Walgreen's. The editorial tone and political slant of these papers vary. New York City's two youth papers, New Youth Connections (NYC) and Foster Care Youth United, consist mostly of first- person narratives, as does United Youth of Boston. Yo!, New Expression, VOX and LA Youth tend to mix personal stories, conventional reportage and political opinion. Most have an anti- establishment slant, though Yo!'s is probably the most consistent. Some, like Hartford's Metro Bridge and Indianapolis's Teen Track, attempt "objective" journalism and, not surprisingly, are much less fun to read. Although never totally beyond the reach of the censor's hand -- VOX, for instance, was banned in one suburban Atlanta school system for running an article on gay youth -- the papers gain much of their power from the freedom their writers have to exercise their ideas, impulses and politics. City teens may especially need an alternative press right now. High school newspapers are in serious trouble. A 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, gave school administrators unprecedented authority to censor student work. The Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., has noted an increase in calls seeking First Amendment advice since the ruling, and People for the American Way reports that censorship of student publications is on the rise. Both organizations find that school officials know about Hazelwood and frequently use it to justify suppression. In one major 1993 case, Chicago high school senior Cynthia Hanifin was suspended for four days after editorializing against the school's ban on shorts; when Hanifin defied the suspension, principal Charles Vietzen had her arrested for trespassing.Budget cuts, which overwhelmingly affect students of color, are an even more serious problem. A University of Iowa survey of 149 city high school newspapers found that between 1983 and 1993 nineteen folded, mostly for lack of funding. A recent Freedom Forum study also noted that school administrators are less likely to respect their students' free speech when newspapers are poorly funded. Thus, it has become increasingly important for low-income minority students to find vehicles for expression outside their schools. The youth media movement dates back to the 1970s, when adults in Chicago, New York City and Wilmington, Delaware, inspired by open education and the underground press, started founding newspapers to be written by and for young people. The youth press is bigger today than ever before, with most of the papers having come on the scene in the past five years. Finances, however, continue to present the most formidable challenge. All the city youth papers have at least one paid adult adviser, whose biggest responsibility is fundraising. Usually distributed free by schools, youth agencies, libraries and community centers, they are never profit-making ventures. Most survive on some combination of foundation grants, pro bono office space, subscriptions, individual contributions, corporations and advertising. VOX has so far resisted advertisements as potentially compromising. More often, though, youth papers can't get ads when they need them. Andrea Jones, 21-year-old assistant editor of Yo!, says, "We have trouble getting advertising because we're too black. Only they won't say that; they'll say 'too urban.'" Corporate advertisers, happy to exploit black style and hip-hop culture to appeal to suburban white kids, are generally reluctant to see teenagers with little spending power as a target market. New Expression, which is nineteen years old, has more ads than any other youth paper; still, only $55,000 of its $400,000 annual budget comes from advertising. Funders present their own set of problems. LA Youth has had brushes with censorship with its sponsor, the L.A. Times. United Youth of Boston gets small grants from a variety of sources, who often try to dictate editorial content. Says Lew Gitelman, co-chairman of U.Y.B.'s board of directors and principal of a local alternative high school: "Sometimes a church will say don't write on abortion. So United Youth will say, 'We don't need your money.' Or they'll take the money, write the article and not get any money from the church the next time." Despite their grass-roots budgets, the technology of these papers is fairly cutting-edge, their look distinctly from the street-a blend of graffiti tagging art and slick Mac professionalism. Desktop publishing has made it much cheaper to put out a newspaper and affords the students a great deal of control. But this generation's most powerful tool is its media savvy. Young people are painfully aware that most mainstream depictions of their lives are beyond inadequate. From talk-radio to This Week With David Brinkley, city kids of color are blamed for expensive government, crime, the decay of family and the poor quality of life. The press never shuts up about urban kids but rarely tells their stories-and they're tired of it. Many are especially critical of the totalizing focus on gang activity, guns and drugs. One LA Youth cover proclaimed, in National Enquirer-style lettering: "Exclusive -- The Shocking Truth! Did You Know? Many Young People Have Never Shot Anybody!" Paradoxically, though, the mass media's obsession with violent urban crime tends to erase the experiences of those who are most often its victims-young black people. "I'm 18 and I've known fifty-some people who have got killed," says Yo! writer Ri'Chard Magee. "And I'm only 18. People get killed regularly. Double homicides. Triple homicides. This stuff never reaches the media, ever. My friend who just got killed, I read one report -- back page, like four lines, you know what I'm saying." This is a silence many in the youth press are intent on breaking: VOX has run several first-person narratives by young people whose friends or family members have been killed in gang-related violence; LA Youth and Yo! frequently investigate the circumstances that lead young people into gangs. There has also been some stunning reporting on police brutality and harassment. In 1994, New Expression exposed a police practice gang members call "Terminator Run," in which cops pick up teens and drive them to a rival gang's neighborhood so they will get beaten up. The reporters, Gabriel Burnette and Nikki Felton, talked to gang members, got their stories and confirmed the practice with an ex-cop; they observed that "gangs are easy targetsxbecause they are not likely to report police brutality." The story concluded: "In the movie 'Menace II Society,' police beat up a pair of black youths and then drop them off at a mostly Latino neighborhood where the cops hope they'll get another beating. The plan backfires, and the gang takes the youths to the hospital. That's Hollywood. In real life, teens allege, the police plan works all too well." LA Youth received national attention for a story on police abuse of youth of color in 1990, and again in 1991. Recently the paper printed a dialogue between its reporters and members of the L.A.P.D. One officer confided that even when people might be innocent, he liked to make them "feel like they were guilty," and dismissed the idea that "everyone should be treated equally and fair" as "a fantasy." As many youth journalists are quick to point out, they are better positioned to report on their experiences than any outsider could be. After a gang tried to recruit New Expression's Monica Pegues, she interviewed some gangsters on recruitment strategy. When Yo!'s Andrea Jones wrote a story on girls fighting girls, one of her sources was a friend's little sister: "She was basically just real with me. It didn't take a lot of prodding." Ri'Chard Magee says that in his San Francisco neighborhood, Hunters Point, he doesn't have trouble getting access to his sources. "Me, I'm living it, so I don't have to interview people. I live here day-to-day, so I could just talk to someone. That's something that someone who's 35 and living in Upper Nuys wouldn't have." And they do have stories to tell. In the September/October 1994 issue of LA Youth, 15-year-old Julie Smit writes: As a couple of friends and I cruise down an alley to find a spot to kick back and smoke a joint, we see a head with long blond hair pop up from a dumpster. In front of the dumpster is an old 10-speed that has been put together piece by piece. Every piece on the bike is a different color. We all say, "Oh! it's only one of those dumpster divers." Then I realize that it's my mother. Many of United Youth of Boston's contributors are teen mothers. One Yo! writer is a gay bike messenger; some are former gang members; others write from prison. Young people often find that working on a newspaper politicizes them, or changes their sense of what is possible. Like many youth journalists, Andrea Jones was dragged to her first meeting by an enthusiastic girlfriend: "She was really gung-ho about journalism, and I wasn't gung-ho about anything." But Jones helped launch Yo!'s 1992 founding issue when she was 17, and has been with the paper ever since. "I've learned not to take things at face value," she says. "Working in the alternative press, being able to look under the layers of propaganda and bullshit -- you know, it's difficult because you're struggling with what you thought was the truth in eighth grade... I've made it my mission, whenever I can, to write about young black girls. The spotlight has been on young black men, and there's just nothing on us." When I ask Ri'Chard Magee how he got involved in Yo!, he puts it delicately: "I was involved in a lot of different things. And these different things -- shall we say, these dealings -- weren't all positive or productive." But they did lead him to a local youth group, which, when he needed a job, pointed him to Yo! (Like United Youth of Boston, Indianapolis's Teen Track and a number of others, Yo! pays its youth staff. Some papers offer school credit for work.) Now Magee not only writes, he reports on his neighborhood for Yo!'s public radio show, and he has a fine fallback profession if his other plans don't work out. "I've had offers from a lot of different papers to come work for them, but my thing is rap. I've got a tape that's out, been out for three months. And basketball. Balling and rapping. I couldn't see journalism as a permanent career -- " he stops, half-reconsidering, "but I wouldn't mind if it happened that way." When Karla Rivera was in ninth grade, a teacher told her that she wasn't a good enough writer to work for New Expression. "So I dumped the whole idea," Rivera remembers. Two years later she saw a posting at school -- New Expression's North Side bureau was recruiting. She joined up, and in less than a school year became the paper's most prolific North Side writer. A first-generation Puerto Rican-American, Rivera has written several pieces in Spanish. "A great population of this city speaks only Spanish," she says, "and those that saw it liked it, and understood it better than they understood anything else." She feels she added perspective to a mostly African-American paper. "I like to say that I kind of did my people justice. If I don't write about us, who else is going to? I've learned that my voice matters. That our voice, the voice of teens matters -- not just mine, but mine in the sense of all of us." Judging by the track record of long-established papers like New Expression, adults involved with the youth press say about 30 percent of its reporters become professional journalists; many others go into politics or teaching. The path is seldom easy. One of the students who wrote the "Terminator Run" story -- among the best pieces of reporting I've read in a teen paper -- failed eighth grade the same year. But engagement with the paper tends to make most teenagers much more conscious of their relationship to their communities, and to political struggles in their cities. Editorials often exhort readers to become part of the stories. U.Y.B. articles on affirmative action prompted a series of forums at Boston's Madison Park High School on racism, poverty and educational inequality. Last year the paper formed an outreach committee to work with local antipoverty organizations like A.B.C.D. (Action for Boston Community Development) and youth groups like Gang Peace and La Alianza Hispana. U.Y.B. is trying to position itself as a force for change. When activists want to get a park built in their neighborhood, protest a war or publicize a student-rights union, the paper is willing to advocate. Last summer U.Y.B. ran a "Journalism and Leadership" program to teach teens both writing and community organizing skills. Kye Leung, the paper's 18-year-old editor, puts it this way: "We're not just publishing a newspaper. We want to organize people around the issues, to get people to be more politically aware and active. We want the paper to become a part of what the community is." A radical democracy is at work in the youth press that is rare in print journalism, a field that can't usually manage garden-variety affirmative action (only 11 percent of newsroom employees are people of color). This generation of young urban journalists knows how to read, doubt and challenge media- and how to make its own. Youth newspapers are ready to break it down for the twenty-first century with a hip-hop sensibility, passionate ethics, oppositional politics and voices that demand to be heard.