Courting the “Other” Media
“Youth media” used to refer primarily to the radio snippets, video, and publications made by teens, for other teens. That has changed over the last decade as an increasing number of youth media groups and professional news outlets have forged relationships, allowing young voices to reach a wider audience.
Some of these unions resulted from professional outlets’ desire to attract younger viewers, readers, and listeners. Many of these outlets have since discovered that teen-produced material brings a voice and flavor that appeals to adults as well.
“Political commentary can be staid and stodgy,” explained Davina Baum, former managing editor of the website AlterNet. During the last presidential election, AlterNet ran youth-written stories about politics, giving its readers “a different take than typical commentaries,” said Baum. “Leaving out [young people’s] impressions of the world around them would be a huge gaping hole in our coverage.”
A Washington Post staff writer agrees. “Far too often we’ve failed to tell….stories [about young people] from the most telling perspective, which is the kids that are affected by them,” the unnamed writer told Washington City Paper.
Still, some adult-made media outlets are reluctant to pair with youth media makers. Forming partnerships with nonprofits requires new ways of working, and that can take considerable time and effort. Some editors and producers who have not seen examples of youth media aren’t convinced the effort is worth it. Several local newspapers with teen-written pages, for instance, do not hire editors trained and assigned to work with teens. As a result, many publish mailed-in material from teens largely “as is,” resulting in pages that the writer at Washington City Paper complained “are bad enough to repel readers of all ages.”
Nishat Kurwa, Youth Radio‘s news director and international desk editor, found that convincing producers and editors that teen-made media can be powerful is generally most difficult the first time a group makes a pitch. Kurwa, who has guided young people to create radio spots for National Public Radio, warns that youth media makers first approaching an outlet need to be ready to explain why their stories are newsworthy, and why a young person can tell them better than an adult.
Kurwa has found that editors and producers who do take the risk and effort of incorporating young people’s work into their usual fare are almost always willing to continue doing so, often discovering unexpected perks along the way. Youth bring story ideas that adults might never find on their own and have even broken national news. When the teen staff at the Tulsa World ran a story about pro-anorexic websites, Time and Newsweek covered it a week later, said Barbara Allen, editor of the newspaper’s teen pages.
But partnering with other media outlets isn’t for everyone. Not all youth media groups want to reach a wide audience, and some groups feel that time and resources could be better spent building partnerships with schools or helping young people gain a sense of ownership over their work.
The following is a sampling of successful unions—some fleeting, others sustained—between youth and adult media outlets.
Recognizing the importance of young people’s perspectives, some news outlets have created their own youth media groups. New York Public Radio began Radio Rookies, which trains teens to make first-person radio stories that air on WNYC. HBO began teaching New York City teens filmmaking at its Young Filmmaker’s Lab, and much of this work is broadcast on HBO or PBS. AlterNet began WireTap, a youth-written portion of its website, and Pacific News Service posts articles from its youth publications on its wire service, along with stories written by adults.
A number of smaller newspapers have also begun producing “youth pages” in-house. The best of these have committed to hiring a full-time, adult editor assigned to the teen staff. (The National Association of America Foundation’s Youth Editorial Alliance provides tips for reporters who want to convince their papers to produce a youth section and support for those already overseeing them.)
Some of the most effective partnerships between individual youth media organizations and adult-made media outlets hinge on a liaison between youth and professional media outlets. These “middleman” organizations can help the youth media groups they work with focus more on producing quality work, and less on trying to distribute it.
WireTap produces its own youth-written material, but it also picks up and posts some of the best articles in youth media that have an activist slant.
The radio and video fields each have organizations that help distribute work to professional outlets. The well-supported Public Radio Exchange, which lets public and community radio find and air work from other stations, recently launched Generation PRX, which connects youth-made radio to stations nationwide, and will soon provide rankings of radio spots, making it easy for producers to sort through them.
For video, Listen Up! periodically commissions short documentaries and compiles them into a series to pitch to professional media outlets. Recently, Listen Up! commissioned teens at 15 groups around the world to produce shorts on fear and security. After pitching the idea to several outlets, Listen Up! agreed to work with a group that will show the videos on national television, said Sharese Bullock, manager of strategic partnerships in marketing.
A handful of news outlets have formed ongoing partnerships with youth media groups. Scripps Howard News Service distributes Children’s PressLine articles to 400 papers across the country, said executive director Katina Paron, and the New York-based Amsterdam News has been publishing youth-written articles for over 20 years.
The Teen Environmental Media Network Team, a Bay Area program that trains teens to produce print and radio journalism on environmental issues, distributes articles through the local Marin County Weekly, which goes to 40,000 homes. Its two-minute radio reports air weekly on a San Francisco NPR station, said program coordinator Rachel Kleinman.
Many other youth media groups do not have regular partnerships with professional outlets, but have worked with news outlets when they themselves are approached first. Other youth media groups pitch their radio snippets, articles, or videos to listservs and more traditional outlets on a case-by-case basis.
Whatever type of relationship a youth media group desires with a professional outlet, getting a foot in the door is usually the hard part. “We do recognize someone is going to take a risk to run our material, and our job is convincing them that the risk is worth taking,” explained Paron of Children’s PressLine. But once they take the risk, she added, they’re usually sold.
Above left: Radio Rookies, started by WNYC, cohabitates peacefully with the NPR affiliate.
From infatuation to going steady, partnering with professional news outlets can be tricky. Here are examples of successful relationships between youth- and adult-made media.