Conventions Made Unconventional

Last fall, as newspapers across the country reported the same stories about
Kerry’s war record and Bush’s tough stance on terrorists, election dispatches from young reporters provided a respite from the usual campaign rhetoric. Berkeley-based Youth Radio sent its reporters to Boston and New York to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. Spots aired on National Public Radio’s
Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the Tavis Smiley Show, and Latino USA.

Kurwa, Youth Radio’s news director and editor of the international desk,
talked with Youth Media Reporter about how she pitched her stories to national
outlets, and what a youth perspective added to mainstream election coverage.

Q: Why did Youth Radio choose to cover the conventions, and why cover them for outlets with largely adult audiences?

By going to the conventions, we were trying to do there what we do here on
a daily basis, which is cover the story of young people. With the young Democrats
and young Republicans and young protesters going to conventions, we thought
it was important to highlight the fact that there were young people involved
in the convention. What was really important about the young delegates’ perspective
was that they were really focused on the issues important to youth and their
peers, and they were highlighting those issues for the older folks there.
But from what I saw in the mainstream press, young delegates were sort of
being covered as sidebar stories.

Q: At the Republican National Convention, you had to turn around stories
on a very tight deadline. How did you prepare for it?

A: Our planning
started months before. We had the kids listen to stuff Youth Radio had done
from the last convention to get a sense of what we were able to get last
time and the format it was in. And we had young people in the newsroom on
convention watch. All our interns—not just the ones going to
the convention—were reading up on convention stories, looking up young
delegates, identifying the stories that weren’t
necessarily being covered that had to do with young people.

Teen and adult
staff were talking to a lot of delegates in advance to find out which ones
had interesting stories and were great characters. We had pre-interviews with
some of the characters we covered. We also sent adult producers early to Boston
and New York, and they scouted stories and locations so they could tell us, “This
is how long it is going to take us to walk from here to here.”

The New York Times had
done a story on conservative punks for Bush and that’s how we heard about
a conservative punk in New York who we eventually did a story about. A lot
of people thought he was an oxymoron.

We also knew it was important to cover
the stories of the RNC protests, and to get the man-on-the-street sound of
protesters. And a lot of our stories were also connected to our young people’s own experience at the conventions. DeSean Robinson-Walker wrote a show for Tavis Smiley about being a young African-American Republican. Elena Alvarez’s
commentary for Latino USA was her reflection on her interactions with protesters.

the kinds of stories young people would be telling was part of the planning
process. We had to determine who would be able to tell the stories well,
who would be able to reflect on something in their life. And we needed students
who could hunker down and be really nimble in terms of changing plans and
meeting hard deadlines.

Q: How did you go about getting assignments from major media outlets like National Public Radio?

A: It helped us that we already had relationships with editors at various
media outlets. There are people within NPR and other outlets who see that the
youth voice is really important, that youth can sometimes tell a story in a
much more powerful way and can sometimes actually take a deeper look at youth
issues than an adult reporter can.

And for the convention, a lot of coverage
has to be analysis and punditry. We’re really able to bring something
that takes more risks and that really adds to the sound of the coverage and
makes it more young, more fresh, quirky, funny, and also meaningful in terms
of communicating what young people involved in politics are thinking about.

people can ask the questions that elicit responses that provide more of a
window into the why and how of a story. Like with the conservative punk piece,
the student reporter came into it with his own take on punk culture and was
able to bring this witty, astute sense to the writing that helped bring along
the piece.

NPR had one person running all the election coverage and she had
worked with us in the past. She has a sense of the kind of stories we do
and we pitched her the ideas we had over the phone and listened to what she
wanted to get from us.

We said, “These are the students coming along with us and we’ll send you a script when they have something.” For Elena’s story, for instance, we just said, “Here
we have this great perspective of this young woman born in the U.S. who grew
up in Tijuana.”

For Elena, going to the convention was her first flight
out of Mexico and it was her first time in New York City.

Same thing for the
Tavis Smiley show. We talked about who DeSean was, how he was a young African-American
Republican who had never been around a large group of Republicans before.

is a value to having the fresh and diverse perspectives of young reporters
who come from all over the country and from all different classes and backgrounds.
Sometimes the coverage of these events can seem really monolithic in who
is being represented, and our students brought their own perspective.

When you’re working for a national media outlet on a tight deadline,
is there a danger that the teens lose some opportunities for learning?

At the conventions, the process of each story was a sped-up version of our
editorial process at home. Our working model is highly collaborative between
adult and youth. When you get to the national level it’s even more collaborative, and at the conventions we were definitely working together to make our deadlines, whereas here at home we might have more time to say to the youth, “Write as much as you can and I’ll do an edit and you can get back to it,” and
walk away.

But I think the thing that gets lost for sure in the bigger outlets,
is what happens in terms of editorial control. We try to maintain as much
as we can—and in working with national outlets for years we’re
at the point now where if the media outlet makes changes to a story they
are good at telling us so we can go back to the students and tell them before
the change is made. But still, you definitely do lose some editorial control
once you get to that level of production.

And depending on the kinds of stories you’re doing, if you’re always chasing stories that are highly investigative or very tied to what’s happening in the news and require a quick turnaround, you can end up relying on one or two or three really talented writers and reporters. Really trying to draw out a student’s personal perspective is one way to avoid that star reporter syndrome.

But in the end, no matter who goes to the convention it’s a really big deal for our young people to go there and see such a huge, historical, political media event and to feel like they were part of the media junket at large, and also to see how youth media covers the convention differently from the mainstream press.

Mainstream coverage of the RNC and DNC got old fast–youth reporters added a fresh perspective.