From Proms to Protests
A generation ago, “youth media” meant the official school newspaper. Students in the top English tracks wrote the articles and served as editors. Most papers consciously mimicked the uncontroversial subjects and staid layout of the local daily newspaper.
But during the 1960s, many school newspaper editors decided that writing about the latest football game or prom queen was not enough. They clamored to cover the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, student rights, and other social issues. School administrators refused to let them. One result was that thousands of irreverent high school underground newspapers blossomed. Another was that traditional student papers began to seem irrelevant. Meanwhile, budget cuts and white flight from urban schools also took a toll on the high school press.
In 1974, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial launched a two-year study of the problems facing scholastic journalism. They found that the high school press was characterized by censorship, racism, elitism, and mediocrity. Sister Ann Heintz, a newspaper adviser at a Chicago Catholic high school, was one of the study’s chief investigators and an advocate for youth voices and journalism education. She also was inspired by the Foxfire teen journalism program. (During the 1970s, Foxfire produced a series of teen-written books that celebrated the life and lore of backcountry Georgia. The books became national best sellers.)
After issuing its final report, “Captive Voices,” the RFK Memorial put its money where its mouth was: it provided funding to help Heintz launch New Expression, a citywide paper by and for Chicago teens. As an independent paper, it was not subject to censorship by a single school principal. Heintz was also free to recruit a diverse group of writers, not just AP English students. At the same time, she did not like the shrill advocacy and raw language of the underground press. She wanted New Expression to conform to traditional journalistic standards of fairness and objectivity.
Heintz’s idea of combining the independence and diversity of voices in the underground press with the journalistic responsibility of the traditional press—with teen writers—had never been tried before.
Combining the diversity of voices in the underground press with the journalistic responsibility of the traditional press-with teen writers-had never been tried.
New Expression was a quick success with teens and funders. In addition to providing rigorous training to a diverse group of writers, Heintz had three other goals. One was to prepare more minority youth for careers in journalism. Another was to investigate stories that the adult media would probably overlook and oversimplify, because they aren’t close enough to teen experiences. (New Expression writers investigated teen prostitution in an early issue.) The third was to provide teen readers a realistic reflection of their lives and experiences to counteract the stereotypes often found in the adult media.
Heintz’s philosophy and approach were contagious. Within a few years papers popped up in New York, Delaware, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, Denver, and in several smaller cities. Most of them were based on the Chicago model. Bob Clampitt founded Children’s Express, now called Children’s PressLine, a journalism program for younger children, in the late 1970s. And in the early 1980s an entrepreneur launched a glossy for-profit magazine written by teens called Highwire.
Since then, more than 50 citywide teen magazines have launched. About a dozen are still publishing. They are tabloids or magazine-size, with frequencies of 4-8 issues per year. Most of the magazines are published by independent nonprofits, but some are part of larger organizations. The magazines that folded typically lasted a couple years, but failed to attract enough funding, develop good distribution systems, or find and keep strong editors and directors.
In the 1990s, many groups started magazines aimed at specialized audiences, like teens in foster care or juvenile jails, or teens who wanted advice about sex and relationships. On the for-profit side, dozens of daily newspapers created “youth pages” to try to win back younger readers. Many of them solicited some teen-written material. Daily papers in a few cities—Hartford and Seattle, for example—created separate teen magazines or inserts. The daily newspaper “teen page” model is still widespread, but lacks the compelling authenticity of stand-alone teen newspapers and magazines.
Also in the 1990s, several commercial magazine publishers launched teen versions of their adult product, such as CosmoGIRL!, Teen People, Time for Kids, and the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition. But these rarely address the issues of urban and marginalized youth.
Today the official high school press does meet a need in the suburban areas where it still exists, but the urban magazine remains the strongest movement in independent teen print journalism. What is uniquely important about it is that it focuses on serving the most marginalized, most voiceless youth in society—and making those voices heard by their peers and adults. Their stories will never be regularly heard or covered in commercial media, or even in most high school papers, teen websites, ’zines, or any other forum. They need intensive, costly training to learn the skills they need to make their voices heard. They and the communities they live in lack the resources to launch their own media.
By focusing on the most marginalized youth and by organizing efforts to reach them in settings where they will actually read the publications, these nonprofits can continue helping teens learn new skills, provide an accurate, affirming reflection of their lives, and promote justice.
Keith Hefner is the founder, publisher, and executive director of Youth Communication, a youth-made print media organization. “From Proms to Protests” is excerpted from a paper commissioned by the Open Society Institute for a March 2004 convening on youth media.
Above left: Antwaun Garcia writes for Represent, a Youth Communication magazine by and for teens in foster care.
How the teen-written urban magazine trumped the school paper.