The following is adapted from an article that appeared in Nieman Reports.
I made my decision to publish a newspaper for teenagers in Los Angeles on the morning of January 13, 1988, the day the United States Supreme Court struck down student press rights in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. That decision gave school officials broad powers to censor student newspapers.
That afternoon a dozen teenagers sat around my kitchen table talking about issues that affected their lives. Together we wondered how we would publish our own newspaper with no money. We didn’t even have a computer. But we found some resources in the community—grants from the James Irvine Foundation and Bank of America Foundation, a few old typewriters from the Los Angeles Times, and a meeting place in a senior citizen center. These were enough to launch the first issue.
Starting small with 2,500 copies published twice a year for two years, then growing year by year, we now publish six times each year, with 120,000 copies each issue. L.A. Youth has a readership of more than 400,000 in Los Angeles County. Our newspaper is read by students in public and private schools, by those who attend nearly 400 community-based youth programs, and can be found at most L.A. county libraries. We post every issue on our website, and mail a teacher’s guide to 1,200 teachers who use L.A. Youth in their classrooms.
In the beginning, L.A. Youth grew rapidly with local foundation support. We eventually opened an office in mid-city, purchased new computers, and hired two editors. By 1994, though the newspaper was well received, the costs of producing it were escalating. By then we had a full-time staff of four and 200 teens eager to join the staff.
It was especially a struggle to raise money for the press run. Foundations and corporations were willing to pay for literacy and job skills training but donations for newsprint and printing was a challenge. Without help, we couldn’t expand and the demand increased every month from readers throughout L.A. County.
So I went looking for support from the newspaper industry. I approached Los Angeles Times publisher David Laventhol, and asked if the Times would contribute paper and printing. I explained how our young reporters were helping their peers have a better understanding of the society they live in and the forces that act on them, and showing them ways to gain more control over their lives. I described ways in which we do this, through news stories, self-help articles and in personal accounts. I talked about how our stories are written in an authentic teen voice, which gives L.A. Youth its street credibility with readers.
Laventhol listened. When the meeting ended, he offered the Times’s support. He asked me how many copies we print. I picked a nice round number, 100,000, when we actually could only afford to print 35,000. He agreed to help us.
The Los Angeles Times Steps Up
Printing our newspaper was just the beginning. Soon, former L.A. Times senior editor Noel Greenwood joined our nonprofit organization’s board of directors. Then came the Times’s donation of computers, cameras, scanners, and other equipment to assist our struggling newspaper. Today, the Times newsroom operations editor, Dave Rickley, serves on our board, and he encourages colleagues from the Times to work with our newspaper. People who work in the prepress department, production and photo lab, the art director, and other folks involved with operations have volunteered. And as our teens report stories, they have received mentoring from Times editorial staff, too.
L.A. Youth articles are often about traditional teen interests, such as summer jobs, getting into college, education, and getting a date for the prom. But there is room for controversy in the paper, too. When our teenagers set out to explore difficult and complicated topics like teen pregnancy, substance abuse, AIDS, race relations, homelessness, and gangs, L.A. Times reporters, editors and lawyers have shared their expertise. Editor Sue Horton mentored teen reporter Josie Valderrama through the maze of internal affairs police documents for his year-long investigative project about alleged police abuse of local teens. The resulting article published in the summer of 1990 drew recognition from national media, including Time and 60 Minutes.
A few years ago, when I wanted to expand the youth voice to a wider audience, I spoke with several L.A. Times editors to ask if they’d consider reprinting our articles. Former Metro Editor Bill Boyarsky took the idea seriously and reprinted Gohar Galyan’s riveting article on life inside a year-round, overcrowded school. And one of our cover stories, written by a homeless youth sleeping behind a Hollywood Boulevard theater, made the front page of the Metro section.
The headline on June 17, 2000, screamed “Tribune Co. acquires the Los Angeles Times.” I took a deep breath, answered the dozens of calls from friends inquiring about this merger and hoped nothing would change. In fact, since that day the relationship between our two newspapers has grown stronger. Publisher Jeff Johnson has kept the presses rolling for L.A. Youth.
However, during the past two years I have missed seeing some of our best stories find a broader readership in the Times. As the war took place in Iraq, for example, I kept hoping the new editors would see the relevance of the teen perspective on the war And who knows better how teens feel about not finding a summer job in order to pay for college than those facing this situation? Or who can speak more powerfully about the impact of the ever-increasing classroom size on student learning?
Newspapers Learn From Us
The newspaper industry is in the midst of tremendous change and it’s a hard time for youth publications to get their attention—the industry is losing readers, downsizing editorial staff, competing with online publications. But each year newspapers spend lots of money and time on focus groups and readership surveys as they try to figure out how to attract younger readers. By looking closely at publications like ours, and by reprinting our articles, they might make significant headway.
The Los Angeles Times isn’t the only paper that has realized this. In 2005, the New York Times began printing the New York-based teen paper New Youth Connections. New Expression, written by teens in Chicago, has been printed by the Chicago Tribune and received financial support from them for over a dozen years. VOX, in Atlanta, matches teens with mentors from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and CNN.
Though it’s a tough time for youth-produced newspapers to get a long-term commitment from their local newspaper, it’s important for them to establish a relationship. Newspapers investing in youth publications benefits both parties—newspapers reach the next generation of readers, and teen-written publications keep the presses rolling.
Donna C. Myrow is founder and executive director of L.A. Youth.
Donna Myrow on L.A. Youth’s partnership with the L.A. Times.