Teamwork, Leadership, and New(s) Coverage: Children’s PressLine’s shares Lessons of a High-Profile Summer Partnership
For seven fabulous weeks last summer, Children’s PressLine (CPL), the youth journalism organization that I run, moved into the New York Daily News building to produce two pages a week for the newspaper’s weekly borough supplements, Brooklyn News and Queens News. We had needed a new, temporary home for our summer program and through a mixture of perseverance, insider help, and good timing, The Daily News told us we could move in, as long as we produced work for two of their borough sections.
The Daily News is the most read daily paper in New York City and the opportunity for our youth journalists to get their work in front of 2.8 million people every week was thrilling. We have covered some amazing stories in the past five years—the 2004 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, 2002 United Nations Special Session on the Rights of the Children, juvenile offenders on death row in Texas. And, we have partnered with some major news outlets—BBC World Service, CBS Radio, Boston Globe. However, I knew this project with The Daily News would be the apex of Children’s PressLine’s career to date.
While this was an exciting venture, it was not easy. In a new and temporary space with a high, weekly demand of articles, we had a few challenging hurdles to undergo as a group.
Redesigning the content
Our first hurdle was figuring out what the pages would look like. Normally, we produce one or two articles that total 1,500 words for New York Amsterdam News, one of our regular outlets. The page is text-heavy but we like to be able to give the interviewee the space to tell his or her full story. We also generally submit an illustration produced by a freelance illustrator that works with us pro bono.
This would never work for The Daily News. First of all, we only had 850 words to work with for the page and second, we needed photography not illustrations. The Daily News, after all, made its mark as “New York’s Picture Paper.”
We also needed a way to showcase our interviews with politicians. Understandably, 90% of CPL’s interviews are with kids, but 10% are with politicians. We wanted to make sure that politician interviews were part of the page every week.
So what did we do? First, we took on a new approach to our page layout and focused more on content than the word restrictions extended from The Daily News. As long as we could cover series topics, like education reform and homeless gay teens, we’d work with the word restrictions.
To manage the photography, we hired a photography intern. Aeden initially interviewed for an editorial position but as luck would have it she had photojournalism experience that we needed.
And to solve the politician question we invented a column called “BackTalk: kids speak, officials respond.” “BackTalk” is a Q-&-A style column, with the “Q” being a quality of life concern from a young person in the community and the “A” coming from a public policy official responsible for the issue. We planned to have each page to contain one or two stories and a “BackTalk” column.
Redesigning the program
We had a very short time to prepare the youth journalists and staff for this new venture. We knew that youth from our current program would be working with us this summer but that we’d probably have another 20 who were new to journalism. We had to redesign our standard summer program material to design a training that would prepare all the youth involved, despite their experience level, for the huge responsibility ahead.
So what did we do? We created a workshop that teen editors conducted with youth in Brooklyn and Queens, which allowed us to collect several voices and “quality of life” concerns from local teens all at once for the pieces in “BackTalk.” The key to these pages was interviewing local kids and using local statistics. We provided a service to the groups of young people by training them in advocacy journalism skills and providing contact information for their local politicians. An alumna of CPL had just graduated college and was available to coordinate the workshops and work with the teen editors that acted as facilitators. I would work together with the teen editors to schedule public official interviews integral to the column. We tested the workshop at our “New Members Training” in June and were able to iron out a lot of kinks early on.
Needing photography also meant doing off-site stories, which we often do more frequently in the summer. Unlike video or radio programs, we do our interviews over the phone and this is often necessary when we are working on national stories for The Online News Hour or Scripps Howard News Service. Because I’m a print girl by nature it was a constant struggle for me to remember that yes, we need pictures.
Going into the summer, CPL had two full-time employees and two college interns. CPL has always worked with interns to act as interview schedulers, mentors and managers for the teams of youth journalists. We had to add staff for this project, but any extra money in our budget was being spent on the logistics of moving the computers and materials to the new space at The Daily News office.
So how did we get more staff with no money? We invested in more interns. Our two interns immediately got promotions. Chelsea (Brown University) became Brooklyn Bureau Chief and Megan (Pennsylvania State) was Queens Bureau Chief. They had the same page requirements but needed to come up with different stories.
I hired Lizette (Rutgers University) as the editorial assistant to both Bureau Chiefs. Now my interns had an intern. They were very excited. Collectively, these amazing interns were traveling nearly 5 hours each way to and from CPL and worked nearly 30 hours a week Monday through Thursday. Chelsea and Meghan were each responsible for scheduling interviews for 15 youth journalists who were on their teams. Another intern, Laura (New York University), worked with the youth on managing the editorial flow. Latesha, who was 8-months pregnant with her first child, was our transcriber thanks to an externship program at Inwood House, a social service organization that works with teen moms. Amanda (Wesleyan University) was the former CPL alumna who facilitated our Media and Community workshops. (Since then we’ve been able to hire Amanda as CPL’s Youth Coordinator.)
Where did these amazing interns come from?
I distributed our internship positions far and wide. In April, I had conducted 20 phone interviews with potential interns and it was clear in my phone conversations with Chelsea and Megan that they had had extensive experience at their college newspapers and understood the mission of CPL. Laura had worked with us the previous spring and we invited her to stay once we got the Daily News deal. Lizette and Aeden’s resumes came in at just the right time. Aeden had the photography experience we needed. And Lizette had time to give and an eagerness to learn – perfect skills for an editorial assistant. I sat down with every intern and walked them through all necessary steps and involved each as a fellow teammate. I took their questions as possible program flaws and we discussed as a group, paths to execution.
Together, by the end of the summer we produced 17 news pages, which involved more than 40 articles, conducted interviews with 220 kids and 22 public officials, and held 10 Media and Community workshops with 157 young people at community centers throughout Brooklyn and Queens. In seven weeks we had increased our regular summer workload by 300%. Read two examples of these articles in PDF form from both Queens News and Brooklyn News.
I am extremely proud of the work we did last summer for The Daily News. Not only because the kids were smart, passionate, and excited about sinking their teeth into the project, but because as a team, the following key lessons were reinforced:
• Do not hide youth from the assignment. Because CPL works with so many news outlets we often get assignments that we pass to youth journalists, versus having youth come up with a story idea that we pitch to editors. We learned from this experience that we need to expose youth more to the bosses that give us the assignments. The youth recognized and experienced high demands and expectations from the Daily News editors, which was empowering. The high level of responsibility was transformational to witness as teens, adults, and interns collaborated to achieve every goal and deadline.
• Work as a team alongside youth. As a group, we were able to share the demands, the risks, and the hurdles, which made our collective experiences even more profound, rewarding, and powerful. As a bonus, we got journalists to step up to the plate when it came to post-production elements of stories, such as transcribing, editing, and writing introductions. As a result, we decided to incorporate these elements more strategically in our regular program.
• The program is flexible if we let it be. For so long, CPL used the same methodology and training methods in its work. There were hitches but we found the combination of peer mentoring, leadership, and civic engagement successful in our journalism program. The Daily News project forced us to change and expand this. It highlighted many of our organization’s strengths and complemented our current work.
As an organization, CPL gained so much from our high-profile partnership. We went into the fall with a full bag of tricks to grab the attention of editors and empower local youth.
• Speak truth to power using “BackTalk.” I love “BackTalk” as a resource to make public officials accountable to youth concerns. Through the column we are able to share kids’ quality of life problems to a wide audience that needs to know that kids are affected by the decisions that adults make. The best part of “BackTalk” is that we get to make politicians and public officials accountable to their youngest constituents. This column embodies a guiding principle of CPL – bringing authentic youth voices to adults in power. We do this by using the power of the media to publicly question policy officials on their decisions or their avoidance of an issue that directly affects young people.
For example: Why aren’t there bike racks in Canarsie and teen community centers in Corona? Why are there so many sexual offenders in Fresh Meadows? Why can’t kids learn about condoms in school? It’s a perfect column and gratifying for youth to produce. “BackTalk” is now looking for a new home and those of us at CPL are excited by the thought of producing it once again.
• Create enhanced workshops and trainings. In the past, whenever we had been asked to hold a workshop with youth at conferences or in classrooms, we conduct trainings on how to interview. Now, especially from “BackTalk,” we have new Media and Community workshops to offer. These workshops provide a space for youth to express their concerns and help our journalists become stronger at identifying story leads.
• Street cred from the newspaper world. The day after our interview with NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was published – it ran as a two-page spread that also featured local kids giving feedback about their school – we got an email from Arul Luis, the News Editor at The Daily News, which stated: “The Klein interview was coup, upstaging everyone else. My congratulations to your team.” Being able to share that email with our youth journalists, their parents, and our interns was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had in my 12 years spent in youth media.
• Memories when time gets tough. Nearly every day at the Daily News offices, teen editor Jose from Bronx International High School would say to me: “Ms., you are in a good mood today, no?” “Ms., you smile a lot.” “Ms., you really love your job.” And nearly every time I’d tell him. “Juan, I’m happy because you are doing very important work and you are doing it well.” Just like other youth media programs, my work at CPL doesn’t always have this much fanfare so it is nice to have these amazing memories to keep me going.
The Daily News and CPL Today
Our agreement with The Daily News was for a summer project. We would have enjoyed another summer of collaboration, but we knew that the offices had been scheduled for other purposes. We were able to keep the door open wide enough to approach the paper about having us next summer. From the experience at The Daily News, our organization has certainly matured and grown exponentially in experience.
On our last day in The Daily News building, as I was packing up the newsroom, I received this note from one of our teen editors.
“Thank you for taking the time to make this one of the best summers I’ve had. You’ve taught me so much. Seeing my name in the newspaper has made me one of the happiest girls in the city. You make a difference in kids’ lives everyday. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take part in that.” –Jasmin, 17
It doesn’t get much better than that does it? From our experiences last summer, I feel a lot more confident about approaching other mainstream publications and websites with similar partnerships. Our ability to cover New York as a local community has grown and our ability to provide enriching experiences that empower young people has strengthened. The project may have only lasted seven weeks but it provided decades of lessons.
Katina Paron is the Co-founder and Editorial/Program Director of Children’s PressLine in New York City. www.cplmedia.org
New and rewarding levels of journalism, deadlines and teamwork amongst teens, college interns, and media professionals.