Youth Are the News

Last month 400 people from 74 countries gathered in Washington, D.C. for the 7th World Young Readers Conference (WYR). The attendees, mostly newspaper staff from either the business or editorial worlds, gathered to share ideas and gain inspiration about ways to expand their youth readership.
As a youth media practitioner, my reason for attending was two fold: I wanted to collect resources on the value of youth-produced content to newspaper readers young and old, and meet with “Youth Editors”—adult editors in charge of teen content—to discuss benefits of using youth-produced articles and how they incorporate youth voice in their newspapers.
At the conference, I discovered that some newspapers are making an effort to work with classrooms in journalism training—getting young people to understand how and why newspapers work and the ways in which newspapers are a viable resource for important information. Other newspapers, however, have different tactics and motivations which have little to do with incorporating youth media making. They are using gimmicks such as using a “Where’s Waldo” search feature as part of a concerted effort to capture the attention of youth and promote their products (in-print and on-line versions of the publication).
These efforts prioritize ‘brand loyalty’ and position youth solely as consumers, rather than as creative forces and thought leaders. News media ought to listen to youth voice and incorporate their creativity and leadership. The media should make space for youth viewpoints because not only are young people a future generation of mass readership, but are heavily currently covered in and depicted by the media. Youth want to be creators and contributors to news media as a way to engage with, and have voice in, their communities and world at large.
Newspapers in Education (NIE) and the World Association of Newspapers—sponsors of WYR—presented interesting reports at the conference on the state of young people and newspaper involvement. I talked to many NIE professionals about how they might use youth-produced content in their pages. Unfortunately for most papers, the NIE program is strictly a marketing venture. The focus is on readership numbers only, not content. Many NIE directors were not familiar or conversant with the relevance of recent research from the Newspaper Association of America, NIE’s parent group on young readers. Such research proves that teens who begin reading newspapers due to integrated youth content become lifelong readers—a fact that newspapers should not ignore. (To view the research, go to NIE’s actions are short-sighted. They focus on short-term circulation increase rather than long-term readership potential.
Life-long readership of newspapers sustains the success of a news publication. To ensure that success, newspapers need youth to be involved as readers and active participants. The good news is there are ways for newspapers to involve young people in journalism news media. Several of these lessons and best practices surfaced at WYR.
Incorporate and Promote Youth Editorial Boards
A few newspaper representatives in attendance at the conference spoke proudly of their paper’s teen editorial boards. These boards have taken responsibility for producing a half-dozen signed editorials for the paper each year. In some cases, the youth editorials were the only youth-produced content that the paper had published.
Present at the conference, for example, was a 21-member youth advisory board that provides feedback, insight, and expertise to a Canadian newspaper. The board of teens meets monthly to discuss advertising campaigns and solve marketing questions. The teens even use AOL instant messenger on a regular basis with the Editor-in-Chief to discuss editorial components.
This youth advisory board is a great example of ways in which newspapers can incorporate youth voice and leadership in an organized, productive, and mutually beneficial manner. From my experience, this approach to editorial writing and generational power sharing is rare, but important. Taking youth feedback seriously and promoting youth perspective impacts readers of newspapers, providing insightful points of view from a cohort of young members in the community.
Acknowledge Youth as Spokespeople
At the conference it became evident that very few panelists had tried attracting youth readers by including them as part of their regular news stories as interviewees, witnesses, or simply members of the newspaper community. My frustration with this issue was validated during the conferences’ Youth Ambassador session during which 12 youth journalists from newspapers in the U.S., South Africa, Norway, Zambia, Hong Kong, Denmark, Sweden, and Dominican Republic gave a 60 minute presentation on how newspapers could engage young readers better. It was an excellent session presented by self-professed news geeks.
When Khothatso Mogwera from South Africa made the plea to the news executives in attendance to include youth as part of the paper’s news and editorial teams, I had to stop myself from giving a standing ovation. “They forget that we were there when these events take place,” he said. His colleagues echoed his sentiments that youth are affected by budget cuts, Social Security and political elections just as adults are, and youth viewpoints therefore must not be silenced.
If newspapers have a responsibility to fully and fairly reflect society and they continue to omit youth experiences and opinions, then it says something drastically fatal about the lack of respect we give young people as valuable members of the community.
Incorporate Youth Voice in Teen Sections
The teen sections presented at the conference had the most variety. Some newspapers simply had one teen page while others had 16-page weekly supplements. Some were adult produced, yet many had teams of youth that worked together on their allocated pages. “Youth Editors” at the conference were often adults that worked on teen issues of their newspaper.
Youth editors experienced conflicts between what newspapers were told youth wanted and what newspapers ultimately ended up doing. The young editors expressed a common belief that overall, youth do not want to be ‘ghettoized’ into teen sections and they do not want to read adult writing that tries to speak for them. If this is not what young people want then why are so many papers doing it?
Partly, this issue is due to the fact that newspapers are so painfully slow at adapting their content to meet the needs of a transitioning community (i.e. youth and immigrants) that they solve the issue with supplements instead of a whole newspaper overhaul. By having a “youth” or “teen” section, the paper attempts to cover news specific to such a transitioning group. However, they must be relevant and resonant teen sections that incorporate youth content and opinions.
An NIE representative at “757,” The Virginian-Pilot’s teen section and winner of a “World Young Reader Award,” was in tune with youth readers when she commented to a panel, “The kids who we want to read our work don’t relate to the format or the style of writing.” This is a valid concern for youth media practitioners who are trying to create an authentic adult-to-adult conversation. How do you prevent the “adultification” of youth material but still have a product that can be valuable to adults? How do we get youth buy-in on adult-formatted and adult led newspapers?
Youth Ambassadors, who provided youth perspective at the conference, explained that youth buy-in comes from having young people create both the rules for content as well as the content itself. The need for this dual level of involvement is an important lesson that youth media practitioners have learned and continue to advocate for. The key is to make sure young people feel that they are recognized as viable contributors and their thoughts and creative perspectives are important.
Even though Youth Ambassadors at the conference stressed the value of including youth in ‘regular’ parts of newspapers, they still see the value of a separate section for young people. In fact, the Ambassadors offered attendees a clear and compelling picture for the perfect ‘teen section.’
The Perfect Teen Section would:
• have its own identity, including its own website;
• allow readers to share photos through a gallery;
• contain Vox Pops or man-on-the street interviews;
• contain a mix of editorial/sports and entertainment;
• shout-outs so readers could feel part of a community;
• include a calendar section so readers could be aware of events;
• have news alternatives like podcasts and video casts;
• pay its writers, or if unpaid, provide in-house training, internships or scholarship opportunities;
• have a diverse staff;
• be advertised and have “teasers” in the “parent” paper;
• sponsor events like concerts and sports; and
• have monthly meetings and an opportunity for teen writers to interact with professional journalists.
According to the World Association of Newspapers, over one billion people read a newspaper every day. A goal for us in the youth media field should be to figure out what the newspaper industry’s emphasis on young readers means to youth. From the perspective of a youth media professional, incorporating youth voice and contribution to media is priority. Adult “Youth Editors” ought to support newspapers to incorporate youth boards, acknowledge youth as spokespeople, and youth voice in teen sections.
A newspapers’ attempt to integrate youth leadership and attract young readers means more room for youth media organizations to create authentic material and advocate for youth contribution. It just might make our jobs richer—increasing the diversity of our content, purpose, trainings, and approaches to youth media in the news.
Katina Paron is the Co-founder and Editorial/Program Director of Children’s PressLine in New York City