Friday, July 31, 2009

Just Say Yes

I knew the only way we’d reach teens was in the schools. The key was finding teachers who would allow our newspaper in their classrooms. Friends and family helped me compile a list of about 25 willing teachers. I hand-delivered L.A. Youth to them.

I thought about asking school district administrators for their blessings, and quickly rejected the idea. They would almost certainly say no. This meant I would have to employ a certain amount of stealth to avoid attracting the attention of security guards or hostile principals.

I changed from my usual jeans and sweatshirt into a business suit, to look like someone on official business. I loaded stacks of newspapers into my red Subaru hatchback, stacked so high I couldn’t see out the back window. At each school, I waited in my car until classes were dismissed for the day. When the bell rang and students streamed out the main gate, I walked in as if I belonged there and delivered by bundle of newspapers.

Distributing a single issue took a few weeks, because I could only do one school a day this way. The teens on the staff helped out by stuffing copies in their backpacks and passing them along to favorite teachers. Make sure you pick someone cool and sympathetic to the rights of young people, I advised them.

Over time, as L.A. Youth won acceptance, we were able to distribute it openly on campuses across the city. Only rarely would a school official object.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kitchen Table Publishing

We ran everything from my house for nearly two years. Twice a week my young staff gathered to share ideas, go over assignments and show me drafts of their stories.

At first, we worked at the kitchen table. But it was so small not everyone could sit down, and we moved to the antique oak table in my dining room. The teens shared two ancient Smith-Corona typewriters, both of them borrowed from the L.A. Times. Some stories had to be written in longhand, and then typed out. The dining room table, which I had lovingly restores not long ago, was unprepared for all this activity and groaned audibly whenever anyone leaned on it. I tried not to worry. At dinner time, papers and supplies were stowed on the floor so I would have room to feed my family.

We put the pages together ourselves, a painstaking process. The trickiest part was “pasting” proofs of each headline, photo and story onto page-sized forms, like putting pieces of a puzzle together. The finished pages were then ferried to the printer, ready for photo-engraving and the trip to the press. I constantly worried that a story or a headline might fall off one of the pages while hauling them in the back seat of my car, since the glue didn’t always stick well. But it only happened once, and it was only a paragraph that I hoped nobody would miss.

The Shocking Truth! Teens Can Write

Is there a future for newspapers? We here at L.A. Youth respond with a thunderous yes!

We’ve spoken through the voice of teenagers for 22 years and we’re still at it. We’re not only committed to print journalism, we have a lively website as well.

The death of the newspaper is greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators had the right to censor articles intended for publication in school newspapers. I was stunned. The ruling was a body blow to the independence of the student press. Two decades earlier, the court had seemed to go in the other direction. In an Iowa case involving an anti-war protest, Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, stated, “Neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The Supreme Court decision that day pushed me over the edge, so to speak. I decided to start a teen newspaper in Los Angeles.

I gathered a dozen high school youngsters at my house, some of them my children’s friends and told them we’re going to put out a newspaper you can call your own. I appointed myself publisher, editor, head fundraiser and chief delivery person.

Six weeks later, March 1988, our inaugural issue went to press.

Paying for Journalism

The letter was written in response to New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt's commentary published Sunday, July 19, 2009, One Newspaper, Many Checkbooks.

Re: "One Newspaper, Many Checkbooks" (July 19), New York Times:

Nonprofit newspapers are not a new idea. L.A. Youth was launched more than 20 years ago with support by foundations and corporations. There has never been a conflict of interest or pressure from any funding source regarding our investigative reporting.

In Los Angeles, we have reported fraud and abuse in group homes, we have reported illegal searches of backpacks by school security guards, and we have brought attention to the Legislature regarding the plight of youth incarcerated in private mental hospitals without the right of due process. These stories were ignored by mainstream media even in the well-financed days of journalism.

Our paper is distributed free to more than 1,400 teachers and is used in classrooms for civics lessons in lieu of boring, dated textbooks. Philanthropy and journalism are an excellent partnership.

Los Angeles, July 20, 2009
The writer is the publisher of L.A. Youth.