I remember when the thought first came to me of how many people would never see the stories I wrote about them. I was sitting at my desk at the Los Angeles Times on the first day that a series I’d written about slumlords was appearing in the paper. I realized that our best editorial efforts, our finest writing, our biggest marketing campaigns, would never be enough to help the newspaper find a home in most of the city’s diverse communities. Some residents would simply get their news elsewhere. But for too many people, news would always be something that tumbled onto them, something other people made and other people did something about. For the first time, I began to think about building circulation as a social imperative.

What does this lament have to do with high-school journalism? Not much, I would have said a few years ago. Almost everything, I believe now. That’s why, despite the puzzled looks I get from former colleagues (and the university executive who told me point blank he “wasn’t going to waste my chits on high-school kids”), I’ve spent the past few years conducting projects that use the Internet to network high-school news staffs. I am now convinced that high-school news programs are in a better position to save mainstream media than “we” are to save them.

Consider this: High-school newspapers are by far the largest network of community-based newspapers in the country. If combined, the circulation of these roughly 20,000 publications probably reaches 12-15 million readers, most of whom are young and out of reach of mainstream news organizations. Add several thousand television and radio newscasts and high-school news sites, and you begin to see the potential for multilingual, multimedia, community newscasts.

Just who, if anyone, will organize this network and its links to the multibillion-dollar “youth market” is up for grabs right now. The Nasdaq crash has given mainstream media a second chance to create appropriate strategic alliances with high-school news organizations. I say “second” chance because victory in the first round went to dot-coms that are now suffering temporary setbacks.

About three to four years ago, when major news organizations still regarded the Internet as a threat, a handful of these venture capital-backed dot-coms headed out to high-school newsrooms. Starting with high-school newspapers, they began gathering “low-hanging fruit”—journalism teachers who were under pressure to go online but were ill-equipped to construct Web sites. The dot-com “content aggregators” offered teachers free Web-hosting on their servers and provided templates to create instant cookie-cutter student newspapers online. In return, they gained free, dynamic content around which to wrap ads for their profit. Undoubtedly to satisfy attorneys, they blithely put their copyrights on student news sites even as they disclaimed any responsibility for the content.

Relationships with high-school news programs must be developed with extreme care since there are complex needs on both sides. Potential benefits are clear if journalists approach these programs as future partners rather RELATED ARTICLE
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than as noble, but possibly lost, causes. A few news companies—CNN, for example—are attempting to develop youth news networks. And the American Society of Newspaper Editors (having experienced failure in reaching its goals for minority participation in newsrooms) is developing its own high-school news site with Knight Foundation funding.

But, so far, mainstream news organizations have largely failed to focus on concrete ways in which the high-school news infrastructure can help them solve their greatest challenge: coping with aging demographics. Instead of investing in high-school newspapers, they give to them and graciously offer young writers a spot on their youth pages or on their Web site. Meanwhile, their more substantial investments can be found in annual reports that describe the large amounts of money spent on marketing research, circulation campaigns, “out of the box” redesigns, mergers and acquisitions, and speculative new media ventures.

I’ve viewed this evolutionary process from a unique perspective—as the founder of a dot-org, a nonprofit experiment called Associated Student Press (ASP). With seed grants from media foundations such as Times Mirror, The New York Times, and the SDX Foundation, ASP has carried out a series of pilot projects to support teachers who are often untrained and encourage students to develop community-based stories that metropolitan dailies cannot hope to cover. ASP is a project of Community Partners of Los Angeles, a nonprofit incubator.

Macroeconomic changes have also impacted technology-based nonprofits like ASP. During the past year, dot-coms have legally converted a handful of established nonprofits with revenue-producing potential. A lucrative, unsolicited offer from an education-based dot-com prompted us to investigate whether we, too, should head in that direction. In the end, we decided the fit wasn’t right. However, during this hard-reckoning process, it’s becoming clear that neither foundations nor most dot-coms are ideally suited to helping us unleash the potential of high-school news staffs to become “indispensable sources of news and information in their own communities.” While some educational functions are best left to teachers and established nonprofits like ASNE, our future as a developer of creative, community-based multimedia news lies in partnerships with news organizations.

ASP grows out of needs identified in a study of high-school journalism that I did as a consultant in 1998 for the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and the Open Society Institute. Apart from national surveys, we dispatched researchers into a dozen overcrowded, year-round high schools in poor, mostly Latino and black neighborhoods. These visits reaffirmed our fears that school newsrooms had few of the resources professional journalists take for granted. They lacked telephones and telephone source books, transportation, clip files, experienced editors, and news services. And they were operating in virtual isolation from each other and from outside news sources. But to our surprise, virtually all these schools had computers and Internet access.

Taking advantage of this finding, we began shaping Internet tools to help fill these gaps. Instead of bringing students out of their newsrooms for training at a central location, which many programs do, ASP built specific online resources that can be delivered inexpensively into high-school newsrooms where students frame and publish their stories. Modeled in part on The Associated Press, ASP also has a multimedia online wire service to allow students to distribute their work to each other in real time.

Because students lacked access to primary sources, we developed a “Beats” library of carefully annotated links to point students to reliable national data or to quotations from original sources on subjects they frequently cover. Volunteers hand-searched the Web to develop the database that underlies our search engine, the only Web-wide search engine devoted to high-school news. We developed a multimedia wire room for stories, photos, cartoons, as RELATED ARTICLE
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well as video and audio snippets so students could start thinking of themselves as journalists rather than as “print” or “broadcast.” We designed two sites for each member staff, including an editor’s desk with a suite of intuitive editing, publishing and communication tools. With the Student Press Law Center, we developed a means of helping students safeguard First Amendment rights on their news sites by checking a box invoking specific Supreme Court language from the prevailing Hazelwood decision.

During this time, we conducted a series of projects that, despite limited funding, helped test both the capacity of high-school news programs and our tools and theories about them. In the wake of the Columbine shootings in Colorado, we launched a joint listserv with the Society of Professional Journalists to enable high-school reporters and professional news reporters to learn from each other about how to cover violence in schools. In Connecticut, we joined Quinnipiac College’s master’s in journalism program in helping train journalism teachers to think about news as well as writing and ethics. At Siggraph, the world’s premier computer graphics convention, we brought eight high-school newspaper, television, radio and Web-based news staffs together using videoconferencing cameras. The project delivered live daily programming over the Internet into an “immersion technology” setting that allowed both viewers and participants to see and hear each other.

Last summer, with support from the SDX Foundation, Annenberg’s Online Journalism Program, and the USC Provost, ASP brought 16 top student editors to Los Angeles for a week to cover the Democratic National Convention and events surrounding it. They received professional credentials and operated one of the largest Internet-based news operations at the convention. Working almost around the clock, they focused on gathering issue-oriented news and making it work for their own audiences back home. They balanced DNC events with protests and Republican briefings.

We are now midway into our ASP Irvine Project, a California pilot program sponsored by The James Irvine Foundation. We are visiting school newsrooms, conducting Web trainings, building out content, solidifying relationships with advisers, and preparing to launch online discussions. By spring, we expect to have 24 newsrooms from across the state actively networking online. Some publish in Spanish.

The capacity of high-school news staffs, I’ve learned, varies dramatically. But I’ve never once visited a high-school newsroom without finding a story that could run in any metropolitan daily. Far from the bland reports I initially expected, students routinely write about drugs, suicide, bulimia and serious hazing on sports teams. Many also report on school boards, city councils, vouchers and teacher strikes. One young editor in chief, whose staff members happened to witness a gang murder of a student, created a plaintive Web site (complete with machine gun sound effects) called “How are we supposed to cover murder, anyway?”

All that we’re observing in high schools today connects back to the central problem that newspapers confront today. Since the day I arrived at the Los Angeles Times in 1978, I have watched that newspaper struggle to find its way into diverse local communities. Suburban sections were opened to fight circulation battles, then closed to cut costs. An inner-city edition was launched to community praise, then closed to community censure. New city editions were opened amid wild talk of attracting a half million new readers. Then they were closed in red ink. Through it all, circulation hovered stubbornly at just over one million.

This newspaper’s experience is emblematic of that of so many others. Yet, even with a stagnant or shrinking readership, newspapers keep trying to wrest readers away from each other. The same strategy exists for TV networks. But what resources do news organizations devote to trying to grow new readers and viewers? How much do they spend to grow new writers from within communities of color whose subscribers they seek with bus stop ads? What would happen if they devoted that money to helping develop high-school news programs with an eye to their future interests? What if, for starters, newspapers set a simple goal: to eventually make a subscriber out of every reporter working on a high-school newspaper? Do the math. Calculate turnover and graduation.

Today, most journalism teachers are “volunteered” into the job. Generally, they are young English teachers with no formal journalism training. Anxious to teach journalism “right,” they focus, reasonably enough, on writing. However, this starting point can stifle diversity of style and substance even as journalism seeks to bring more people of color—and their perspectives—into mainstream newsrooms. And this approach leaves little room for us to learn from these students’ experiences the stories and creative formats that appeal to younger audiences. I am eager to create a lab that uses student journalists and artists to help develop new “news delivery vehicles.” These vehicles would inevitably vary from community to community, but among them we might find some that improve our chances of reaching elusive readers, like the ones who never saw my slumlord stories. But such an experiment awaits necessary financial resources.

We’re looking down the road to the day when global positioning systems and wireless networks will enable us to pinpoint the very corner on which news is happening—and to broadcast instantaneously from that corner. The technology exists. But, to use an outdated but familiar term, where are we going to find the “legmen?”

Laurie Becklund, president of Associated Student Press, worked at the Los Angeles Times from 1978 to 1993, covering news, features and investigative stories in the United States, Mexico and El Salvador. She covered the O.J. Simpson trial for CBS News and is the author of two books.

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