“Convince me,” the editor said, while we waited for our dinner. “Convince me I need to have a teen section, written by teens.” She was directing her challenge at a group of editors—all of us adults who oversee teenaged newspaper sections. We were gathered in Reading, Pennsylvania for the annual Youth Editorial Alliance’s (YEA) conference and sitting in a restaurant where peanuts are an appetizer and customers are expected to toss the shells on the floor. But this editor piled her used shells neatly on the table and told us she couldn’t bring herself to throw them on the floor.
“Does your teen section make money?” she wanted to know.
It depends. Some do. The one I edit—a 20-page tab called Voices that is published once a week in the 70,000 daily Reading (Penn.) Eagle—doesn’t pay for itself, at least in dollars. And I was having a hard time convincing her of its nontangible benefits.
Her questions kept coming. “Does it sell newspapers?”
Of this, none of us could be 100 percent certain. From where I sit, I can’t say circulation has skyrocketed during the eight years since we launched the section. I know that people tell me that they’ve held onto copies of the newspaper because of the teen section. And the Newspaper Association of America’s (NAA) most up-to-date research brief says 64 percent of teens looked at a newspaper within the last week; a study done locally showed 66 percent of teens in our county had read the section in the last five days.
“Why not just have a youth reporter?” she suggested.
Not the same, we replied, because then there is no ownership by the teens. Without teens feeling that this section belongs to them, it becomes—in their mind—just another adult (and any college graduate is an adult to them) perpetuating stereotypes about them.
But as the evening’s conversation went on through dinner, I felt increasingly stymied in my attempts to convey the incredible value this section brings to a newspaper. It probably didn’t help when many of us talked about some problems we face in doing this. We shared stories about discovering factual errors just before a section was to be published. I talked about having to publish mediocre writing when it was needed to fill a page.
As this editor listened, she also kept asking us questions, and with each one she seemed to be challenging the very premise of what we were doing. Her questions lingered with me through the rest of the conference, creating more and more questions in my mind, until finally I saw an image that helped me to better understand this editor’s resistance.
In my mind, I saw those peanuts, so neatly piled in front of this editor, as a metaphor for the way journalists tend to stick to their ways, follow conventions, and adhere to their worldviews. Without being willing to change and explore ways of reaching out to new readers, I realized it was hard for this editor to see this step as positively as those of us who’d taken it do.
Letting Teens Tell Their Stories
It was writing for teenagers, not writing about teenagers, that really changed my views about journalism. It opened me to exploring different ways of telling stories. As I worked on connecting with teens as the editor of Voices, I rediscovered my sense of humor, my appreciation for irony and for the absurd, my love of music, and my hunger to understand the world.
“Conventional Views a Teen Section Editor Must Break”
– Lisa ScheidMy greatest lesson occurred when I was about a year into Voices. At that time, at the age of 35, I was the adult reporter assigned to Voices. My responsibilities included coordinating photo shoots (often wacky and/or posed ordeals involving costumes), teen artwork, and the writing of stories. I had already written a narrative story about teens facing the end of high school and one about auditions for the school play. In the course of a year, I’d talked to lots of teenagers, some of whom were quite taciturn. Along the way, I’d discovered I was no longer terrified to walk into a room of 100 teens because I now knew I was not the focus of their attention, even when they were listening to me.
Then I volunteered to do a story for the Reading Eagle; it was a Sunday piece about competition among the top students. I knew there was a story because I had listened to some of Voices’ teen writers—all of whom are paid freelancers—talk about the stress of staying at the top of their class. And we’d done a Voices section—about eight articles each week are built around a theme to create a Voices section—about finding relief from stress.
For the Sunday story, I interviewed counselors and experts who were very concerned about the toll such competition was taking and what it said about our society. Fresh from these interviews with experts, I started to call teens who had been recommended by our Voices correspondents. (Our newspaper’s policy bars adult reporters from interviewing our teen writers for articles.) And there I hit a brick wall: They wouldn’t talk. Well, they talked but I knew what they were saying to me wasn’t their real experience. Instead, they were telling me what they told most adults—all is well, not a big deal.
The Voices’ editor, Wendy Zang, offered me a great suggestion. “Try asking them how they stay on top.”
I followed her advice and set aside the experts’ views. And I kept my mouth shut and just listened.
What I learned is that some teenagers go to school feeling physically sick because of the pressure. They track carefully what classes their peers take, and they quibble over grades just to raise their grade point average by hundredths of a point so they can get a ranking that will get them into an elite college or university. And as it gets harder to be admitted to these elite schools and pay the cost of going there, parents are putting more pressure on some students to do activities that might lead to scholarships.
This story has been told in many publications, but what made my story different was that it was largely told in the voices and through the experiences of teenagers. Access didn’t make the difference; rather, it was the questions asked and the willingness to listen to the teens and let go of adult bias. Teens are the experts in their own lives—which is why their first-person, reported essays that appear in Voices can be so compelling. I’ve met many teens who are experts in topics beyond fashion, sex and angst. I’ve met some who are experts in dog training, golf, ice hockey, losing weight, beating the system, and addiction recovery.
Teen Topics and Newspapers
“Seeing the Holocaust Through a Child’s Eyes”
– Kayla ConklinAnother lesson for me about journalism came shortly after I became editor of Voices last October. As part of my job, I met with the newspaper’s advertising and promotions departments. As a reporter, I’d never talked with anyone from these departments. For me, the idea of having to also think about selling stuff seemed so disgusting; before I’d thought of my job as only pursuing “the truth.” Yet I soon learned that convincing colleagues at the paper of the value of a teen section involves selling them on the idea that teens have buying power. (The NAA’s recent research brief finds that teens spent $172 billion on products and services in 2001.)
In January of this year, my awkward feeling of being a truth-seeker in an advertising land came to a head at a newspaper marketing conference in Florida where I went to talk about Voices. As I prepared to listen to the teen panel discussion, facilitated by a marketing expert, I was expecting that the discussion would make my stomach turn. I pictured the marketing person weaseling out of these teens how to sell them the latest gadgets and stuff they liked to use. Instead, as I listened to the teens, I heard them articulate some of the same lessons I’d learned with Voices: Teens want to feel important. They want to be part of a group but also thought of as individuals. They want respect, and they want help.
These lessons were echoed again at the YEA conference in Reading in October. There we heard from Vivian Lin, president of 180 Enterprises, Inc., which specializes in marketing to teenagers. Her research tells her that teens are searching for significance. As I heard this, I hoped the editor who had been quizzing us about starting a teen section was listening.
My learning continues. In October, Voices published a photo of children and teens who benefited from the philanthropy of another group of teens. The photograph accompanied an article written by one of our two Voices’ interns. Three teens in the photo were making hand signs and, to me, the gestures appeared to signal West Coast, victory and peace. From where I sat, the photo was about rap and hip-hop, but some adult readers saw the hand gestures as signifying gang signs. They weren’t gang signs, but that didn’t stop adults from calling and emailing. And I know these adults meant well in expressing their concern, but by jumping to conclusions they insulted those teenagers.
Some editors might have decided not to run the photograph, fearing just such a reaction from adult readers. But Voices has built its reputation on showing teens as they really are, not how someone wants them to be or thinks they should be. For us that means printing reviews of R-rated movies. (Our paper’s policy states that it is the teen’s responsibility to get parental permission to see the film.) It means running reviews of films such as “Jackass,” despite having adults say that by doing so we are promoting that kind of behavior, and referring to high school students who are in the marching band as “band geeks.” (One of the school’s principals told Voices assistant editor Stacie Jones that is a putdown he wouldn’t participate in.) While we don’t advocate illegal activities such as underage drinking or violence, we do show teen life from the inside.
I am not a teenager, nor do I pretend to be, but the section I edit needs to reflect their life, or they won’t read it. And so, as its editor, I walk a fine line: At what point does reporting aspects of the youth culture to teenagers become an endorsement of that culture? And what if I, as a parent, don’t like it? Each week, and with each issue, I try my best to answer such questions. I might prod a teen writer to do thorough and fair reporting, but I try not to impose my opinion.
Each week, adults involved with Voices (the editor, assistant editor, designer, graphic artist, and assistant design editor) get together to plan the look of a future issue. Often we grapple with stereotypes and the message of images and with the challenges of being diverse and being cool. We also consult with managing editors on subject matter; when we take on topics such as sexual issues or being gay, our work requires intense scrutiny from editors at the newspaper.
Working for a newspaper can be an uncomfortable place—even for teen writers. A girl who wrote a story about teens and sex was demoted from her leadership role in her church because she mentioned she might not wait until she was married. Perhaps this tension between the adult and teen worldviews is what keeps us fresh without resorting to reliance on clichéd lingo or celebrity interviews. It might also be what attracts readers—adults and teens—to the section. Or it may be that we have convinced everyone we’re totally cool.
Lisa Scheid, who is the editor of Voices, has worked with this teen section of the Reading Eagle since 2000.