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Youth Newspaper Gives Los Angeles Teens a Voice

A student newspaper in Los Angeles called "L.A. Youth" is giving a voice to teenagers, free from censorship by school officials. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the paper deals with controversial issues from sexuality to violence, and such ordinary problems as getting a date in high school.

Donna Myrow was a teacher and community organizer when she heard about a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that disturbed her.

The principal of a high school in suburban St. Louis had censored stories in a student newspaper about teenage pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. The ruling in 1988 restricted the rights of student-reporters throughout the United States. The case was complicated and required balancing the privacy rights of the subjects of the stories with the rights of the student writers and school administrators.

Civil liberties groups and many journalists objected, saying the ruling wrongly restricted the rights of free speech and a free press guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Myrow was not a journalist, but the ruling upset her and she decided to act.

"That day, when I heard the Supreme Court decision, I decided to go for broke, and gathered a group of teens that afternoon, brought them to my house around my kitchen table, and said 'we're going to publish a newspaper,'" she said. "We had no money. I had no distribution list, and we were using some very old upright typewriters."

Six weeks later, she and the students published the first edition of L.A. Youth, with a press run of 2,500 copies. Today, under Myrow's leadership, the paper publishes 120,000 copies six times a year, with printing help from the Los Angeles Times newspaper, gifts, foundation grants, and advertising income. L.A. Youth has become the largest U.S. newspaper written by and for teenagers. As students pass the paper to friends and log onto the Internet website, Myrow estimates it reaches half a million readers.

Over nearly 20 years of operation, L.A Youth has helped thousands of students learn to express themselves. They come from very different backgrounds. Some live in wealthy neighborhoods, while others are from the poorest parts of the city. They write stories on such ordinary topics as dating or finding a job, and do reviews of music and local restaurants. They also tackle such serious issues as cheating, racial tension and violence in schools.

The students work with editors as they revise their stories. Editor Amanda Riddle focuses on teenage writers from troubled homes who live apart from their families in the court-administered foster care system. She says the writing process helps them come to grips with their problems.

"It can be therapeutic, yes," she said. "I sometimes feel like I'm part editor, part therapist. So it is both those things. We often-times just talk about what happened to them, and talk about what they learned from it, and how they feel about their past."

L.A. Youth gives students a chance to see how a publication is assembled and reaches its readers. Seventeen-year-old Mindy Gee is working the phones and calling some of the 1,300 teachers who use the paper in their classrooms.

"You've been getting 40 copies so far," she said. "I was wondering if you wanted to continue receiving the 40 copies?"

She enjoys her work as a reporter, and especially likes the process of working with editors.

"They give you a lot of edits, and you have to keep revising your articles," she said. "And I think that's been very helpful with my writing, as well as preparing for a career in journalism, if I ever end up in journalism."

Editor Mike Fricano says most of the student reporters do not intend to pursue a career in the field.

"Ironically, I think the vast majority are not interested in becoming reporters," he said. "So, I often really try to push that this is a chance for them to get published as a writer in a publication that goes far beyond just their school."

Eighteen-year-old writer Victorino Martinez will soon head off to university, where he will study business, but he says his experience here is invaluable.

"I do this because it helps me improve my writing skills and communication skills, which in any field, I think is important," he said. "And it's really important to be able to not only do something, but communicate it."

Associate Editor Laura Lee worked as a staff reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, but here she helps students hone their stories. She says most cannot express themselves the way they would like at school.

"So they come here and it's completely open for them to discuss whatever they want to discuss and write whatever they'd like to write about," she said. "And I think having that freedom and knowing that what they care about, we care about it too, it kind of gives them a sense of empowerment."

There are thousands of student publications in the United States, and many more in other countries. L.A. Youth founder Donna Myrow says their student-writers are learning to participate in their community by expressing their viewpoints.