As they do on many Saturday afternoons, the teenagers from across Los Angeles county descended on the nondescript Fairfax district office building. It was time for the weekly editorial meeting at L.A.Youth the newspaper by teens for teens. The latest issue had just hit the hallways of L.A. schools, and the deadline for the next one was fast approaching.
As more than a dozen students sat around a square of folding tables, Amanda Riddle, one of the adult editors, kicked things off with a question: What did they know about Trayvon Martin?
The killing of the Florida teenager sparked an intense conversation that slalomed from an injustice — in the view of many at the table — to race and racial profiling; why a hoodie, a sweatshirt so ubiquitous to them, could be considered to have played a role in the teen's death; to gun rights, whether their parents had guns in their home, and whether or not that was a good idea.
Then Riddle stopped them: Who's going to write this?
That's the formula for producing the newspaper centered around first-person accounts of young people on their community, culture and the challenges they face, allowing for more depth than the typical high school newspaper. Over the years, they've tackled such subjects as life as an undocumented immigrant, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and how budget cuts have hurt their schools.
In the most recent issue, Locke High School student Maceo Bradley wrote an account of his mission to take on the city's (now-altered) policy for ticketing tardy students. There were also stories about life in the juvenile justice system, an Indian girl coming to appreciate her culture by learning Bollywood-style dancing, and one young man's dispatch on learning to drive with a mom scared to ride with him.
"It's just a really important outlet for a lot of teenagers," said Oscar Rodriguez, now a 28-year-old graphic designer, who did illustrations for L.A. Youth as a Lynwood High School student. "Usually you're in your own little world, but when you get letters from random people" — other teens who read the paper — "it opens your eyes. You realize there's a world out there, and people are feeling the same way I did."
L.A. Youth, he said, "definitely played a part in what I went on to do in life."
But as the newspaper approaches a quarter-century, it is struggling to hang on. The foundations whose grants have long been the primary source of funding have pulled out, and board members who once brought in corporate donations have been laid off, said Donna Myrow, L.A. Youth's executive director.
The paper, which operates on a $500,000 budget, has two full-time editors, Riddle and Mike Fricano, who guide the young scribes through the writing process. L.A. Youth is printed six times a year, with a circulation of about 70,000 and an estimated readership of 400,000, Myrow said. (The Times donates the printing of the newspaper.)
Myrow said the newspaper needs to raise $500,000 by mid-May or it will run out of money. Unlike other newspapers, which have seen scores of readers migrate to the Internet, Myrow said that's not an option. Even with this high-tech generation, she said not as many students would read it online, mostly because of a lack of computer access.
Jolie Augustine, an English teacher at Wilson Middle School in Glendale, has included L.A. Youth in her lessons for eight years. The paper, she said, serves as an "important way for students to think about writing, to think about the issues that affect them. Their parents don't talk about these issues with them. It's certainly not in textbooks. These are real issues that L.A. teens are talking about."
And when the paper prints letters to the editor from her students — which she encourages through extra credit — she said it gives them a sense of validation. "They feel their voice is being heard," she said, "and they are being recognized."
It's that sense of affirmation that attracts the students who have become regular contributors.
On a recent Saturday, they flipped through the pages of the latest edition. They critiqued the design — some quite harshly — and didn't take too well to an article that had been underwritten by a company (they thought it looked too much like an ad).
And when the editors asked about the next edition, Kristy Plaza, a senior at Duarte High School, raised her hand. She wanted to write about racial profiling.
Plaza, 18, said she would like to become a journalist and tell the stories of her community. L.A. Youth, she said, provides her the experience to get started.
Even with all the serious topics, there's still plenty of room to riff. Victor Beteta, a University High School senior, has written music reviews and taste-tested new lunch options at school ("It was all right," he said, "definitely not the best.")
Beteta, 18, said he knows other students are reading. He wrote an essay about listening to classical music, and he received a number of letters from other teens who enjoy it too.
And after friends and classmates told him they saw his picture in the paper, he knew they had to flip through the pages to find it. Through the experience, he said, he has learned there's something even better than having a voice. It's knowing someone is listening.