Meet the journalists of the 21st century

Very young reporters are picking up the torch

This story will introduce you to a crime reporter, a crew of international reporters, an op-ed writer, and an investigative journalism team. And every one of these people are teenagers, or younger.

Some parts of journalism, everyone knows, are in trouble. A recent Pew Research Center study shows that the estimated weekly newspaper circulation in the U.S. fell from 62,328,000 in 1990 to an estimated 34,657,199 in 2016. That’s almost half.

There is, though, reason for optimism. A 2017 study by Common Sense Media reveals that 70 per cent of kids ages 10-18 say consuming news makes them feel smart and knowledgeable.

And kids aren’t just taking in news – they’re producing it too. There are some kid reporters doing solid work on their own terms, on their own turf. And there are kid reporters strongly supported by companies and school programs.

Each year, the Toronto Star hosts its High School Journalism Awards to honour the work of the province’s high school reporters. This year, the Star had more than 600 submissions from 15 schools in 21 categories. In May R.H. King Academy in Toronto won the award for Best Newspaper (over 15 staff) for the Kingsley Voice.

The issue they entered features an editorial by Aarti Patel, 16. It’s about a personal experience, one that resonated with her peers at school, many of whom are second-generation immigrants. It focuses on a trip to India, and how she felt like a foreigner in a place she considered home because it was home to her parents.

“I really enjoyed writing this article because sometimes we feel a bit conflicted between what is our cultural identity. Are we Canadian? Are we Indian?,” says Patel.

Investigating authority

Reporters possess power. They present the facts to readers and sometimes face backlash for digging up dirt.

A group of reporters for the Booster Redux, the school paper at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kansas, a city of 20,000 people, made international headlines in April. Their investigative article resulted in the newly hired principal, Amy Robertson, resigning.

Gina Mathew, one of the “Pittsburg Six” – the name given to the students who conducted the investigation – says they were at first apprehensive about going after the story. She says they did not imagine they would be the ones spearheading the investigation. “Despite our feelings,” she says, “we had to muster up the courage.”

The original idea was to write a simple story on Robertson so students could get to know her. After some suspicious replies to the students’ questions, Emily Smith, a teacher and the student publication advisor, says she told the students to look at Corllins University, the school from which Robertson claimed to have a master’s and a Ph.D. Smith left the students with a couple of laptops and later returned.

When she came back, she asked them what was next. “I said ‘what do you want to do?’, and they wanted to keep digging.”

Over a few weeks, the students went to several resources, and ultimately discovered that Corllins is not an accredited school. The students were nervous about publishing, but ultimately felt it was their duty.

“I wholeheartedly believe what we did was right,” says Mathew. “Not because of the praise and the coverage we got, but because we were able to affect change at our high school. That’s something not a lot of people can say.”

News organizations for kids

Some young reporters in the U.S. have the opportunity to report for students right across the country. The Scholastic News Kids Press Corps. recruits reporters aged 10-14 to report for its classroom magazines, which reach 25 million students. Wearing bright red polo shirts, Scholastic’s reporters interview politicians, celebrities, and authors, and report on sports, hurricanes and the kind of human interest stories you’d expect to see in a weekend edition of a newspaper. But they to do it all in a way that their kid readers can understand.

Esther Appelstein, 13, of St. Louis, Missouri, has been a kid reporter with the Press Corps. since grade five. In that time she’s done about a dozen stories on human rights, arts and entertainment, and the presidential race. She’s always loved writing, but the Press Corps. has helped her improve other skills.

“It was hard for me to go out and talk to people at first and do interviews, Appelstein said. “ I’m kind of a shy person, so it really helped me step out of my comfort zone.”

TIME Inc. has a similar program. Since 1995 it has had kids reporting for TIME for Kids, which publishes a variety of classroom magazines tailored to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Mixed in with the work of their adult editorial staff are stories written by 12 kid reporters.

Stephanie Kraus, a producer at TIME for Kids in New York, says the company looks for kids who understand journalism and newswriting basics. Like Scholastic, TIME wants kids to learn about serious topics in ways they understand.

“They have to tackle [news] in a way that is appropriate and doesn’t foster a fear in kids,” she says.

Scholastic and TIME are giving young reporters opportunities that teach them lifelong skills. Sam Rubinroit, a former kid reporter for TIME who now works for the NFL in New York, started writing about sports for local newspapers, including the Malibu Times, in California. He applied to be a kid reporter in the early 2000s when he was 13.

Rubinroit says there were mixed reactions to being on the scene as a kid reporter when working independently. Some people thought he – and his brother – were just getting in the way, but “a lot of the tried-and-true journalists saw what we were trying to do and respected it.”

Rubinroit isn’t in journalism anymore, but says it taught him skills he uses now, like writing clearly, communicating effectively, and not being afraid to ask for what he needs from people. “It definitely helps, even to this day.”

The independent reporter

Hilde Lysiak of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, is not one to wait around for a tip. The 11-year-old bikes around her hometown of just under 6,000 people looking for stories to cover – typically crime stories – for her self-run and written newspaper the Orange Street News. She’s just not allowed to cross the highway.

There’s a monthly eight-page print edition she delivers or mails to 600 paying subscribers, but most people read her stories online for free. Most of the 917,000 hits on the paper’s website come from the interest her work generated last year.

Lysiak’s big break came in April 2016, two years after she started her paper. She’s been written about in the Washington Post, the New York Times and more. She reported on a man who had beaten his wife to death with a hammer just blocks from her home. Lysiak got the tip from a reliable source, jumped on her bike and rushed to the scene.

Following the story’s publication, Lysiak faced backlash claiming she should be “playing with dolls” or “having tea parties,” not reporting on what they considered an inappropriate topic.

In an op-ed, written by invitation in the British newspaper the Guardian four days after her original article, Lysiak called out her critics, stating: “…for those of you who think I need to mind my place, I’ll make you a deal. You get off your computer and do something to stop all the crime going on in my town and I’ll stop reporting on it. Until then, I’m going to keep doing my job.”

Lysiak considers her adult critics calmly. “That’s their lives,” she says now. “I can’t really control their life. I can only control my life and my actions.

“I’m excited for the day when I’m judged for my work, not my age.”

Where does it lead?

Young reporters spend their formative years working on projects that take a lot of effort. Lysiak has her own website and a dedicated audience. The students at the Kingsley Voice can say they won an award for Best Newspaper. Rubinroit and other kid reporters with TIME and Scholastic have interviewed celebrities and politicians.

All agree that the skills they have gained are ones that will help them in other areas. Take the students from Toronto, for example. Last year’s Voice editors Ali Javeed and Robin Dineshkumar aren’t studying journalism, but both write for student publications at their universities. They say the skills gained from being reporters are ones they still use.

“If I’m on campus and I need to interview a professor or talk to someone who’s of higher status it’s not as hard as it was,” says Javeed. “I have that confidence because I gained the experience through these newspapers.”

All agree that there is a deep sense of accomplishment that comes with being a young reporter.

Patel of the Voice best puts the satisfaction that comes with this into perspective. “When the newspaper is done, and we all look at it, it feels like a masterpiece.”

 

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