As 'Teen' Sections Get Axed, One Returns in Washington

By: Cynthia Mitchell The Yakima Herald-Republic?s award-winning teen section, which like several other such sections around the country was killed earlier this year for economic reasons, is coming back this fall thanks to a cooperative arrangement with schools and school districts in Central Washington.

The schools will provide $11,500 a year to pay a part-time coordinator and to pay student contributors and related expenses. The reincarnated "Unleashed" will publish on the front of the ?Life in the Northwest? section every other Sunday, with pieces also carried elsewhere and on other days, according to Publisher Michael Shepard.

?Unleashed? had been published weekly since 1999 with the guidance of a Yakima Herald staffer, who supervised between 25 and 40 students from the region. Last fall, the newspaper opted to stop publishing the dedicated page on Tuesdays and instead started using the content throughout the paper and putting it online. But come late February, it was too expensive to continue at all, Shepard said. (Besides the coordinator?s time and newsprint costs, the paper was paying $10,000-$12,000 a year for the student staff and editors, he said.)

?The decision to curtail the program ? wasn?t easy,? he said. ?But because we were trimming staff, we didn?t feel as though we could devote a significant portion of someone?s time to that program, which was a chunk of money. We needed to recapture those dollars, in addition to being able to recapture a lot of that space.?

But the decision was met with a big response ? not just from teens and ?Unleashed? alums, but by area educators and readers of all ages, Shepard said. ?It certainly wasn?t stunning, or news to us, that it was popular, but so many people took the time to write letters to the editor and to express concern and ask what they could do about it,? Shepard said. ?It was more popular in the community than we had thought.?

Meanwhile, Ben Soria, then-superintendent of the Yakima School District, and Jane Gutting, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, a regional agency that provides services for school districts in Central Washington, decided to approach the paper about helping ?Unleashed? return. Armed with a budget from Shepard, Gutting then got 11 school districts and two private high schools to agree to kick in money. Most are donating $500 each, with the intention that one of their students will be selected for the ?Unleashed? staff. Two larger school districts are donating more money to fund more students.

Of the $11,500 pledged for this school year, $6,000 will go to pay the part-time coordinator. The rest will be used to buy food for the monthly meetings, to pay the student staff of 23 $15 for each story, photo or illustration that?s published, and to buy supplies and cover any other related training costs. Gutting?s agency is also applying for grants from local organizations to help underwrite the program, and the Herald-Republic has pledged to push for new advertising.

?The district superintendents were very open because they know it?s a great opportunity for students to connect with journalism staff and it was a very reasonable fee that we were charging for their participation,? Gutting said.

ESD 105 has set it up as a cooperative with a written contract, automatically renewable yearly, with a five-member executive committee, three of whom are picked by the participating schools, she said. The newspaper will make all publication and editorial decisions, and retains publication rights over the content. (Though students own their work and are free to have it published in non-competing markets.) The staff is recruited and selected by the coordinator in consultation with the paper and ESD105.

Gutting sees the potential for other newspapers and intermediate service agencies, which most states have in place to support school districts, to copy their model.

Adriana Janovich, a Herald-Republic reporter who?s advised ?Unleashed? for the last six years, was contracted to be the coordinator. Unlike in the past, however, her ?Unleashed? duties will be over and above her full-time Herald-Republic duties as education reporter.

?I am absolutely thrilled the program is being revived,? Janovich wrote in an e-mail, adding that the section "gives young people a voice. It gives them the chance to share their hopes and dreams and fears and concerns. It gives them an opportunity to be published, share their work, have a byline, and build their confidence?They get to experience freedom of the press. And they learn that with freedom comes responsibility?I believe 'Unleashed' changes lives.?

Teen sections around the country have been struggling, with several sections closing in the past year, according to Marina Hendricks, manager of the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, which supports teen sections with an annual conference, awards and training, among other things. ('Unleashed' took first place in Program Excellence for newspapers under 60,000 circulation in last year?s NAA Foundation youth competition, with student work taking first in the photograph, news and reviews competitions.)

The NAA Foundation doesn?t have any firm numbers about teen sections; it?s such a moving target that it wouldn?t be a good time to do a national survey, Hendricks said. But she said they know of several teen programs that have recently stopped publication. They include The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., the Tulsa World, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and the Missoulian in Missoula, Mont.

?These programs have been outstanding ones,? Hendricks said. ?From our standpoint, they were doing all the right things.?

While the NAA hasn?t put out any kind of official proclamation, urging newspapers to try to keep the sections, they still believe it?s a good way to lure young readers and to train future journalists. ?It?s not worth giving up on yet,? she said. ?I think it just calls for being more creative and more patient and more willing to look at the long haul.?

Orlando Sentinel reporter Elo?sa Ruano Gonz?lez says she?s so shy she doesn?t think she ever would have contemplated going to journalism school -- much less pursuing a reporting career -- had a high school teacher not pushed her to apply to ?Unleashed? for her junior year in 2000-2001. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, had worked mostly menial-labor jobs, Gonz?lez said, so before ?Unleashed? she?d never been around many professionals -- except for her teachers.

?'Unleashed' opened up a door for me. ? It was a huge stepping stone,? said Gonz?lez, who returned to the Herald-Republic as an intern after graduating, then was hired on and covered immigration issues until leaving for the Sentinel in December 2007.

?When you?re fragile and you?re in high school, you need a comfort zone. And that?s what Unleashed did -- they provided a comfort zone, ironically, to help me get out of my comfort zone.

?The experience I gained that one year clearly stuck with me forever.?


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