Katherine Tam
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Growing Pains

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The scoop on Young People's Press, a wire service for kids that has dreams of playing with the big boys

On a clear Thursday morning in mid-January, Young People’s Press acting executive director Michael Hoechsmann carries a box of old newspapers across his office in midtown Toronto. Despite limping with his left leg, from which a cast has just been removed, he wants to show me some previously published YPP articles.

“In many cases, people have a different perspective when they read articles written by young people,” says Hoechsmann proudly as he digs out several issues of The Toronto Star‘s Young Street section and passes them to me. The scruffy cardboard box is like a treasure chest, yielding up features such as one examining how young Goths were treated after the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999, and another one on Vince Carter’s efforts to help youth on and off the basketball court. The contents prove how YPP, a youth news service, was able to reach a wide audience with stories that combined news with pop culture.

Young Street was a Star section to which YPP writers regularly contributed, from the section’s creation in September 1997 until its demise in January 2000. It represented a defining moment for YPP-an organization that was founded in late 1995 with the laudable aim of engaging young people in social and political issues.

During Young Street’s 27-month existence, more than 500 articles by YPP contributors appeared in its pages. Admittedly, they were not all on par with the Goths or Vince Carter pieces, but Young Street was an impressive array nonetheless of advice columns, personal experience pieces, and music reviews. As former YPP editor Brian McDonald says about that time, “Our youth had a lack of cynicism and a desire to change the world.”

And then in January 2000, Young Street was replaced with a renamed, revamped section that drastically scaled back YPP contributions. Despite its best intentions, this nonprofit news youth organization, constricted by stretched funding and resources, has since had a hard time growing up.

YPP was founded in 1995 by publisher Gary Gould, but the idea for it was planted in 1993 when its parent, the Canadian Centre for Social Justice (CCSJ), decided that young people’s participation in the media was an important goal. Gould began visiting schools in Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Ontario, speaking to hundreds of students about the idea of creating a youth news service, while also running several workshops on media literacy.

Gould and Don Curry, a former city editor at the Peterborough Examiner who became YPP’s first editor-in-chief, connected early on with Robert Clampitt, who founded the U.S.-based Children’s Express news service in 1975. First gaining attention in 1976, when it broke the story that Walter Mondale was Jimmy Carter’s running mate in the U.S. presidential election, Children’s Express had gone on to win a Peabody and an Emmy for its coverage of the 1988 U.S. presidential race.

As Curry recalls, “Children’s Express sent nine- to 12-year-olds with tape recorders to do the reporting, while high school students edited and wrote the stories.” Curry had a slightly different vision for YPP: its writers, who were predominantly in their teens, would both report and write their pieces. (Gould says that 90 percent of YPP’s earlier material was opinion pieces written by youth, so little reporting was needed. The rest were stories reported by teens, but written by YPP staff.)

While Curry remained in North Bay, he and Gould set up an office in Toronto with three editors. (By comparison, as reported on National Public Radio in June 2001, Children’s Express had roughly 30 paid staff.)

“It was a very small office,” remembers Iain Wilson, who was one of YPP’s original editors. “We were sharing the office with another group, and we shared equipment, fax machines, and the photocopier. I had to use my own laptop because YPP didn’t have enough computers yet.”

To find writers, YPP promoted itself through school and community visits, word of mouth, and Usenet groups on the Internet. YPP’s first story was an interview with then Toronto Raptors rookie Damon Stoudamire, which was published in late 1995.

Even after having that first piece published, YPP staff had a hard time getting teachers to take them seriously when they began to visit schools in December 1995. It made sense for YPP staff to visit schools since SchoolNet, a computer network, had just begun distributing their work to its subscribers, which were about a third of Canadian schools. Still, it was one thing for SchoolNet to distribute YPP material but another for the schools to actually use the copy.

“In three months, I visited eight schools in Toronto,” says Wilson. “It was difficult to get teachers excited because no one knew who we were. Some just rejected us out of hand and never presented our idea to their students. I had one teacher who kept asking us where we were going to get funding. He asked us if it was another government program wasting taxpayers’ money.”

In fact, the funding for the CCSJ-close to $400,000 in 1995 and a modest $300,000 in 1996-came mostly from the Ontario and federal governments. Still, by September 1997, YPP had managed to get 60 articles published.

The editing process was primitive. Brian McDonald, who joined the staff in 1997, recalls, “Everything was done by fax. We would receive the articles by fax, and the articles would be retyped by the editors and faxed to the papers. Our computers were outdated. When Levi’s donated three newer laptops, they were a godsend because they weren’t always crashing.” The staff would then send the finished articles to 220 daily and weekly papers.

One of the papers on YPP’s mailing list was The Toronto Star. In December 1994, the Star began running a column called Under 20 every second Tuesday in its Life section.

“Before then, and during Under 20’s duration, we had one reporter who covered youth,” says Carola Vyhnak, then the Star‘s Life editor. The same reporter also looked after the submissions for Under 20 and served as a liaison between the Star and young people. “It was after late January in 1996 when we started using YPP material on a fairly regular basis,” says Vyhnak.

On the basis of this relationship, in 1997 Gould and McDonald approached the Star‘s then-acting Life editor, Vivian Macdonald, about creating a weekly youth section in the Star that would be filled mostly with YPP material. (Macdonald would become the permanent Life editor that summer.) She agreed, and Young Street was launched on September 30, 1997, as a two-and-a-half- to four-page section containing an advice column, a trends column, entertainment reviews, and stories about how young people were either making a difference or being affected by current issues.

Soon, the Canadian Press started distributing Young Street copy to its members. YPP also struck a deal with the Kitchener-Waterloo Record to supply material for a weekly youth page, and another with the HalifaxChronicle-Herald for a biweekly page.

Spurred by this success, YPP held six annual writing contests with such high-profile judges as Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein, Rachel Giese, and Irshad Manji. Also in 1997, Ontario’s then Lieutenant Governor Hilary Weston agreed to be its honorary patron. Young Street also won an award from the Youth Editors Association of America in 1999. (In March 2001 YPP would win an Award of Distinction from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.)

Funding from governments, corporations, and foundations for the CCSJ-which funded YPP-remained steady at $400,000 in 1999 and $420,000 in 2000. This included the Levi Strauss Foundation, which handed YPP US$31,030 each year from 1997 to 1999, and US$150,000 in 2000.

“We got letters and phone calls from teachers and some great feedback,” Gould recalls. “We also got 20,000 entries from the national writing contests and from essay writing contests that we had in schools in Ontario and British Columbia.”

The contests also enabled YPP to make a different kind of impact. “Michael made me get up on stage and read my story in front of 100 people at the Word on the Street [book and magazine festival] in Toronto,” says Anuj Anand of his story, “Colour of My Skin Was My Only Crime,” which won second place in a YPP writing contest in September 1997. “It’s not easy to read a story so humiliating and upsetting in front of total strangers. But when I was finished, people converged upon me and told me how sorry they were. One lady said that my story made her cry.”

Not everyone was happy with YPP’s success. “The Star didn’t consult with us before launching Young Street,” says Dan Smith, who is now chief steward for editorial for the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild at the Star. The issue revolved around the freelancer clause in the union contract, which stipulates that freelancers can only do stories that can’t be done by Star staff, or which freelancers had greater experience in dealing with.

Freelance concerns weren’t the only problems, according to Smith, who was the deputy editorial steward at that time. There was also a concern about the potential for bias in the preponderance of first-person pieces. “There was a quality concern,” he says. “I think the Star tried to do it on the cheap.”

The union may have played a role in preventing the publication of stories with more reportage. As former YPP editor and current YPP freelance columnist Ezra Houser says, “It was hard to get the Star to print anything youth tackled that wasn’t specifically in the first person because it didn’t want to undermine its unionized staff reporters by giving some young person space in their paper to explore issues and ideas.”

In addition, as a project of a registered charity-the CCSJ-YPP could not promote any political parties or views. As a result, many contributors were stuck mostly having to do first-person stories that often veered from voicing political opinion.

YPP writers did occasionally tackle political subject matters, though. There was an interview with former Ontario premier Bob Rae that YPP distributed to Usenet groups in February 1996, an October 1997 piece about an Ontario teachers’ strike, and a November 1998 story on Quebec sovereignty. Most contributors also wrote from their hearts and minds on issues from AIDS to aboriginal rights with “remarkable insight and maturity,” as Vyhnak puts it. Many YPP pieces, however, sounded like diary entries or read like feel-good stories about youth.

Gould is unapologetic about this aspect of YPP, saying, “We’re not about hard-hitting news. We were never meant to be a journalism school. Our primary goal is to give youth a voice, and to get them involved in social issues through participating in the media.”

But Iain Wilson saw it differently. While YPP’s motto is “By youth, for youth,” Wilson says there was some uncertainty about what students were supposed to be contributing or how they would distribute the material.

“I found it frustrating how YPP didn’t know what it wanted from its students,” he says. “We mostly got personal diaries, opinion pieces, and CD reviews. I thought it was about journalism, about teaching youth how to be editors and reporters.”

That was Odelia Bay’s experience. Now a student in Ryerson’s journalism program, YPP was her first paid indoor summer job. “I worked as an editor 30 hours a week, but they were flexible, as I could also work at home. I was given my own small desk and my own computer. In my last year working for YPP, I worked from home as a syndicated columnist.”

Despite YPP’s shortcomings, it did serve an unintended purpose: many of its one-time contributors are now professional journalists. Former YPP columnist Graeme Smith is a reporter at The Globe and Mail. Deborah Gardner works at Global News as an editor, and Dayo Kefentse is a reporter and editor for CBC Radio in Toronto. And after leaving YPP, Iain Wilson worked for Knight Ridder Financial News in Tokyo before working in the same city for Bloomberg, where he is a technology editor, managing a team of editors and reporters throughout Asia.

Most former staffers agree that YPP was a good place to work, saying that staff treated them very nicely and gave them lots of professional advice and encouragement. As well, YPP’s interns and co-op students were given more editorial responsibility than most interns. “Former staff and writers came back to visit, and they gave us gifts,” says Bay. “It was like a student-teacher relationship.”

Though they may stand to eventually gain a career, YPP staffers past and present haven’t been richly rewarded. While the CCSJ’s annual income tax returns say that it has received $330,000 to $420,000 in revenue annually between 1997 and 2000, YPP is just one of the CCSJ’s 27 projects.

Gould says the information in the tax returns does not completely reflect the CCSJ’s finances, as many of its projects were run with other organizations that helped pay the expenses. But even during Young Street’s heyday from 1997 to 2000, the CCSJ was involved in an average of 20 to 30 projects, including YPP, each year.

Today, YPP has five full-time staffers and one part-timer. Some former and current staffers were hired with government grants, and many who work there do it for the experience rather than for the money.

The Star did not pay YPP to use its material for Young Street until its final year, when the paper started giving YPP $3,000 every six months until January 2000. Neither CP nor its members paid for their YPP material because it was picked up from the Star.

Other YPP newspaper clients pay YPP $15 to $35 per article, or $150 for a feature story. While Gould says that YPP has different agreements with different papers, and that the rates depend on a paper’s circulation, one editor at a major daily newspaper says that those rates are expensive compared to most wire services.

Even with these fees, the organization is run on a tight budget. “YPP was financed largely on a grant-by-grant, project-by-project basis, so the luxury of organizing overview-type systems wasn’t there,” says Houser, who first joined YPP in late 1999. “With the need to complete this issue of this e-zine, or to get a certain number of articles on this topic published, such immediate needs always prevailed, and there was no staff manager who could keep the big picture in mind and help us become more efficient toward our mission. Sometimes we even lost track of our mission because we were too busy fulfilling our obligations to our sponsors. It sounds damning but it’s very true of almost all nonprofits to some degree.”

Many former contributors were just grateful for the opportunity to be published. However, several writers weren’t happy about not getting paid. This happened in spite of a YPP policy in its writers’ guide that if a publication pays for a story that YPP produced, the money should go to the writer.

“I wasn’t compensated for my work except for one advertorial piece that I can’t even remember,” says Barbi Green, a Toronto writer (who then wrote under her maiden name, Barbi Price). “By then, they started paying token amounts for articles. Their rationale was, ‘We’re giving you national exposure.’ As a new journalist, I couldn’t argue with that-even if it meant free pages of copy for the Star.”

Sometimes YPP did compensate students, such as the time McDonald hired two Toronto students to create YPP’s first website.

“We set up the site in late 1996, and then we put up between 40 to 50 articles on that site for about a year and a half,” says Suresh Sriskandarajah, who was a Grade 10 student at Westview Centennial Secondary School in north Toronto and ran his own Web design company. “It wasn’t part of any school project, but YPP paid us $1,000 to create the site, then paid us $50 for each article we posted.” But the relationship ended when funds ran out. YPP also stopped sponsoring a girls e-zine in June 2001 because a crucial grant didn’t come in.

In July 1999, Lesley Ciarula Taylor became the Star‘s new Life editor, and she studied her new section to see what could be improved.

“I found that there wasn’t a lot of recognition among youth,” says Taylor of Young Street. “Some of them confused it with the business section, and we were concerned about that. It was also becoming difficult for YPP to provide copy every week because many of its writers were high school students, and it was becoming a burden for them. I also found that the stories were of a similar genre, of a similar idea, and were all starting to sound the same.”

In January 2000, Young Street was replaced with Boom!, which is mostly written by Star staff, non-YPP freelancers, and reporters and columnists whose work is picked up from other wire services.

The YPP items that do appear in Boom! are mostly CD and entertainment reviews, but occasionally the Starwill publish harder YPP stories in the revamped section. The most prominent recent examples are YPP’s September 11 special, and its coverage of the United Nations anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, last fall.

YPP material is still being distributed nationally by Torstar News Service and Southam News, but with Young Street’s demise YPP lost a major outlet and CP has only distributed a handful of YPP articles since.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Halifax Chronicle-Herald still receive YPP material. However, theRecord now only publishes the YPP trends report because it can only use locally produced material in the rest of the features section, and the Chronicle-Herald wishes that YPP could distribute more copy from Halifax or east coast writers.

YPP is now negotiating with Southam newspapers and the Osprey Media Group to publish syndicated youth pages in their papers. YPP also occasionally organizes Writer’s Circles-a series of five journalism classes in 10 weeks that includes writing for YPP-with 15 students in each circle. These have been held in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and Halifax, and include an all-aboriginal circle.

Since April 2000, YPP has been syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service in the U.S., and by online syndicator ScreamingMedia Inc., which has about 850 clients. SHNS has a good relationship with YPP, but its resources are limited by personnel and time. As a result, it has opted to distribute only the youth advice column and the trends report.

“We have 400 clients,” says Walter Veazey, the assistant managing editor for features at SHNS. “We can only give each of them 110 stories per day, and YPP is just one of 100 contributors to our service. We don’t know whether our clients actually publish the YPP material we send them, but these papers have only so much space.”

Most of ScreamingMedia’s clients who use YPP material are other websites. They pay between eight cents to “a couple of dollars” per article, depending on how many hits a site is getting. Since July 2001, YPP has gotten approximately $14,000 from all its syndication deals, and Gould thinks that will go up to $17,000 by this June.

YPP is sending more of its material to its syndicators rather than posting it on its e-zines, but this doesn’t mean that its deals in the United States are attracting and sustaining a wide audience. Several U.S. youth media experts and editors interviewed for this story say they were unaware of YPP, including LynNell Hancock of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Jennifer Moore of the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland, and several officers of the Youth Editors Association of America.

When told of what YPP does, Moore and Marina Hendricks-who is editor of The Charleston Gazette‘s teen section in Charleston, West Virginia, and was YEAA’s president in 1999-said it reminds them of Children’s Express. Since founder Robert Clampitt’s death in 1996, over-expansion resulted in a US$2.4 million debt, and the news service shut down last summer.

As for the future, at press time YPP’s structure and financial security were being renegotiated. The CCSJ, which was renamed Communitas Canada last June, received about $584,000 in revenue last year, but Gould says that Communitas is thinking of spinning off YPP into its own nonprofit organization.

At press time, YPP also had a new U.S. syndication agreement in principle, but it hadn’t been signed yet. Gould wouldn’t say who it’s with or how much YPP expects to get from it, but noted that “it will hopefully give us a significantly higher amount of revenue.”

The new syndication deal sounds promising, but if YPP’s experiences with SHNS and ScreamingMedia are any indication, it may take more than that to keep YPP thriving.

Then again, being a nonprofit youth news organization is never easy. Funding from the Ontario government ended recently, the Levi Strauss Foundation ended its commitment last July, and the federal government’s just ended in March 2002. As acting executive director Hoechsmann says, “Our sponsors only want to provide one to three years of funding.”

In Hoechsmann’s office, there’s a poster of the late rapper Tupac Shakur hanging on the wall. The words “Only God Can Judge Me” are splashed over it. With a history of success but also of strained finances, perhaps only God can judge-or know-what the future will hold for YPP.

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