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Newsroom Kids Face Grown-up Crisis



By Michael Miner

If New Expression dies it will be as bad for the city as when the Daily News folded," Frank Burgos was saying. "It has that kind of history and that kind of importance."

Twenty years ago, as a Clemente High School senior, Burgos was the first managing editor of New Expression--an independent paper written by and for Chicago teenagers. As successful an alumnus as the paper's produced, he went on to the Dallas Herald, the Miami Herald, and the Sun-Times. After a stretch as senior writer at the MacArthur Foundation--one of New Expression's primary underwriters--he's just taken a job writing editorials for the Philadelphia Daily News.

I told Burgos that, with all due respect, crusty old reporters who weep at the memory of the Daily News would laugh at his hyperbole.

"Among the teenage population of the city," he replied, "I think it carries some truth."

In 1974 Sister Ann Christine Heintz of Chicago, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a former high school journalism teacher, served on a national commission that examined high school journalism. According to the commission's pointedly titled report, Captive Voices, the high school press suffered from suffocating censorship and self-censorship, a lack of minority participation, a lack of serious teaching, and the indifference of professional journalists. Sister Ann responded personally to these conditions. In 1976 she founded Youth Communication, a foundation-backed journalism training program for high school students. Youth Communication soon began publishing New Expression, student written and student edited. Even dropouts were welcome to volunteer.

In 1988, a year before Sister Ann died, the sorry state of high school journalism became even clearer. Affirming the most precious right of every American--the right to be wrong--a divided Supreme Court ruled that public school officials may censor their students' newspapers.

In 1983 the principal of Hazelwood East High School in suburban Saint Louis had yanked articles on divorce and teenage pregnancy from the school paper, the Spectrum. Citing the First Amendment, rebellious students then sued the school. Five years later, vindicated by the nation's highest tribunal, the principal told the Chicago Tribune that in his view student journalists were merely "in their learner's permit stage" and shouldn't expect the freedoms of their "professional counterparts."

The journalism adviser at another suburban Saint Louis school reacted less inanely to the decision. "I can't think of any better program for developing critical thinking than journalism," said Homer Hall of Kirkwood High (my old school, as it happens). "But if that's taken away from students, and all high school journalism is about is reporting on the prom king and queen, we've lost the point of what education is all about."

Words fine and true. But Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier merely protected the right of principals to shrink from conflict; it didn't order them to. What teens need to learn is that journalism's protean resilience is its ultimate strength. If you can't tell the truth where you are, go somewhere else. If there's no somewhere else, start something. Write on a wall if need be.

In Chicago a wall isn't necessary. Muzzled teenagers have been able to write for New Expression.

They're overseen by an adult staff, but from the managing editor on down, the writers and editors have been teenagers. The overwhelming majority of them, like the overwhelming majority of public high school students in Chicago, belong to racial minorities. And the topics they investigate--such as hate crimes, sexually transmitted diseases, and truancy, to name three taken up in the October issue--make principals squirm. Last year a Kenwood Academy senior (now at Medill) wrote a piece on search and seizure for New Expression and a similar piece for her school newspaper. "The principal pulled all the copies of the school paper," says Bill Brooks, New Expression's executive director since last September.

That happens. Former executive director Susan Herr recalls that Lane Tech once "accidentally" mislaid 3,000 copies of the paper that contained an unflattering article on the local school council.

But whatever oxen are gored, the city's public high schools not only permit their students to write for New Expression, they permit themselves, if grudgingly, to be used as distribution points. The paper's even a teaching tool in many classrooms. Every public high school in Chicago gets its quota of New Expression--from 100 to 2,000 copies of each issue--and the balance of the 60,000 copies are passed out to various youth organizations, with a handful going to private and parochial schools.

"The Catholic schools don't like the content we have," says Brooks. "It's too racy for them. We talk about pregnancy and premarital sex and stuff that makes them go crazy. But we can't not discuss things because it frightens people."

Shena Ponder, a Whitney Young senior who's the current fashion editor, virtually flaunts the savvy, ambition, and self-esteem that Sister Ann intended New Expression to develop.

"My sister Carlean used to work for the paper when she was at Whitney Young," Shena told me. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, she's a real reporter. She meets people.' I had no idea teenagers were able to actually meet with famous people and have it printed on a citywide level where everyone's reading it." Shena joined New Expression as a freshman. "My junior year I invented the fashion section. I actually created a part of the newspaper. It's something I don't know any other teen had an opportunity to do. I've worked with people from Marshall Field's, Harper's Bazaar. We've done interviews with Sterling Capricio--he's a Chicago designer--and other key people. Hopefully I want to be at Northwestern next year. My second choice is the University of Chicago, then DePaul. I definitely want to stay in or near Chicago because of the connections I've built up in the fashion industry. I'll probably somehow end up doing a mixture of a lot of things--definitely the fashion industry, which is where I'm most creative, some form of public relations. I just want a career that encompasses everything. I definitely want to make a big name for myself--where if it's anything about fashion they have to know Shena Ponder."

Unfortunately, New Expression is running out of money. The adult staff's been cut back, and the teenagers have stopped receiving the $10 or so they used to get for each article. A couple of bureaus in housing projects were shut down. There's no advertising director--though Brooks would like to find someone willing to work on a straight commission and organize a team of teen account executives. Worse, Brooks took the unprecedented step of cutting back the publication schedule from eight issues a school year to five.

It's like not having deadlines anymore, said Shena Ponder unhappily. "You don't have to go in as often to complete as much work. Before it was almost four days a week. Now it's like we meet once a week, if that."

These are devastating changes for a paper whose professionalism is what students like best about it. "We just had a change in the budget to just under $300,000 a year," Brooks explained. "That's about how much money we are raising. It had been at about the $375,000 level."

Success is no guarantee of permanence. "There's been a lot of push in the public schools for school-to-work programs, and I think we're a good example of that," Brooks said. "There's been a lot of push in the philanthropic community for that kind of idea as well."

Ironic, isn't it, I said, that they're cutting your legs off anyway.

"Well, it is," Brooks said, "but you can't support everybody. I'm angry with it, but I understand it. Corporations and foundations tend to be very project oriented. If you don't have a brand-new fancy project they tend not to give to you year after year. That's why it's so important we stop being dependent on them and start going after earned income. We have not been focusing on that, and it's killing us now. Anybody totally dependent on straight philanthropic grants is going to end up like us."

What now? Brooks and his board have some ideas. They include merging, or at least sharing space with, a compatible organization. Charging for the paper must be considered. Extending circulation into the suburbs is a tantalizing possibility. That would "build bridges of understanding"--as Herr put it--and attract advertisers who underestimate the buying power of, or are just plain scared of, city kids. Herr said suburban kids "are fascinated by kids in the city. In marketing terms they're called the 'influencers.' Suburban kids want to do what city kids do." So she's sure of the suburbs as a market. But foundations don't invest their inner-city dollars in Winnetka.

What about asking the public schools for help? I wondered.

Brooks said, "The unfortunate thing about the Board of Education is they tend to try to overrun anything you do independently. We stand to lose our independent voice by joining up with them. We've done other collaborative projects, and that has occurred each time."

Brooks would like to sit down with schools chief Paul Vallas and look for common ground, but he's wary. "The Supreme Court, through Hazelwood back in '88, feels it's OK for school administrators to censor newspapers produced by teens. And that's something we're not going to allow to happen."

News Bites

A reader called, urging me to "examine and take apart the Tribune endorsement of Bob Dole, which is dubious at best." But what's there to take apart? The Tribune's endorsement of Dole wasn't driven by its understanding of who Dole is but by its certainty of what the Tribune is. It's a paper that every four years measures the Republican candidate by traditional Republican principles and constructs the best argument that can be made for electing him. The Tribune helped create the Republican Party a century and a half ago. It has never endorsed a Democrat for president in its history.

Jon-Henri Damski's been writing poetry. Virtually Incurable, But Not Yet Terminal is a book of sorts bound in a manila folder labeled "X-RAY REPORTS"; it contains 181 poems written during the past few months by the Outlines columnist and self-designated "gay writer/queer thinker." Damski, who has cancer, held court recently at the Belmont bookstore People Like Us, selling his book--which was produced by his friend Michael Vore's Firetrap Press--and collecting checks to help with the rent. Friends are pitching in to see that Damski, despite income following the same course as his health, can stay put in his familiar Belair Hotel. Those friends have included Alderman Bernie Hansen and the 44th Ward Democratic headquarters.

Damski was in fine form. Most of his poems go by in an eye blink, but his riffs on them rambled far and wide. "You have to be dumb and smart to catch onto a poem," he lectured. "Teachers miss it. They aren't dumb enough. Students miss it. They aren't smart enough."

He didn't read some of his most pointed poems, perhaps because he was too happy for them that day, perhaps because they left nothing to be explained. "Suffering" was one such: "In the end / it's just the end for you / and the middle / for everyone else." Damski described a spirited competition he imagines himself in with Cardinal Bernardin to see who lives longer. If the doctors are right, it'll be close.

A roast honoring Damski will be held at 7 PM on November 14 at the AIDSCARE Chapel, 309 W. Barry. Call 773-262-4638 for tickets, which are $50.

Damski on Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who just received the Nobel Prize for literature: "The Nobel Prize committee called her ironically precise," he says. "Actually, she's ironically imprecise. If you're imprecise it increases the irony. I think she's a bad, mad woman and that's good." The committee's own imprecision reminded Damski of his students back at Bryn Mawr, when he was young and teaching Latin poetry there. They weren't dumb, but they were callow. "They were trying to make a linear interpretation of a double vision."

Heretofore unpublished translations of three poems by Szymborska are contained in the current issue of StoryHead, a local literary zine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jon Randolph.

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