Over the tapping of laptop keyboards and the crunch of snacks being eaten, there’s a lively discussion underway on topics ranging from what to do when a source won’t return calls, to how to report on the use of "the n- word." But this isn’t one of the city’s many professional newsrooms, and the participants aren’t seasoned scribes. Instead, it’s the basement of a nonprofit organization in the West Bronx, where local teens are learning the ins and outs of journalism.

They’re members of the first class of the West Bronx Youth Journalism Initiative, a new program designed to expose Bronx high school students to journalism and teach them basic reporting skills – as well as to give the young people a voice. “From what we were hearing, not a lot of high schools in the Bronx had student papers,” said James Fergusson, the Initiative's program coordinator, as well as editor of the Mount Hope Monitor. “So you have all these potentially great reporters not getting a chance to do it.”

(For more on the decline of student newspapers in New York City, see Black And White And Forgotten All Over?, City Limits Weekly #604, Sept. 10, 2007.)

Last week, students were busy at work on their last projects of the term, from a photo essay about Jerome Avenue to a look at the first Christian hip-hop concert in the metro New York area, and even editorials in support of the various presidential candidates. The pieces will be published in the May issue of “Bronx Youth Heard,” a new English/Spanish supplement that appears in the three papers of the Bronx News Network: the Norwood News, the Highbridge Horizon and the Mount Hope Monitor, which have a combined circulation of about 25,000.

“Newspapers can often be dry and formulaic,” said Fergusson. “We wanted to inject some different voices in there.” He said he’s gotten good initial feedback from the community on the first issue, which ran in April, and has plans for two more issues in the fall. After that, “Bronx Youth Heard” will become a quarterly publication.
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Many students expressed pride and excitement at seeing their name and picture next to their work in the first issue. “It was, like, amazing,” said 16-year-old Daniel Silvera, a student at the Community School for Social Justice, who wrote about the need for a public middle school in Highbridge. “I gave the paper to people in school, in church. They said now I’m famous.”

The group of a dozen students – who had to apply to the program, and began meeting in February – gets together every Wednesday afternoon in a residential building owned by the Mount Hope Housing Company, a local nonprofit that provides not only classroom space but also laptops and an office for Fergusson. The initiative itself is funded through a grant from the New York Foundation, and run by Mosholu Preservation Corporation (MPC), a Bronx-based nonprofit that also operates the West Bronx News Network.

MPC president Dart Westphal, who spoke to the class last week, sees the youth journalism initiative as an extension of his organization’s other efforts to promote community journalism in the Bronx. It was about 20 years ago that MPC started to wonder, “How do you have a viable, livable neighborhood without just fixing up the buildings?” he said. The answer: “Let’s start a newspaper.” Westphal thinks local news strengthens civic engagement and makes for a better community overall, but had been missing from the neighborhoods of the West Bronx for many years.

According to Bronx Community Board 5 district manager Xavier Rodriguez, local residents have responded positively to the Mount Hope Monitor and other offerings from the West Bronx News Network. "It's very important for a community like ours to have a paper that can talk about the issues residents care about," Rodriguez said. He thinks there's still a lot of potential for the newspaper to encourage civic engagement: from publicizing community meetings and events, to communicating important information to residents and merchants. And the new youth journalism initiative is a great addition, he said, as it offers a unique opportunity to hear what young people in the community have to say.

The journalism classes focus on teaching the fundamentals of writing, reporting and interviewing, as well as explaining the important role of the news media in communities large and small. “I’ve learned a lot about using computers, and writing, and I’m more aware of the news,” said 17-year-old Alexandra Leon, who attends the Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies and is working on a story about the city's Summer Youth Employment Program. Students also said that the class has helped them to address issues that both they and the readers find important and interesting.

The students visited the City University of New York School of Journalism earlier in the term, and heard from guest speakers like David Gonzalez, a city news reporter for The New York Times. “We were trying to show [the students] that a career in journalism is possible for someone from the Bronx,” said Fergusson. Students who complete the program, which ends this week, will also be given a digital camera as a gift. Other students will take their place in the fall, however, as the Initiative's goal is to publish Bronx Youth Heard once per quarter.

Fergusson says it’s more than just reporting skills that the students have developed. When they first started the program, many of the students were hesitant to voice their opinions in front of the class, he said. Now almost three months later, the teens have much more self-confidence, and actively share and learn with one another. They’ve gotten so close that they’re meeting at one student’s house for a class dinner in the coming weeks.

While several students in the class are either undecided or don’t plan on pursuing journalism as a career, others are already looking forward to their next opportunity in the field. One student is applying for a two-week journalism workshop in Illinois, while another says she’d eventually like to write for a fashion magazine. For his part, Luis Rivera, 17, has been busy asking colleges about their journalism programs and school newspapers; he wants to be a newspaper reporter. “Writing to make a difference is really big,” Rivera said. “It’s a good feeling, the fact that you might be changing someone’s life without even knowing it.”

- Tram Whitehurst