What Does It Mean to be Youth Driven?

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When you’ve been doing something for 20 years, if you’re not careful, you can go on auto-pilot.

Compared to other fields, the risk of stagnation may be less of a concern in a digital media context that never stands still. But even so, at Youth Radio, periodically we step back to reflect on our process of collaborative production that’s been developing here over the past 20+ years. To keep us on our toes.

The launch of the Innovation Lab has given us lots of opportunities to assess how we typically do things, because we’re having to create new systems and practices. Until Fall of 2013, Youth Radio’s Newsroom and App Lab operated as separate programs. With the Innovation Lab, we’re collaborating. Young people co-produce stories that combine the journalism we’re known for with “bits of technology” (news apps, interactive info graphics, maps, etc.) that bring the story alive and invite our readers/viewers/listeners to personalize and participate in the narrative. All of it–the reporting, the design, the development–is done by youth in partnership with peers and adult professional colleagues.

In the process of inventing new methods, we’re also revisiting what we do everyday. Last month, the production company staff had a day-long retreat. As part of the agenda, we took up the question: What do we mean when we say we’re a “youth-driven” newsroom? As a way to make our answers concrete, we did a brief scan of other models for youth programming. We talked about:

  • Youth-run projects: with less of a focus than our newsroom has on youth-adult collaboration
  • Youth development initiatives: with less of a focus on generating professional-grade products than we have here
  • Traditional workforce initiatives: where the most important outcome is placement in a job site
  • Token youth involvement: where young people are engaged in only superficial ways to make a project appear credible

With the exception of that last option, which we do everything we can to avoid, there are strong elements of all the other approaches across Youth Radio. (For example, our Pathways program  seeks to place young adults into sustainable careers.) But in our newsroom, we face a distinct set of circumstances, opportunities and pressures that have led to our development of a youth-driven approach.

What does that look like in action? We explored that question together by organizing our conversation around a set of scenarios. Each brings into relief at least one of the pressures that can, if we’re not careful, pull us off our youth-driven model. For those of you who collaborate with youth on hands-on joint productions, whether in the context of media making, or citizen-science, or community campaigns, it might be useful to consider your big pressures and scenarios your teams can use to talk through what to do to stay true to your particular version of youth-driven activity.

Pressure #1: Deadlines

We’re working on a feature that we’ve pitched to a national outlet, and they’re interested. Collaborating with a producer, a newsroom intern has collected all the tape, including scenes and interviews with young people and an analyst. Then a related news story breaks that gets the outlet excited about getting our piece on quickly. The editor calls and asks to see something by the next morning. The young person on the story can’t come in that afternoon. What do you do? How far do you take the story in the young person’s absence?

Pressure #2: Skills

We’ve put together a strong script and sent it over to an editor, who likes it but asks for a lot more information establishing the scale of the issue we’re highlighting. The editor wants more data and a sense of the debates relevant to our issue. Answering those kinds of questions would require wading through research publications and public databases, and probably talking to a series of experts representing diverse schools of thought. What role should the young person play in that process, if this is the first big story they’re working on?

Pressure #3: Stakes

Let’s say we’ve been working forever, it seems, trying to find a character in a really sensitive story. Several prior candidates have dropped out after talking to us once or twice. It seemed like they were ambivalent about sharing their experiences. What role should young people play in finding leads and tapping their own networks of family members and friends? How important is it for them to be the ones to make the contacts and have the conversations leading to getting someone to go on record? What does that process look like, for the young people in our program and for the story’s possible sources?


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