RJI Fellow helps Missouri teens engage with local newspapers to see value, lives in news

News outlets need the buy-in and trust of teens as news targets now and in the future, says Nico Gendron, freelancer and creative strategist at The New York Times.

That inspired her to tackle a fellowship project at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute to help a group of Missouri teens see themselves in news and see the value of news.

“If you see yourself reflected in your local paper or the media overall, you’ll see the media as a resource and news as worth reading,” says Gendron.

She says she believes there’s no better way to see the value of news and see oneself in it than to develop a story from start to finish. During the first part of her fellowship, Gendron is connecting local community newspapers with students from five Missouri high schools — four of which don’t have a student newspaper — to help students publish a story in their local paper.

This project “gives students an opportunity to engage with the community’s newspaper where the student gets a better understanding of the newspaper’s role and importance in the community,” says Gary Castor, managing editor of Central Missouri Newspapers, which owns the Fulton Sun and California Democrat, two of Gendron’s newspaper partners

The final part of her fellowship will include conducting a text messaging survey with the students to learn more about their news consumption habits, which could be useful to news outlets interested in reaching a geographically diverse Generation Z audience. She says she’s curious to see if the school that does have a student newspaper creates an environment where students are more interested in producing and consuming news.

Missouri teens don’t always see themselves in national news, a key moment for local news

During an informal survey of the Missouri teens, Gendron says she learned that they don’t see themselves in pop culture like teen publications or large legacy outlets. They primarily see themselves painted in a stereotypical light such as “poor, ignorant and uncultured Midwesterners,” she says.

Teens aren’t the only ones who don’t see themselves in large legacy media outlets, says Gendron. The 2016 presidential election revealed that there are often bubbles when it comes to coverage of the country, and the middle of the country isn’t always covered as well by the larger legacy outlets, she says. Trump’s win shocked some coastal publications like The New York Times that had predicted Clinton would win, she says. But as she’s learned, it’s hard to report on a community when you’re not from there.

The teens in the survey indicated that they see themselves in their local media more, particularly if they are in sports or another school activity that the newspaper might cover.

“I believe coverage of city governments and school districts should be the heart and soul of a community newspaper’s coverage plan,” says Castor. “From that, you can build strong feature and expanded coverage of other areas such as business and healthcare.”

Survey about news consumption habits

As part of her fellowship project Gendron is interested in learning more about the news and information consumption habits from the students including things like their “go to” websites and social media platforms, the kinds of information they like to consume, and what they do with that information they consume.

According to 2017 research by Marketing Charts, 49 percent of teens (13-18) indicated that they consumed news on social media the day before the survey, with the highest source being Facebook at 47 percent followed by YouTube at 14 percent and Twitter at 13 percent. Forty-seven percent said they got news from family members the day before the survey and indicated they had more trust in family (65 percent) than news outlets (about 25 percent).

She will conduct the text messaging survey with the help of GroundSource, a 2016-17 RJI Fellowship partner, which previously worked with the 100 Days in Appalachia project and surveyed hundreds of high schoolers in West Virginia through text messages.

Beyond the fellowship

Gendron wants to help pave the way for more students, especially those from schools without a student newspaper, to publish stories and learn about the value of the news and journalism.

She learned from a survey that her fellowship team conducted of teachers about why they didn’t have a student newspaper. Survey participants said one reason they felt the school didn’t have a newspaper was because their schools were small and they didn’t know if they’d have enough interest to sustain a newspaper. However, she also learned that 78 percent of survey participants believed at least some of the students would be interested in reporting news.

She’s finalizing a proposal to get funding for a program that would connect one or two students with their local newspaper where they would work with a writer or editor mentor. She says this could be a good solution for students who want to produce news, but aren’t able to because of a lack of a student newspaper.


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