“Every day I help hard-working, smart (at-times brilliant), talented, driven, creative exceptional students from totally different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds turn their ideas and feelings into powerful, provocative and/or hilarious narratives and opinion pieces. . . . I guess when you passionately believe in what you’re doing you don’t necessarily see it as risky. Honestly, to me not doing L.A. Youth would be more of a risk, in that not doing L.A. Youth would mean relying on someone else to help teens express their ideas and share their experiences in ways that could help others, particularly adults, better understand them . . . It’s incredibly fulfilling to help the students discover their confidence and realize that their ideas matter . . . . ” Mike Fricano, editor, L.A. Youth in an April, 2009, Media Giraffe Project interview.
L.A. Youth Editor Mike Fricano's most proud of a simple achievement – for 21 years, the paper has remained true to its original mission of providing teens an uncensored platform for their ideas.
L.A. Youth was founded on January 12, 1988, on the same day the Supreme Court handed down the decision in the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case. The decision held that public- school curricular student newspapers that have not been established as forums of student expression are not subject to full protection under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That is, principals and school administrators could effectively censor most student newspapers. Thus, the foundation on which L.A. Youth was built is that it gives teens the freedom they can no longer get in school.
"The purpose has always been to provide teens with an uncensored forum to discuss the ideas that provoke, anger, amuse, confuse and influence them," says Fricano. "We've written about everything from teen pregnancy and abortion to how gay students are harassed to how school starts too early and lots of cultural and racial identity pieces."
From origins as a few kids sitting around a kitchen L.A. Youth has become the largest independent, teen-written newspaper in the country with a circulation of 120,000 copies of each issue, It's printed six times during the school year. L.A. Youth also has a website, which was launched in the late '90s. It, too, has grown from being simply a web version of the paper to include exclusive web content like reviews and reactions to breaking news.
Mike Fricano is a native of Amherst, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo. He has a bachelor's degree in philosophy with a history minor from the University of Arizona and a master's degree in journalism from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He then spent four years with the dailyTimes Union in Albany, N.Y., covering both rural and suburban communities in the metro-Albany area. It was then that Fricano went to Southern California and hopped on board at L.A. Youth.
The job was a serendipitous find for Fricano, but one that landed him in a position to do exactly what he always wanted to do. "Every day I help hard-working, smart (at times brilliant), talented, driven, creative exceptional students from totally different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds turn their ideas and feelings into powerful, provocative and/or hilarious narratives and opinion pieces," he says. Furthermore, the paper lets young writers see that their ideas really do matter. Fricano says they try their hardest to make sure politicians see the writers' stories.
The paper also gets letters to the editor, which reinforce the work of the writers. Fricano tells of one particular instance: "We had nearly a dozen students write in and say they would stop using the word 'gay' as a generally derogatory word after one of our writers wrote about her challenge to get people she knows to stop using 'gay' as a substitute for 'stupid'." Clearly, the paper is creating change in the community.
L.A. Youth is and always has been independent. It is a registered non-profit and relies mainly on foundation grants and donations. The Los Angeles Times, has donated printing services to L.A. Youth for nearly 20 years. In the context of the economic downturn, Fricano says he hopes the paper's track record alone is a good reason for people who produce the media to continue to ensure the paper's survival.
"There will always continue to be an appetite for interesting stories from this traditionally under-represented group," says Fricano. "We're constantly hearing from teachers about how L.A. Youth is the one thing that their students will read and even swipe from the classroom because they're so engaged by its honesty and authenticity."
That honesty and authenticity is one of the major risks Fricano acknowledges that the paper takes. The paper is not subject to prior review from any administrators, so they write about virtually anything in which the writers are interested – teen pregnancy, abortion, birth control, homosexuality, sexual abuse, domestic violence, gangs, drug use and any number of other subjects that have caused problems for scholastic publications.
But the paper holds its writers to the same standards of accuracy, fairness and ethics as any other professional publication to avoid legal risks. Despite the obvious risks associated with such serious content, the paper is bound by what Fricano says is an even greater risk. "Honestly, to me not doing L.A. Youth would be more of a risk." He says without L.A. Youth, young people would have to rely on someone else to express their ideas and share their experiences.
What's more, L.A. Youth encourages responsibility, which Fricano says is democracy in its purest form. Although most of the paper's readers are not old enough to vote, the paper still covers elections and current events, albeit through the eyes of teens. Fricano says that for any 'even-though-you-cannot-vote-you-should-still-care' piece, more than enough writers will volunteer. "Our students write about why they care, how they stay informed and compare their attitudes before and after they had their political awakenings," says Fricano. "Our hope is that our readers will identify with similar experiences."
Mike Fricano lives by one of the fundamental freedoms of this nation, coincidentally, the same freedom that gave birth to L.A. Youth. Twenty-one years ago, the founder saw that this freedom was being ripped out of the grasp of one of the segments of the population that may benefit from it the most, and Mike Fricano and L.A. Youth work to this day to ensure that that freedom stays within reach for Los Angeles' youth.