THE BRONX — Holding on to brand-new reporter notebooks adorned with stickers of the First Amendment, a group of Bronx teenagers took to the streets around the Grand Concourse recently to do the one thing they had always been taught not to do: talk to strangers.
Timidly at first, they approached other teens, security guards and shoppers, asking for their thoughts on the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program.
“It was scary,” Natalie Mendez, 15, said after speaking to a boy who described his own encounter with police. “It’s challenging to talk to people. They talk so fast, my handwriting got really sloppy.”
The exercise last Thursday was part of "Bronx Youth Heard" — formerly the "Bronx Youth Journalism Initiative" — a free after-school program for Bronx high school students run by the Norwood News, one of the borough’s few local newspapers. Every semester, students learn the ropes of reporting from professional journalists, and take to the streets to document the issues most pressing to them.
“There was nothing else like this going on in The Bronx,” said Jordan Moss, a former editor of the Norwood News who founded the program in 2008 aiming to encourage students “to open up their eyes more as they walked around.”
The interviews on Thursday were a first for the teens, as The Bronx is the borough with the least school newspapers, according to a 2009 survey by the New York City High School Journalism Program. Only 32 percent of Bronx high schools polled had one, compared to 58 percent in Manhattan and 86 percent in Queens.
“The Bronx is also the borough with the least community newspapers,” said Katina Paron, a journalism education specialist and an instructor for the program. "Community news creates a culture of information and civic engagement and if that is not part of the fabric of a neighborhood then it increases the obstacles and challenges of student journalism.”
Paron armed students with a few tips before sending them off to report: Make eye contact, carry yourself professionally and listen to what people have to say. “Never ask, 'Can I ask you a question?' Just ask the question," Paron advised. "And don’t be giggly.”
Quedus Babalola, 17, who lives near the Grand Concourse, dreams of a career in journalism.
“I always wanted to do it. My dad told me to get an internship at CNN and my school counselor told me about this program,” he said, adding that he still plans to land at CNN eventually.
Mendez said she tried to start a newspaper at her school, but not enough students signed up.
“I like asking people for their opinion,” Mendez said after gathering the required five quotes. “And giving voice to the voiceless. I like that.”
Other students said they joined the program to improve their writing skills for college application essays.
“They want to be here, they know it’s a great opportunity and they take advantage of it,” said Paron. “I don’t necessarily want them to be journalists. I want to help them understand the world around them.”
Back in the classroom, the students held an editorial meeting over pizza and brainstormed stories ranging from the cost of SAT books and the correlation of fast foods and obesity in The Bronx, to the lack of recreational spaces for teens and the history of twerking.
They learned about the meaning of “news value” and “human interest” and talked about media stereotypes of their borough.
“When you watch the news it’s mostly negative stuff — people find the positive stuff boring,” said Rosannie Calderon, 15, who pitched a story about the introduction of metal scanners at her younger brother’s middle school.
The students’ stories will be published as a supplement to the Norwood News at the end of the semester. But some past participants never put their notebooks down.
Michael Brown, 18, wasn’t planning a career in journalism when he joined the program last spring, but he’s now back at the Norwood News as an intern and recently landed a cover story.
“Not enough people write about The Bronx, and when they do it’s about crime,” he said. “I like to find out about people’s stories, their beliefs, their lives. I like finding out what’s going on in the community.”
The initiative, which was originally funded through a $35,000 grant by the New York Foundation, has faced fickle funding, and last year’s fall session was canceled because of a lack of money, said Alex Kratz, current editor of the Norwood News and co-instructor of the class.
“We’ve been limping along for the past couple years,” he said.
He has secured some funding from the North Star Foundation and the Department of Youth and Community Development, and support from local City Council members, but he also hopes to launch a website to showcase students’ work.
“Now we have money for fall and spring, but then we’ll have to start looking again,” Kratz said, adding that the program gets free space at Hostos Community College. “We can get by on a pretty shoestring budget, just having instructors and some notebooks.”