OK, everyone. If you're reading this, you're a newspaper reader. If you're a newspaper reader, you know that the industry is in crisis. That daily newspapers, like General Motors, are endangered not just by a brutal economy but also by decades of top-level greed, hubris and bad management. That the decline of newspapers threatens democracy itself. Though you can't yet accept it, you know that the unstoppable march of technology will — will — make newsprint obsolete, no matter how much you like it spread out across a table with your coffee in the morning.
Here's a little story to make you feel better.
It's 8:20 in the morning on a miserable late-winter day at Chester A. Franklin Elementary School. The building, at 3400 Highland, probably isn't the worst in the Kansas City School District, but it's no magnet. Classrooms don't have doors; instead, metal partitions separate learning areas from hallways. Katie Boody, a 22-year-old math teacher, has put up posters of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Martin Luther King Jr. and Duke Ellington. She has hung slogans on the wall — "We Will Succeed"; "We Are Diligent"; and, in 3-foot letters cut from purple and orange construction paper, "R-E-S-U-L-T-S." The motivational decorations can't hide the grungy pink paint.
It's Boody's first year as a teacher. The Prairie Village native graduated with an English degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham, then finished a five-week "boot camp" and joined 49 other recent grads in the city's first wave of Teach for America recruits, all committed to teach for two years in high-poverty communities.
"I graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School," she says. "I hated Johnson County and suburban people. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to teach in urban schools."
She figured it would be tough. But, she admits, "It's a million times more difficult in every way — it's physically and emotionally draining."
Franklin, built for kindergartners through fifth-graders, now has sixth- and seventh-graders; next year, eighth-graders will join them. "We have no lockers, no bell system, no passing period, no doors," Boody says. No education course prepares a teacher for managing middle-schoolers who suddenly show up in what's supposed to be a grade school.
She hadn't planned to be a math teacher, either. She put in a request to teach English, but the only thing open was math. "There's a huge shortage of math and science teachers in the country," she says. "Fortunately, sixth- and seventh-grade math isn't too hard."
Out of the 50 kids in her math classes, not one tested proficient when she started. Now, three are proficient, and 15 others are within range. But that's another story.
Right now, this morning, a camera has arrived.
Every day, before school officially starts, there's an "advisement" period. To fill the time, Boody basically had to make up a class. "I thought, What can I do?" Having freelanced as a journalist during college, she decided that her sixth- and seventh-graders would put out a paper.
They had to start from scratch. "We had two computers, no printer." She hijacked four computers from other classrooms and scraped up some cameras. Before they could use the equipment, though, they had to learn the fundamentals. They spent the first quarter just reading.
"We read The Star because it was donated," Boody says, "The Call because C.A. Franklin is named after the founder, The Pitch because it's free."
Let's not kid ourselves about what a dozen or so middle-schoolers can accomplish in half an hour before school. It can take more than five minutes just to get everyone settled and another five at the end to get them all sitting still just so Boody can dismiss them. As in many newsrooms, half the staff just sits around yapping with deskmates. On a good day, an especially focused kid can get in maybe 20 minutes of writing.
This morning, the Nikon Coolpix is finally here. A few kids gather at a cluster of desks to open the box. Someone mentions the MAP tests, state assessment tests that are coming up in a couple of weeks.
A student in a green hoodie, Daniel, grabs the camera, looks through the screen and starts programming it for daylight saving time and the date.
"Do they say anything about pictures?"
"On the MAP test? No," Boody says, smiling.
The kids understand that the camera might teach them something at least as important as what's on the statewide tests.
A seventh-grader named Octavia is writing a story about advisement classes. She tells the camera crew to go take pictures of other classes. One kid in a gray-and-black starter jacket is snapping pictures of other girls writing at their computers.
"Ms. Boody! Ms. Boody! My computer just died!"
"Go take a bunch of really good pictures of Ms. Ford's class," Boody says over the din.
Octavia and Kevinisha, another seventh-grader, keep typing until the last possible minute.
At the first of this year, Boody called for reinforcements from Jennifer Harris, an old friend from high school, now editor of Johnson County Community College's Campus Ledger. Harris and her staff started showing up at Franklin a few mornings a week.
"When we went in, the kids were very mistrustful," Harris says. "They didn't seem interested in us being there. They were unruly, like, 'You can't tell me what to do.'"
But they were excited about putting out a newspaper. Eventually, Harris says, "They realized we were there to help them grow, not be a threatening authority figure."
Skip forward to a sunny Friday afternoon in May. School is out for the day, but the Ledger's photographers are on the playground with photographers from Boody's class.
In a fenced-off area surrounding a big, bright plastic swing set, John Young is carefully showing his mentees how to frame portraits of kids playing.
"Are y'all puttin' our pictures in the newspaper?" yells a kid who's hanging on a swinging tire.
There's no picture of the swinging-tire kid when the Voice of the Tigers comes out May 21. The big art on the front page is a camera lens: an eye turned back on its readers, as any great newspaper should be. This issue is in tabloid format, eight pages. Writers' bylines are first-name-only, to protect their privacy; after all, they're just kids.
But clearly, the freedom of the press is alive and well at Franklin School.
In Octavia's front-page story about advisement classes, one student, Myeshia, has a problem with Mr. Trice's "recycling and chess" class, saying it's about neither and "should be educational like other advisements."
Octavia has another front-page story slugged, "Calling all parents, lend your support."
"Students are not behaving well at this school and we need more support from the parents at home," she reports. "How are we going to get work done, if we continue to play around and waste time? Students, we need to get our MAP scores up. Parents, if we get your support we may be able to increase our scores. I bet you think your kids are on their best behavior at school. I'm sorry, but you're thinking wrong."
On page two, Kevinisha has a piece about what students can do to fight global warming. DeAndre plugs the upcoming talent show: "The 816 Swaggerz are going to rap their original songs including 'Let's Cupcake' and '2 Fresh.' I think you should come to the talent show because we have talent and we want to share it with you."
Elsewhere, Antoinette writes a story about how "Paying attention has its rewards." And Blanca has a Q&A with the principal, Mamie Keith, about when Ms. Keith calls security: "I call security if the students are fighting and out of control. [I call] for a weapon or a simulated weapon. I will call them for drugs, irate people, whether it's parents or staff," Keith says.
Dominating other pages are four-color photos — of the neighborhood; of girls practicing for the talent show; of the patterns of light on playground equipment.
On the morning the paper comes out, Boody presses her unwieldy staffers to critique their work.
The students like the stories; they like the pictures. Leslie is disappointed that the story she worked so hard on didn't run (welcome to the club, sister). They plan a trip downtown to show the school board what they've done. They talk about distributing papers at the candy store (Midtown Groceries and Liquor) on the corner.
"We should put some downtown," one student says, "so if people have coffee and a doughnut, they can read it!"
"We should put it on the Plaza — they'll pay good money for it there!"
Yeah, we're all wondering how much money a newspaper is worth these days.
But Harris believes there's a future in journalism for these kids and hopes some of them have been inspired.
"Telling stories about your neighborhood makes you an advocacy journalist," she notes. "For a lot of these kids, their neighborhoods are disgusting. There's garbage everywhere. We have kids whose relatives have been shot or killed. The first thing most of them wanted to write about was violence and how the school system is failing them. There's no order maintained in the classrooms. A lot of them face bullying and threats — real threats. Not just 'I'm going to beat you up on the playground after school,' but 'I'm going to shoot you sometime,' or 'You're going to regret making that comment because my friends are going to come get you.'"
One day, she adds, "They can go back to their neighborhoods and say, 'This is where I started. Even at 10 years old, I pointed out the flaws of this community.' And then, as an adult with a college education, they can show what's happening and how we can change it."
Octavia, the one with the two front-page stories, says she'll probably keep writing (even though she wants to be a veterinarian). "When I was little, in another grade, I used to have my stories on the wall. Some people say I should write books, but I don't know if I want to."
Stories on the wall. Possible books. Journalism will live on.