Features Editor Kathy Folk has to laugh whenever she reflects on producing the first print edition of Voices, an award-winning tabloid by teens, for teens, and about teens, published every Tuesday in the Reading Eagle print newspaper.
Folk edited the section through its first three years, from 1995 to 1998. She and a page designer, plus eight or 10 novice reporters, had more than four months to fine-tune that first issue. Then reality set in quickly.
“When the edition finally came out, we realised we had to do this every week,” Folk said.
While that task seemed daunting at the outset, the section quickly got up to speed and has been running like clockwork ever since, now under the guiding hand of Stacie Jones, who became its sixth editor in 2008.
Jones oversees a staff of approximately 120 ninth through 12th grade students. Twenty of them are called upon to write a story for each 16-page issue, in exchange for a US$15 stipend.
Leading the way are two senior interns (this year Kyle Edelman and Hunter Gajewski) who log 10 hours per week in the Reading Eagle newsroom. They work side-by-side with professional journalists. They also head up an “executive board” of upperclassmen that brainstorm story ideas each week.
Folk recalls having no more than 30 students involved in the early days, but the section became popular so quickly, attracting what she termed “the best and the brightest.” Before long, they were overflowing the large conference room where monthly staff meetings are held.
“I think the teenagers saw they actually had a way to be a voice in the community, and they could tell stories from their perspective,” Folk said.
To help attract teen readers, the Voices page design leans toward playfulness. Staff photographers’ assignment sheets instruct them to shoot from “funky Voices angles.”
When the Reading Eagle’s Former Editor Chuck Gallagher first conceptualised Voices, the goal was to get high school students not only interested in the news, but also participating in it.
Gallagher reasoned that if you hook readers at a young age, by offering them a product that reflects their lives, they are more likely to become the next generation of newspaper readers.
While the section has maintained its popularity among teens — not to mention their parents and grandparents, who enjoy the peek it offers into the lives and minds of today’s youth — it’s hard to quantify whether Gallagher’s vision has been met. Young adults in Reading, as in most places, have proved to be reluctant subscribers.
The product also has struggled to generate advertising revenue, yet Reading Eagle Company’s commitment has not wavered in its commitment to Voices.
“Voices was developed to share news and address issues that are important to teenagers,” explained Editor Harry J. Deitz Jr., who took the reins when Gallagher retired in 2007. “It’s a publication whose value can’t be measured only by the revenue it generates, because it encourages readership among a young generation.”
Voices has always embraced weighty topics, which has helped it earn four consecutive Sweepstakes Awards, the highest honor in the Keystone Press Awards handed out annually by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. It took first place in the Niche Publications category in 2013 and 2014, and honorable mention in 2011. Voices also was routinely named best teen section in the nation by the Youth Editors Association of America, until it folded in 2011.
Jones rattled off the names of numerous former Voices staffers who have gone on to successful careers in media-related fields, but she maintains that’s not what it’s about for most of the students.
“I find it’s self-expression —that’s what they like,” Jones said. “There are very few budding journalists in the group. It’s self-expression and it’s camaraderie. I think the kids also like having their names and their head shots in print and out there for their friends to see and the people in their school to see. It gives you a little bit of cachet.”