For today’s teens, a politics website of their own

They’re more engaged in politics than Generation X was – and are looking for ways to voice their views.

By , Staff writer

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    High school student Connor Toohill of San Diego launched NextGenJournal.com with his friends and spent about four hours a day this summer running his opinion-centered site.
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Connor Toohill and his friends get so stirred up about public issues that they draw fellow airplane passengers into debates and informal polls on the way home from Model United Nations conferences.

It's a side of teenagers that many adults don't see, they say, much less turn to for input during lofty discussions about how education, healthcare, and government deficits will affect the "next generation."

But now they've launched a website to give voice to their own up-and-coming cohort. Since July 4, NextGenJournal.com has been publishing opinion pieces and interactive discussions by teens and 20-somethings, with topics ranging from domestic and global politics to sports and culture.

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"We didn't have a forum so we decided to create it," says Connor, now a senior at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. The site welcomes views from all sides of the political spectrum. "We're not letting a certain ideology dictate what we post," he says.

The site is perhaps another indicator that today's youths – coming of age doing public service projects and flexing their muscle in the presidential election – expect to make a difference in their world.

"Young people ... have found a way to communicate what they care about through technology, through social networks, through text-messaging ... and to pressure each other and encourage each other to care about things," says Erica Anderson, a young freelance journalist who covered election news for MTV and whose own website, Erica-America.com, fits into the trend. NextGenJournal and other youth-focused sites, she says, are "the beginning of something very huge."

In addition to countering those who may think today's young adults are apathetic or ignorant, NextGenJournal strives to create a space for civil and open-minded exchange.

"From what I've found, quads of high schools and [college] campuses are not good places for political discussion, because you kind of end up just getting into arguments and name-calling," says Thomas Grant, editor of the site's business and technology section and a new student at Notre Dame.

Mr. Grant, a libertarian, has had first-hand experience with passions building up on both sides of a debate. "Considering that our generation is eventually going to be the leaders in America ... we have to learn to cool our tempers a little bit and have open discussion without hostility," he says.

A study of college students in 2007 found among this millennial generation much more interest in political exchange and engagement than Generation-X students had in the early 1990s. But it also noted that many were turned off by the polarized atmosphere they often saw around politics. Students also reported feeling overwhelmed by the quantity of news and opinion sources, and said they didn't trust many of them.

One conclusion particularly suggests potential for sites such as NextGenJournal: "They are eager for opportunities to talk about issues with a diverse group of people in open and authentic ways," notes the study, conducted by CIRCLE, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., has tried to tap into that hunger through this summer's reading assignment for first-year students. They were asked to read a newspaper (or news website) regularly and post articles and commentary to a shared blog. After seeing students' insights and interests, some faculty have found themselves tweaking the way they plan to teach this semester.

How to give a voice to young people's opinions has long been a challenge for traditional forms of media.

"The main problem ... is that you always get the ‘good' kids ... [who are] trying to act like miniature adults," says Ken Sands, a former newspaper editorial board member and, until recently, executive editor for innovation at Congressional Quarterly in Washington. If the founders of NextGenJournal follow that pattern, he says, he doubts they'll attract many readers and contributors.

But Mr. Sands does see strong potential in opinion posts that connect a public issue to a young writer's personal experience. On NextGenJournal.com, for instance, a pre-med student tells how befriending a patient at a clinic for the uninsured has shaped his views of the healthcare debate.

About a dozen people – Connor's classmates and friends of friends – have been editing posts from several dozen contributors so far, and as they head back to school or to college campuses this fall, they hope to broaden the site's reach. Its Facebook page had about 250 fans by late August, and they're using other social networking sites as well to spread the word.

Clearly it's a labor of love for Connor and the core editors, who have spent three to four hours a day this summer running the site. But they have plenty in common with less politically engaged teens, too, like having to negotiate parental concerns.

"They definitely are worried that I'll start to neglect school or college applications," Connor says of his parents, "but I think as we move forward and hopefully grow more successful with this, [they'll see] it will be a good thing."

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