WHEN 26 blacks and Hispanics filed a $5.2 million lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department for alleged abuse in June, the story made national headlines. But when reporters for such media giants as Time and ABC-TV's ``Good Morning America'' searched local newspapers for details, they came up wanting. What they found instead was an investigative cover story by a 16-year-old Filipino-American. Entitled ``Do Police Abuse Teens?'' the article, which took five months to produce, was full of interviews with alleged victims, church and civic leaders, lawyers, Federal Bureau of Investigation and local sheriff's office officials, and top police department brass.
The story appeared in L.A. Youth, a bimonthly publication put out by about 100 high school students - 80 percent of them minority - from across Los Angeles County. Now in its third year, the paper is part of a growing network of teen-produced newspapers that began in Chicago in 1977.
Seven member newspapers and 13 bureaus participate in the Washington-based Youth News Service. Eighty percent of the service's volunteer student journalists are minorities.
Its purpose: to help correct the disparity in the number of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians working in professional print media, now hovering at 7 percent nationwide.
With less than a dozen editions under its belt, L.A. Youth is more than just a hot item in the 97 local high schools that circulate its 50,000-copy press runs. It is beginning to win awards.
``[L.A. Youth] covers the Los Angeles youth scene better than regular newspapers cover the adult scene,'' says Dan Auiler, a teacher and journalism instructor at Franklin High School in Los Angeles. ``Students here really want to read what L.A. Youth has to say because it addresses the things they are interested in, and isn't afraid to back away from anything.''
As a nonprofit, educational institution, L.A. Youth is backed by mentors in local universities, the Los Angeles Times, and some national publications. Though its circulation is small by some standards, it would be 200,000, observers say, if the publishers' meager resources - annual grant support of about $158,000 - let them print more copies.
``[L.A. Youth] is serving a very serious role as a vehicle for students who lost their high school newspapers to Prop. 13 [tax cuts],'' says Bob Rawitch, executive editor of the Times's San Fernando Valley edition, who serves on the board of directors of L.A. Youth. Mr. Rawitch spent the summer of 1979 in minority recruitment for the Times and concluded that the industry was doing little to promote interest or training in journalism. When L.A. Youth appeared in 1988 to help fill the gap, he lent his support.
`IT'S teaching kids what newspapering is all about, exciting them about self-expression, and allowing them to report about what they care about as opposed to what their parents care about,'' Rawitch says.
Besides the police abuse story, a 1988 cover exposed the big business of psychiatric facilities that commit teenagers against their will. A coming edition has enlisted a judge's cooperation to look behind resignations at the local Department of Children's Services. And there is far more than investigative reporting: news (jobs programs, teen legislation); personal essays (dating, responsible sex); interviews (Jasmine Guy, Dennis Hopper); editorials (gangs, homelessness); and point/counterpoint (affirmative action, steroid use).
``I call our goal `civic literacy,''' says Donna Myrow, the English teacher-cum-executive-director of L.A. Youth. ``Teens should understand public policy and be able to articulate the issues of their society.''
``Students are quite taken with [the newspaper] because it meets them where they are,'' says Debbie Levine, a teacher at Paul Revere Junior High in Los Angeles. ``There is a freedom to get involved in not only the controversial, but the very personal.''
``It's very good. It has a lot of stuff you wouldn't see in normal papers or other high school papers,'' says Dawn Raycraft, now a freshman at California State University at Northridge. L.A. Youth ``lets its writers do a lot of topics like violence and drug sales that get censored at high school newspapers.''
In one edition, Pedro Arroyo, a freshman at California Polytechnic at San Luis Obispo, writes of missing his grandmother's tortillas in East Los Angeles. In another, Kelly Thompson writes a very personal account of the date rape of a friend, who was later murdered.
``The L.A. Times is not going to print an article from a teenage girl's point of view about a good friend who was raped and killed,'' Thompson says. ``If we don't ... who will?''
The take-you-there style is an L.A. Youth trademark.
``There I was, feeling like Alice in Wonderland, totally overwhelmed and lost - in the world of auto insurance,'' writes Michelle Sweeney.
On a facing page, Josie Valderrama tells of walking into an L.A. Gear shareholders meeting: ``My head began to spin. People were speaking in a foreign language and I was the only one who didn't understand. Strange images of things called cyclical companies, cash flows and dividends floated past me.''
According to Ms. Myrow, the current edition, which includes an eight-page supplement on money management, has attracted more comment than any other. ``It's so ironic because we've covered everything from AIDS and alcohol to drug abuse - the usual sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll - but [teens] also want to know how much things cost, and how they can get them,'' she says.
``For the most part, kids are shy and are used to having their opinions undervalued and dismissed because they are in transition to adulthood,'' adds Elizabeth Hartigan, editorial advisor. ``This is empowering to both readers and writers because we are taking their experiences seriously.''
ABOUT 20 staff writers are listed in the masthead of any given edition, but about 100 students are working on stories, according to Myrow. The ``newsroom'' is a 500-square-foot turret in an older building on Wilshire Boulevard. Rent is $720 per month. Equipment now consists of two phones, two typewriters, and one Macintosh computer.
For the most part, students have to take the bus from the far reaches of Los Angeles. And they have to fit newspaper work around school, jobs, and other activities. Kelly Thompson's ride is 90 minutes each way from San Fernando Valley. Besides time after school, she and others give up Saturdays, Sundays, and weekdays in the summer months.
``It gets hectic here,'' says former editor Josie Valderrama, author of the police abuse story who has also done copy editing, layout, and photography. ``Sometimes you have to wait for the computer or the phone, but it all gets done.''
Midway through writing her cover story, Ms. Valderrama enlisted the help of mentor Sue Horton, an author and instructor of journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. ``She gave me all the basics,'' Valderrama says. ``How to get sources to talk, how to write a lead, how to write a `nut graph' [a paragraph distilling all the important points of the story].''
Some mentors make themselves available at home or jobs. Others consolidate remarks for special seminars. Coming soon: Time's Sylvester Monroe will speak at a local hotel about interviewing artists.
The lack of minority journalism training came into focus in 1975, when a commission conducted by the Robert Kennedy Memorial Foundation, looked into the quality of high school programs nationwide. The low percentage of blacks, Asians, and Hispanics in the nation's print media was due in large part, said its findings, to a lack of training.