Book review: ‘Don’t Print That! Giving Teens the Power of the Press’

Donna C. Myrow, “Don’t Print That! Giving Teens the Power of the Press.” Palm Springs, California: Sunacumen Press, 2021. pp. 176, $15.00.

“Don’t Print That!” is the compelling story of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a print publication called LA Youth.

Throughout the newspaper’s 25-year run, Southern California teenagers from all walks of life were the LA Youth reporters, photographers and illustrators. They took on topics such as race, sexuality and police brutality, often from a first-person perspective. At times, LA Youth’s investigative journalism even inspired “grown up” news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times and “60 Minutes.”

The author, Donna C. Myrow, was the founder, publisher, editor and fund-raiser for the duration of LA Youth. Even though the newspaper ceased publication in 2013, she has stayed involved with LA Youth via its Facebook page and archived website, which is available free at www.layouth.com.

Drawn from 25 years of Myrow’s journals, “Don’t Print That!” frequently has the feel of memoir. This gives the book an atmosphere of authenticity and sincerity. On the other hand, the author repeats tidbits and occasionally wanders into tangents that stray outside chapter themes.

The book recounts the birth of LA Youth as a response to the Supreme Court ruling Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988. That 5-3 decision gave school administrators greater control over what high school newspapers could publish.

Shocked and saddened by this setback for student journalism, Myrow cleverly used the Hazelwood ruling as an opportunity to work around it. A new publication, LA Youth, would be independent of any school board or principal.

Established as a nonprofit, the newspaper operated outside the Southern California schools that it covered and took on difficult topics and issues that other student publications couldn’t. It was distributed for free by sympathetic teachers, libraries and youth programs.

The staff of reporters and photographers was made up entirely of teens from Pacific Palisades to Skid Row. Myrow and other adults served as editors and mentors over the years. They met on Saturdays to hash out story ideas and work on projects, initially at Myrow’s home, but later in a spartan newsroom.

Myrow explains her thinking behind this decision to let teenagers, even those with no journalism background, be the reporters and photographers. “I knew they were natural storytellers. Their diaries, poems and songs pulsed with emotion,” she writes. “Their first-hand reports of pain, trauma and abuse became heartbreakingly alive.”

Indeed, “Don’t Print That!” is at its best when Myrow follows the student writers and their experiences learning the basics of journalism and expressing themselves. Perhaps the most gripping chapter is when Myrow discusses her efforts to recruit teens facing homelessness and abuse.

One such writer, named Gar, recounts her life on the streets of Hollywood: “I woke up out of a deep, dreamless, and much needed sleep behind the Egyptian Theater. … The theater was under construction at the time, so from the outside, the place looked like the aftermath of a tornado. To me, it was home.”

Not all the stories in LA Youth were personal narratives, but Myrow writes that such stories connected directly with the teen audience. That approach worked: At its peak in the early 2000s, LA Youth published six issues a year and claimed 350,000 readers.

So what happened to LA Youth? The free newspaper relied on grants and donations. Myrow documents her endless efforts to get funding from foundations and individuals. She was successful for many years, and the Los Angeles Times was among the newspaper’s supporters, both in training and printing.

But the recession of 2008 hit LA Youth hard. That, coupled with changing media habits and dwindling donations, led to the newspaper’s decline and the eventual end of LA Youth.

“Don’t Print That!” keeps that story alive, however. Myrow’s book should be on the reading list for anyone studying scholastic journalism or advising a student publication. It will also be of interest to scholars of nonprofit news.

Myrow ends the book with a brief but effective argument for student journalism that is unfettered by skittish administrators. Journalism, she suggests, is a form of education for both writer and reader. “It’s one thing for a student to read a textbook chapter on immigrant rights — another to read a first-person account written by another teen.”

It’s a lesson that “Don’t Print That!” teaches as well.

This review also appears in the summer 2021 issue of Newspaper Research Journal.