Youth Rising: Move Over, WSJ, Here Comes the Next Generation

December 7, 2011

Sure, young people read the New York Times and the Washington Post—but that doesn’t mean they find their views routinely represented within the pages.

Connor Toohill is one of many young people working to change that.

To raise the profile of youth voices on the national scene, Toohill, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame (and a 2009 high school graduate from San Diego) got together with a group of friends to launch the Next Gen Journal in 2010.

Next Gen Journal is an online news portal run exclusively by college students—among them writers, editors and operations gurus. It now boasts more than 140 contributors from about 67 colleges around the country.

"Every time you turned on the TV or opened the paper, people were talking about the next generation. But it didn’t seem genuine – people were talking about the group but they weren’t plugged into the group. I was really frustrated about that," Toohill told me in a recent interview.

Next Gen covers a variety of topics, from news and politics to sports, culture, and college life. Its online medium allows for stories to be tweeted and blogged about, creating a buzz among young audiences (and even some more traditional ones; Next Gen was recently profiled on PBS).

"Anytime you have young voices in the conversation, there is more concern for the future, bigger structural issues, rather than the day-to-day interest group minutiae and the media cycle," he says.  "We’re heading into an election year where the conversations are around debt, unemployment.  These have an effect on our generation, maybe even disproportionately so."

Fitting, then that one of Toohill's most recent articles—one of his proudest journalistic feats yet—was an interview with presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

Toohill believes that college students are crucially positioned to contribute to conversations affecting their future. “A lot of that [political] engagement happens in college. After that, you’re becoming a part of workforce and making a living,” he says.

“There’s a lot of talk about what the next generation wants and needs, without really including us.” – Connor Toohill, Editor-in-Chief of Next Gen Journal.

Just What Does "Youth Voice" Sound Like?

I asked him, perhaps simplistically on my part, what is the voice of the next generation? His nuanced answer is critical to understanding why Next Gen has been so successful.

“Above all, it’s always tough to talk in generalities. On every issue you’ll find a lot of divergence. With that said, there are a lot of common tendencies. The Pew Research Center has shown this—on gay rights we’re more progressive, we’re more trusting in institutions, we’re more concerned about issues that will have profound impact on the future like the debt, climate change, and issues affecting us right now like the student loan debt and the job market. [Overall] there is a large degree of interest and concern among people in our generation,” he says.

Toohill also is quick to point out that the next generation is not a homogenous group of engaged, active, and connected individuals.

“There are degrees of interest and concern," he says. "We’re a diverse generation and we have a lot of different opinions and level of activity.  There isn’t a monolithic group, and if we’re going to authentically represent our generation, it’s important to convey that.”  

He cites Pew statistics showing that that there has been “a pretty big drop since 2008 in young people who are paying attention to the presidential candidates, or who think the election will have a large impact.”

Structurally, then, the Next Gen Journal feels a responsibility to attract writers that represent the diversity of engagement and privilege. “If we just take the people who come to us immediately, I don’t think we’ll be as accurately reflective of our generation. It’s something we actively have to go out and try to get,” Toohill says.

He and his team plan to increase outreach to students from community colleges, international students and students from historically black colleges and universities, and students on all points of the political-ideological spectrum.

Leading a Large Team

One thing that’s striking when Toohill speaks about the Journal is his lack of “I” statements to explain his work. Above all, he is a facilitator and a collaborator, increasing participation by writers ten-fold in just several months, and holding strong with a core team of 20 people--a world away from its start as a small online rag written by a few high school friends.

Teamwork, according to Toohill, is “an important part of what we are as an organization. Given the amount of work that goes into what we do – and the scale we are at now—it couldn’t be run by one, two or three people effectively.”

So, how does he nurture this growing body of participants? His answer reflects a key collaboration strategy. “I identify people who have particular talents or skills for a certain spot and get them into the position so they can be put to good use.”  He also makes sure that the team is aware of where the Journal is headed and views motivation an “important part of what I do.”

Thinking Big

I was slightly surprised to learn that Toohill is not a journalism major. In fact, he wrote just one op-ed before college. His interest in the community stems more from previous engagement in student clubs, campus ministries and his stint as a congressional intern.

“I’ve always been interested in taking on projects, taking on initiatives, and being involved in something large-scale. Sometimes it is easy to fall into the path of least resistance, but it’s also good to break out of that,” he says.

He reports spending more than 30 hours per week at the helm of the Journal, “keeping in touch with staff and working on long term development.” While it's a serious responsibility, he doesn't see it as a chore. “You have to make decisions about what you want to do, and what your time is day to day.”

Taking Risks and Adapting

Like many online ventures, it was an uphill start. At first, there were few visitors. It was hard to get traction. Everyone on the team had moments of questioning. But they stuck with it.

“It’s just been about adapting to what we see, and going with what works best. We’ve always been true to our core ideas,” he says. 

For example, the team started by publishing their content at night when students were online, but found that the traditional morning push increased page views.

Next Gen Journal also credits its success to its early research about the needs, views and social connectedness of young people.

Content was an early challenge. The team got permission to reprint pieces from different college newspapers and solicited writers online. Now, most of their writers come to them.

What's next? Toohill is circumspect, protecting what he says are some exciting developments. But expect to see more partnerships, allowing Next Gen Journal to “continue exposing the work we do to a larger and larger audience” through news outlets with high credibility and readership. Additionally, he is planning for increased direct engagement with students on college campuses.

Advice for Other Next Gens

Connor’s advice for other engaged young people is something he took to heart early on. “Don’t be afraid to encounter skepticism – it’s very rare to have something that everyone sees as worthwhile right off the bat. You’re going to face days that are tough, but you’ll have to keep driving through that. If you believe that what you’re doing is important and surround yourself with really good people who also believe it’s important, it could really work out well.”

Reflecting on his own Journal, he says “We couldn’t predict where we’d be a year later, but I’m very happy.”

Eddy Ameen writes and curates the Youth Rising blog for SparkAction.

Are you a young person leading social change? Do you know of one? We want to hear from you for possible inclusion in a future Youth Rising Blog. Email Caitlin[@] and share your reactions in the comment section below.

Eddy Ameen