Overton High School junior Breyanah Graham describes herself as "quite shy," but she says her role as a reporter for the The Teen Appeal newspaper has given her a chance to express herself.
"Since my high school doesn't have a school newspaper or any opportunities for interested students to participate in journalism, I never really had the chance to explore the aspects of journalism and reporting before I became a part of the The Teen Appeal," said Graham, who is now planning to pursue a double major in journalism and biological science.
Only a handful of Shelby County Schools (SCS) have their own newspapers, and for most students, The Teen Appeal, a monthly newspaper for all high school students in Shelby County (including schools in the municipal district), is the only option for students interested in journalism. But unless it finds a new funding stream by December 31st, The Teen Appeal may be going out of business.
For 18 years, the paper, which is headquartered on the University of Memphis campus, has been primarily funded by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. But after the former Scripps paper The Commercial Appeal was sold to Journal Media Group this year, Scripps decided to discontinue its annual $71,500 grant to The Teen Appeal.
"[Scripps] had been a very supportive partner up until they spun The Commercial Appeal into a unit — the independent Journal Media Group. And now we have word that Gannett might buy out this new company," said David Arant, the chair of the University of Memphis journalism department. "The Scripps Foundation said we can't support you anymore, and that's the end of our relationship."
That grant covers the salary and benefits for Elle Perry, the full-time newspaper coordinator. She edits the paper, assigns stories, handles day-to-day management, and holds monthly meetings for the paper staff on the University of Memphis campus. The U of M also supports the paper with a $10,000 grant that pays for a summer boot camp for the newspaper staff, which Perry is charged with planning.
"The program is unique because it allows students from different schools and backgrounds to form friendships and learn how to work with each other," Perry said. "And it provides students the kind of skills to approach someone they don't know and start asking questions."
Currently, The Teen Appeal has a staff of 65 students from 19 schools. The paper publishes eight issues a year, and those are distributed in every SCS high school and a few municipal schools. The Commercial Appeal donates printing and distribution, and they've committed to continuing that donation so long as The Teen Appeal can find the funds to keep going, according to Otis Sanford, a U of M journalism professor and the former managing editor of The Commercial Appeal.
Sanford, who helped found The Teen Appeal in 1997, said he's been meeting with various local foundations and national journalism organizations all year to try and nail down the funding. So far, no deals have been struck, but Sanford isn't giving up.
"The opportunity to introduce journalism and interviewing and writing and critical thinking and professionalism to high school students who would not have that opportunity has been the most gratifying thing in my 40 years [in journalism]," Sanford said. "It would be a shame if this program went away. And I'm doing everything I can up until the last day to make sure that doesn't happen."
Central High School junior and Teen Appeal staffer Reginae Butler wants to go into public relations, and she said the newspaper has been "an amazing opportunity" in preparing her for her future career.
"I get a chance to write about anything that's going on in my high school. Most of us on The Teen Appeal, we don't have a paper in our schools. So this is our one outlet for that. I want to make sure this continues," Butler said.