Each school year, a crew of young journalists hits the streets to report on the little-known news of Northeast Central Durham. They write for The Durham VOICE, a community newspaper that partners with schools, churches and local leaders to uplift Durham's vulnerable urban areas.
Its contributors are young, but The VOICE is "more than a happy little newspaper," says Jock Lauterer, the paper's founder and senior lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The publication features articles, photos and videos by students from UNC, North Carolina Central University and four local high schools. It covers a host of community issues, including education, veterans, nonprofits, mental health, gangs and the arts.
"It's very much a real life setting where we're going out and finding our stories, interviewing sources and then going back and writing," says Caitlin Owens, 20, a UNC senior and investigative reporter for The VOICE.
According to Owens, Lauterer taught her to honor the human element in every story. For her recent piece on panhandling, Owens spent time with homeless people at their camps in the woods. "There's a difference between calling someone up and getting a couple quotes on what it's like to be homeless in Durham and going and sitting with them and having a conversation for two hours," she says.
The VOICE is more than a newspaper—it's a movement. "It's a gang intervention at its heart," Lauterer says. He created the project in response to the murder of UNC student Eve Carson—whose alleged shooters were from Northeast Central Durham—to engage youth with their community. "If we can put cameras in their hands, if we can put notepads in their hands, if we can put computers in their hands, then they'll be too busy to do inappropriate things," he says.
The VOICE began in 2009 as an online publication but gained traction once it launched a print edition the following year, Lauterer says. Four times each semester, he and the students distribute 2,000 free copies to 60 locations—including churches, supermarkets, schools, barbershops and civic offices.
"It's important to have the print edition because people are able to stumble across it," says Brian Fanney, 21, a UNC senior and the paper's co-editor. Fanney says the paper copies allow The VOICE to bridge generational and digital divides.
The publication relies on grants and fundraising to provide equipment and mentorship to local teens interested in journalism. Funding for printing came from The Daily Tar Heel and Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting Company. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation provided a grant for cameras, voice recorders and computers, and Scientific Properties donates office space for a newsroom.
"It's a really relaxing environment," says Mahdiyah Al-askari, 17. "When you're writing it's a good relief."
The paper offered her a break from the stress of school, friends and family. She got involved through an internship with YO:Durham (Year of Opportunity for Durham Teens), a program that prepares at-risk teens for the professional world.
"I always wanted to be a writer, but my writing was never really good," says Al-askari. Now, she's proud of her pieces on teen violence and the true meaning of Muslim hijab, which are featured in the April issue. "I learned how to interview a person without making it too awkward," she says.
The VOICE's youth are rewriting the crime-ridden Durham narrative, highlighting the struggles and triumphs of local organizations and individuals. "When they actually see their byline, that has an effect," says teen mentor coordinator Carlton Koonce.
Koonce and Lauterer hope The VOICE motivates teens to continue their education. "We're not out to change the world, but if we could just touch that one kid, we feel like we've done our job," says Koonce. "We wanna hear them say, 'I'm going to college.'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pro-Voice."