January 10, 2012

Q&A: John Fleming and Leonard Witt of JJIE

INN: Why did you choose juvenile justice as a focus?

Leonard Witt [LW]: The answer is fairly simple, a recent national study showed that one in three American males would be arrested by the time they are 23 years old. Last I heard, some 400,000 youth end up in some form of incarceration each year. The real kicker: a paper by Katayoon Majd, states that in one recent year only 24 percent of those incarcerated kids were charged with felonies stemming from violent crimes. You know if a kid drinks a beer he can go to jail or if he talks back to a teacher, the same fate is possible. Yet, there is very little daily persistent reporting on juvenile justice issues. We think that is criminal, so we have made that our niche beat. We started as Georgia centric, but now our national numbers are pushing us to be more national. That’s why we love the possibilities that INN collaborations provide.

INN: Why is it the “Information Exchange”?

LW: We want our high quality, ethically sound journalism to draw people to the site. Then we want them to join the conversation. We believe collectively our audience knows more than we do. We use a four-prong approach to jumpstart those exchanges. First and foremost we provide high quality journalism on a daily basis. Then we have top scholars, experts and everyday folks join the conversation via our Ideas & Opinions section. Our editor John Fleming, is amazing in helping those often nonprofessional writers produce highly readable and informative pieces. I have been re-reading many recently because we are considering publishing some ebooks.  They are terrific. Among them: one of the country’s best-known juvenile justice judges, Steve Teske, wrote a few columns saying zero tolerance policies have made schools less safe; and a mother, Jajuana Calloway, wrote pleading for the release of her son who is in year 15 of a 30-year sentence for a stupid crime he committed at 14.

The third part of our approach is to get the folks formerly known as the audience to start a conversation with us and among themselves. That is happening at our site, but also at places as diverse as LinkedIn and Fark.com, where a lot of young guys trade barbs, but also insights. Again we see INN as advancing and enlarging that conversation.

Finally, if we have a really egregious issue, I will write an editorial calling for change.

INN: Tell us about some of the stories you covered in the past year. 

John Fleming [JF]: Last year, one of our reporters spent a good bit of time with a handful of homeless teens who ride freight trains throughout the country. We’ve also done multi-part series on the rise of heroin among teens, the plight of gay, lesbian and transgender teens, a day in the life of a probation officer and the problem of bullying in school. We spend a lot of time on quicker, juvenile justice policy stories, such as state and federal funding, but we try to keep a couple of long-form pieces going all the time. We feel this is our best material.

INN: What major projects do you have planned for 2012?

JF: We’ve been working on a data-driven piece about recidivism rates for juvenile delinquents. This story, done with the Center for Public Integrity, looks at a group of now-middle aged Georgians, who were convicted when they were teens for armed robbery and other serious crimes and charged as adults. We’ll compare this group to others who committed similar offenses but were instead sent to juvenile detention. Other stories will include explaining why kids from some ethnic groups are charged more frequently with committing certain crimes than other ethnic groups, the impact of so-called zero tolerance policies in public schools and the frequency of rape in juvenile detention centers.

INN: How does JJIE focus on photojournalism? 

JF: We have what we like to call our fine arts site, the Bokeh. (That’s the artsy part of the blur of a photo. You might want to look it up.) This is a place where we put up our best photography, and also a place where we strive to collaborate. For the last few months we have had the pleasure of posting the work of Richard Ross, a U.C. Santa Barbara-based photographer who has spent years photographing inside youth detention centers across the country. His photos are stunning and we’ve posted an average of two of them a week on the Bokeh site.

We are in the process of reaching similar agreements with other seasoned photographers, but we are also holing to cultivate some of the best young photographers as well. We want to see shots that define youth today, to understand what our young people are seeing, what they are viewing from the other side of the lens. If anyone out there wants to contribute, please get in touch.