While his peers were soaking up the California sunshine in the summer of 2009, Connor Toohill was glued to his computer. It wasn’t video games keeping the San Diego native indoors; Toohill was laying the foundations for his own student-run web publication, NextGenJournal.com.
Now a junior at Notre Dame, Toohill was a junior at Cathedral Catholic High School when he first noticed a pattern of politicians and commentators discussing the national debt and putting words in students’ mouths without actually asking for their opinions.
“There was a lot of ‘This is what the next generation wants’ or ‘This is how the next generation feels,’ but it never felt very connected to where our generation was actually at,” says Toohill. “What we lacked . . . was a platform to vault the authentic voices, perspectives, opinions and priorities of young people like ourselves into the national dialogue.”
So he and some fellow students created that platform with NextGen Journal (NGJ), which was launched on July 4, 2009. With Toohill as editor-in-chief, the team initially included around a dozen editors and a few dozen writers.
By the time Toohill started his freshman year at Notre Dame in 2010, he was looking for new contributors to write on news, politics, college, sports, culture and music. “We did a fair amount of random outreach — identifying strong student bloggers, reporters [and] columnists from various college papers, then sending ‘cold’ emails,” Toohill says. These days, many now apply through the site, and NGJ has grown to a staff of more than 160 students and recent alumni from nearly 75 colleges and universities, including more than a few from Notre Dame.
“It’s a lot to ask for people to pick up a project that doesn’t pay and may take up quite a bit of time, but with ND students, that’s never really seemed to be an obstacle,” Toohill says. “People wanted to get involved because they were excited about what we were doing.”
Coordinating such a team around the country requires careful organization, notes NGJ managing editor and ND junior Kelsey Manning. On Fridays, section editors share their ideas for the upcoming week with writers, who can also pitch stories. Also, she adds, “We have a Facebook group where all the editors on for the night talk about what pieces are in, potential problems with pieces and what we’re running the next day.”
Toohill and his team have also started expanding NGJ’s scope leading up to the presidential election. “We’re working on a series of live events for the fall that we’re pretty excited about,” he says.
NGJ grew from a few thousand monthly unique visitors in September 2010 to around 100,000 this past spring, but Toohill says he doesn’t measure success simply in terms of these numbers. His priority is giving young people a platform to voice their opinions, which includes encouraging the site’s contributors to seek exposure via major media outlets.
“If the DREAM Act is in the national conversation and an undocumented student writes a fantastic piece on NGJ about their experience, we still want to push their content out to a wide audience,” he says. “But we also want to help get them booked on CNN or Hardball. We want to offer them a chance to offer their view to a wide mainstream audience in addition to a collegiate one.”
Toohill himself is no stranger to such publicity: Earlier this year he appeared on The Dylan Ratigan Show and Andrea Mitchell Reports.
He says his TV appearances led to more applicants, Twitter followers and emails for NGJ. “Above all, though, I think they just helped to give us a little bit more prominence and focus in the media sphere.”
When he’s not working on NGJ, Toohill studies economics and is considering adding a major in political science as he spends this semester in Washington, D.C. He is also a member of the first class of Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars, and, according to program director Joseph A. Buttigieg, exemplifies the program’s emphasis on leadership.
“I think [NGJ] is an excellent example of what we hope to see our scholars do, to pursue a goal in a forceful, passionate manner and face the hurdles and learn how to overcome them,” Buttigieg, also a ND professor of English, says.
Toohill faced a hurdle in July after a contributor’s controversial piece, “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25,” elicited nasty feedback. Toohill’s post the following day explained that articles posted on the site do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff but that the harsh personal attacks on the author were inappropriate.
“Feel free to disagree, as we occasionally do as well. But don’t fall into the trap of personal attacks or blanket condemnations of young people,” Toohill wrote. “If you keep up with us regularly enough, we think you’ll discover that millennials are a much more interesting generation than you might have previously assumed.”