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Junior Journalists Win a Following : Cub Reporters, Indeed: Byline for a 4-Year-Old

December 20, 1987|RICH CARTIERE | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks before his fifth birthday, Nicolas Sheff opened a bank account with $150 from his first job as a junior journalist, reporting for kids and the young at heart.

"The idea of a 4-year-old writing a story in a regular magazine is so dramatic to me," said Michael Lester, editor of Diablo Magazine.

The magazine, which targets upper-income families in Alameda and Contra Costa counties east of San Francisco, published the boy's review of a dozen movies, including "Dumbo" and a music video by the rock group Talking Heads.

One review warned: "Just big kids and grown-ups would like this movie. When you're 30 is when you're a grown-up."

Nick doesn't actually write. He speaks into a tape recorder, with a little help with "big words" from his 31-year-old dad.

"I like doing this, at least for two days or maybe more," said the boy, one of a growing number of tots in the trade.

Using children to communicate with their peers as well as adults is becoming an established practice in both broadcast and print media, say those who run youth news groups.

"Radio is really the medium of the adolescent," said Rick Eckel, director of Youth News Service, a nonprofit group based in Oakland that trains teen-agers to produce a weekly program, "Youth on the Air." It airs on four local stations and 20 others nationwide.

Not Just 'Passive Consumers'

"Having a voice where students can hear themselves teaches them they don't have to be passive consumers," said Eckel. "Just the presence of children or teen-agers on the air gives an important message--that they can participate."

Meredith Miller, 14, started writing three years ago for Children's Express, a New York-based international news agency founded 12 years ago that trains children as journalists.

She has since become a free-lance writer, recently selling stories about cliques in high school and where to buy the best pizza.

Almost every paper devotes some space to youth news. Increasingly, editors are turning to youngsters to report some of it.

"Using children really addresses the No. 1 problem in the newspaper industry: attrition in readership," said Robert Clampitt, director of Children's Express at its New York headquarters.

The agency plans to launch a children's news show on public television next year.

The Fresno Bee publishes a weekly "Teen Tempo" section--letters, essays and cartoons by youngsters, along with staff-written articles.

Poignant Insights

One article titled "Please, God, He Can't Die; He's Only 16," recalled the time the author had spent with a 16-year-old friend killed in a crash.

Youth News interviewed a young Oakland gang member who claimed he was a "hit man" who relished killing because of the reputation it gave him.

The Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun is setting up a Youth Press Club that already has 150 members.

The paper will reprint articles from youngsters as well as locally conducted polls of children's views, said Tom Stafford, who heads the project.

The material isn't just for children, though. Adults like to read youth news, according to Gabriel Friedman of Pacific Youth News Press in South San Francisco.

One high school student who wrote a commentary titled "Teen-ager Fears Gray Flannel Suit," on concerns about growing up, received dozens of replies from adults encouraging him not to give up his idealism.

David Sheff, Nicolas' divorced father, said the two are working on an article about how a child perceives divorce.

He explained: "I thought it would be good to get off this fluff stuff and get him into something a little serious."

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