A professional newsroom in action. Editors, reporters, hectic, yet controlled. Tense, but confident. A scramble of activity directed toward one goal. You can sense the experience, you can feel the pulse. This is the Big Time and if Jill is set with the phone and Emory with the tape recorder, the long-distance interview can begin.
The staff is ready, but, unexpectedly, the equipment is not. All of the portable recorders in the office have broken down and Mitchel Cohen, age 43, must scurry into the late afternoon cold to purchase a new one. The "direct" in the phone company's direct-dial system to Whittier, Alaska, has also been eliminated.
Of course, there is nothing to worry about. While Mitch is out picking up the new equipment, Jill, who is 12, and Emory, who is 13, use the time to relax and calmly exchange jokes with their colleagues.
And that's the way it is here at the Children's Express, a full-color magazine that is as slick as the slickest of the slick. It is also probably the only slick publication in the country whose staff members - when they aren't racing deadlines - are worrying about homework, playing stickball, or getting ready for the sixth-grade prom.
Things weren't always the way they are now at this fledging organization. In fact, things weren't any way at all. Until the polite but aggressive bands of youngsters swooped into the otherwise tranquilizing Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden last July, the Children's Express didn't exist.
That all changed dramatically after the boys and girls - gathering information for what was then an embryonic four-page newspaper - correctly predicted the selection of Minnesota Sen. Walter F. Mondale as the party's vice-presidential candidate. It is a memory savored and resavored by the "grown-ups" who turned a dream into reality.
"We felt it would be a dull convention and that our mere presence would be a story for the regular newsmen on the scene," Robert Clampitt, the stylish 49-year-old publisher says fondly as he settles into a green pillow on the floor of one of the five simply furnished rooms that make up the Express' Lower Manhattan offices.
"We clearly did not anticipate that the kids would produce a series of articles that were unusually interesting. The Mondale story was one, but I've always felt that the Daley story (in which the late Mayor was quoted as saying that reports of rioting at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago were "just not true,") was the juiciest of the whole convention. It was just extraordinary."
"I knew they scooped the world on the Mondale story, and my friends got me on the staff. I like to meet stars. You actually chase people down the street like we did when we tried interviewing guys dressed up in gorilla costumes promoting King Kong. But I don't want to be a journalist. I'd like to be a television actor." - Adam Jacobs, 12, photographer.
The youngsters were certainly not infallible - they predicted during the Republican National Convention that Sen. Howard Baker would be President Ford's running mate - but they were something new. They also had something to flaunt, and flaunt it they did.
Today, the Children's Express has arrived. It is in the station. Its first issue, published in November with a 50-cent newsstand price, feature a cover photograph of 25 children proudly showing off official yellow Express News Team T-shirts and charming smiles.
Although it is described as a monthly, the second edition, with a cover dominated by the feckle-faced innocence of First Child-elect Amy Carter, has a February release date.
"I like the excitement the best and all the people you get to see. But I don't want to go into journalism. I just do this for a hobby. I want to be a musician." - Jill Clarke, 12, reporter.
It all seems such stuff, really. There have been so many TV interviews, the next President's daughter is billed as the Express' "correspondent in the White House," and the magazine (first run: 400,000 . . . sales: not yet tallied) is to be only the first step in an abitious expansion program.
By early next year, publisher Clampitt says, he hopes to have launched a bi-weekly Sunday insert of C. E. articles and games in newspaper with a combined circulation of more than 4 million.
"I hate calling on phones. That's yucky. As most little kids do, I enjoy interviewing stars, well-known grownups and kids who are famous, to. I don't want to be a journalist, though. I think I'd rather be a fiction writer or an astrophysicist." - Emory Anderson, 13, reporter.
Where, when and how did the Express concept begin? Is it all sweetness and light, filling a void for the millions of young people from coast to coast and beyond? Or is it a monumental rip-off calculated to provide a wealth of material from youngsters while yielding its adult backers handsome profits?
Clampitt's explanation seems convincingly candid "From a business viewpoint, we chose to be a profit-making organization so that we would have complete editorial freedom," he says as Dorriet Kavanagh, his 30-year-old partner and the magazine's editor-in-chief, holds up one of the few shares in the note-covered office. "Also because we wanted the kids' publication to be taken seriously, we decided that the free-enterprise approach was the more appropriate one.
"And further," he adds after a brief interruption to talk excitedly with an adult printer who is behind schedule.
"I'm fundamentally a businessman. If a large company tried to get to the point we're now, it would have cost them upwards of a million dollars.We've invested $200,000 and we've done it with rubber bands."
That is the business side of Robert Clampitt, lawyer, former Office of Economic Opportunity executive, and investor - an admittedly "independently wealthy" man with a vision.
There is also the side that moved him to heavily support "black-owned entrepreneurial efforts" and to work with Prof. Kenneth Galbraith on Referendum '70, providing technical assistance to peace candidates.
"Children feel very powerless in the real world," he said, sounding more serious now than at any other time during the conversation. "Any time they can assume responsibility, it has the potential of being a transforming experience. Now, this works two ways. It works directly for the children who are doing it (reports can be between the ages of 7 and 13, assistant editors between 14 and 17), and it works vicariously for the children who are reading it."
"You learn a lot of things and it's fun. Do I want to be a journalist? Oh, no. I want to be a costume designer." - Gretchen Beckhorn, 12 reporter.
"We have established fairly tough standards to avoid any abuse of our name or credentials," Dorrie Kavanaugh emphasizes. "Children are encouraged to work in teams with an adult advisor and every idea involving a celebrity or national story must be checked out, either with Bob or with me. Eventually, we hope that we'll involve thousands of youngsters who will also be converting their own school newspaper from gossip sheets into papers that carry partly school news and partly news of what's going on out there."
At the moment, the Children's Express corps of correspondents numbers "somewhat over 100," though that figure is expected to increase geometrically as the magazine and newspaper inserts capture readers. The plan seems fool-proof, but, like anything else, it has unavoidable loopholes.
Most importantly, all reporting teams are required to submit taped interviews. "The fact is," Dorrie says, her candor even startling her unusually candid partner, "kids can't write. Even our most brilliant children freeze up. We're not about the extraordinary child who can write. We're about 'any child can do it.'"
Once interviews are completed, reporting teams are requested to make a further tape of their own impressions of the story they have covered. Those tapes, along with the written article, are then forwarded to the editorial offices, transcribed, and "prepared for use" by Dorrie and others among the five additional adults who work on the magazine. Payments ranges from $5 to $15 and interests proven by submission can yield an unsalaried staff job.
"We'd be kidding if we said we thought, at the outset, that children could report or write anything more challenging than feature stories," Dorrie volunteers. "Our prototype issue was all light stuff. Now, here we are, doing investigative articles on school lunches in America, an other on kids who are forced to live with parents they despise, and you name-it. We're involved with serious stories."
"Let's face it," says Clampitt, preparing to leave for the uptown offices he uses as "a place to hide" from the daily demands at the Express. "There is no guarantee this is going to work out.If it does, it will do wonderful things for everyone involved, regardless of age - or even career goals.