Somewhere along his afternoon paper route last fall, Ben Roman started talking to himself.
"Hey," he said. "I could make my own newspaper. It might even be fun."
That was the beginning of the Neighborhood News. The neighborhood that Ben, 12, his brother Etzio, 14, and about five of their friends cover is the North Ridge section of Alexandria. Every other Saturday, the staff, ages 9 to 14, delivers free about 250 copies of the four-page paper throughout the neighborhood.
They write about neighbors, school (most attend either George Mason Elementary or George Washington Junior High), movies, TV shows, soccer, dogs and tougher subjects, such as an article about parking problems at Bradlee Shopping Center that scooped every other newspaper.
"They are building stores over many of the parking spaces," Beth Reukauf, 12, wrote in her article. "Then, to meet city regulations, they are making more parking spaces out of the remaining available space. In order to do this they have converted many of the parking spaces into compact car spaces."
North Ridge residents who read the story were among those who complained about the small spaces. In reponse to the complaints, the owners of the center asked to appear before the Board of Zoning Appeals, said Zoning Administrator Charles Moore. "They want permission to restrip some spaces so they're larger than a compact space but less than the 9-by-20 standard space," Moore said. "They're doing it on their own initiative to accommodate the larger cars. They already had the site plan approved." The hearing is set for today.
Mandy Biles, 9, daughter of Linda Biles, Beth's source for the story, will soon do a follow-up. "We did that story first," said Etzio, who was editor in chief at the time.
Ben's specialty is interviewing neighbors. One "Parent of the Week" was asked her opinions on AIDS, arms control and nuclear war. An older neighbor told Etzio "about the war and the KKK, how Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt walked up King Street."
While Ben founded the newspaper, it was his big brother Etzio who ended up running the operation. Beth, the new editor, also plans to use her age advantage. "Most people are going to cooperate," she said. "For instance, my sister has to. I'm older than she is."
Kathryn Reukauf, 9, is one of the paper's writers. She contributes poems about traffic, children who put spaghetti in their mothers' hair, "and whatever pops into my mind," she said.
Apparently a lot pops into Kathryn's mind: "I have a book of poems at home that I wrote," she said.
Like all journalists, Neighborhood News reporters sometimes have a rough time getting the story. "Once I was interviewing a new neighbor," said Etzio, "and I asked her if there's anything she'd like to change in the neighborhood. She began to answer, then saw the tape recorder and said 'no comment.' "
Another time, Etzio went to the local animal shelter "to find out what happens to the animals there" but was "greeted with less than enthusiasm." He wound up with a story headlined "All 'Fur' Nothing."
Then there's peer pressure. When he first came up with the idea for a paper, Ben said, "People wanted to do it, but then some of them wimped out. Like this kid . . . who said, 'It's so stupid.' " Beth, Mandy, Kathryn, and four-week veteran Irene Trullinger, 11, groaned in recognition.
"I just ignore that kind of stuff," said Ben. "But I've come close to quitting."
"Yeah," agreed Mandy, "every Saturday morning I don't want to deliver the paper."
The editor in chief's biggest job, according to Etzio, is "trying to round up" stories. "I listen to a lot of excuses. When the weekend comes, they all have all these things to do."
The Neighborhood News started in November as a weekly, but the staff soon found that with school, soccer, dance classes, music lessons and paper routes, it was too much. So, to keep the paper running and the neighbors happy, they dropped back to every other Saturday.
When Ben first told his parents, Carlos and Judy Roman, about starting a newspaper, they were all for it. Carlos Roman, who teaches at Burgundy Farms Country Day School, had worked on school papers in his native Lima, Peru. "I tried to show them how it should be run. Of course, it didn't work that way," he said, laughing. Judy Roman, who works for a construction consultant, is in charge of typing and photocopying the paper. The Romans keep a gentle hand in the editorial operation.
The newspaper staff has had to make other adjustments since the first issue came out in November. "We used to have jokes," said Mandy, "but they started to get not funny."
It took a few announcements in the paper before they could get the "Pet of the Week" feature off the ground. Meg Southard, who called herself "a kid just like you," announced that she wanted to start an advice column, but it looks like no one in the neighborhood needed advice. And there was a tantalizing item called "Gossip Corner," but all it said was, "No gossip available this week."
Still, the rewards outweigh the problems posed by a scandal-free neighborhood and rainy Saturday mornings.
Neighbors have pitched in with words of praise (such as, "Thank you for your fine newspaper" from a woman who drives a large station wagon and was concerned about the Bradlee parking situation) and cash to offset copying costs. The classified ads, at $1 per line, are catching on. Some of the youngsters who once called the Neighborhood News "stupid" want to write for it.
And the four-page product, well laid out and illustrated with photographs, is its own reward. "There's a paper at my school," said Etzio, a ninth grader at George Washington Junior High, "but our paper is better."
"More professional," added Ben.