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Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as Children's Express News Agency, Deep in Debt, Verges on Collapse

Children's Express News Agency, Deep in Debt, Verges on Collapse

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For 26 years, a small army of school-age journalists has been fanning out in cities and suburbs with notepads and microphones, asking questions about things they rarely see in grown-up papers and news shows: things important to kids. Now, the news service that dispatched them is on the brink of collapse.

The nonprofit Children's Express laid off nearly all its staff in late June after the award-winning news agency's board found itself $2.4 million in debt. As August began, the only paid employees were a receptionist and an accountant in the Washington headquarters. But many of its 750 unpaid reporters, ages 8 to 13, were still chasing stories.

Grown-ups were trying to keep the offices afloat. Linda Remsburg, the bureau director of the Marquette, Mich., office, said she hoped the office could stay open as a program of the Upper Peninsula Children's Museum, which provides the bureau's space.

While that possibility was being discussed, Children's Express was allowed to stay on to solicit funding. In the meantime, its reporters were hard at work on stories about dyslexia, stepfamilies, and the acne medicine Acutane.

In New York City, bureau director Katina Paron was working without pay for a fifth week. As her reporters worked on a story about children without religion, Ms. Paron, 27, was packing because the office was slated to close Aug. 1. Between boxes, she talked with representatives of foundations and local service agencies about getting money and space to keep operating. There was "a lot of interest," she said, but no commitments yet.

"They told us to close the doors and walk away [in June]," she said. "But I just couldn't do it. The organization is too important. The kids need this. The world needs this. People don't listen to kids, and this organization gets a youth perspective into adult media.

"And now it's ending because some adults made some bad decisions. It's not fair to the kids."

Caught by Surprise

The vice chairman of the Children's Express board of directors, Ed Jones Jr., meanwhile was leading a board examination of the last few years' operations, trying to ascertain how the news agency had gotten into such debt. He said the problems appeared to stem from ill-advised financial decisions and a lack of accounting.

Foundations, led by W.K. Kellogg, provided the bulk of the organization's annual $1 million to $2 million budget. Mr. Jones said he would comply with their request for an accounting of how the money was spent.

In 1996, the board hired Eric Graham as president to replace founder Robert Clampitt, who had died. Mr. Graham attempted to expand the organization, boosting spending and opening a Tokyo bureau that has since closed. Like the rest of the staff, Mr. Graham was laid off in June, Mr. Jones said.

"It's an unfortunate situation, one that has caught the board by surprise, and it's a situation we hope to find a smooth and graceful exit for," Mr. Jones said last week.

Mr. Clampitt founded the agency in 1975 and fueled the organization's vision for some 20 years. Its stories appeared in major newspapers, on radio and television shows, and, more recently, online. The news service scored a major coup at the 1976 Democratic National Convention when a 12-year-old reporter scooped the mainstream media by reporting Jimmy Carter's choice of Walter F. Mondale as his running mate.

The service won the prestigious Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in 1994 for a piece on homeless teenagers that was broadcast on National Public Radio. It won an Emmy Award in 1988 for a public-television report on the presidential race.

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Page 5

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