THEY call it the ``ET.'' But there's nothing extraterrestrial about the Early Times. It's a down-to-earth (in fact, decidedly green) newspaper for children. Just over two years old, this 16-page weekly covers world and domestic news, the arts, sports, and features. It has a very popular ``Dear Jo'' column, and it prints readers' letters. But above all it has two unique pages for what is called the ``Press Gang.'' This is contributor space. Children can apply for a press-gang card which allows them to prove themselves week after week as dogged, sharp, and original reporters and interLviewers. They don't interview small fry, either. Members of the press gang have interviewed Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Barbara Bush, and a vast number of other well-known personalLities.
Ariane Koek, who edits the Press Gang, admits that she has the best job in journalism. ``They are amazing,'' she says of her journalists-for-the-day.
She tells of their determination and ingeniousness. One boy was haughtily refused an interview with the managers for the company building the tunnel under the English Channel between Britain and France. Undeterred, he hitched a ride on a boat and interviewed the men at work on the tunnel instead. They didn't refuse him. Currently, says Ms. Koek, ``there are 6,000 press-gangers worldwide.''
Aimed at readers aged 8 to 15, ET is not only profitable, it has an estimated readership of 250,000 all over Britain. And it has even prompted competition in the newspaper world.
Barry Weightman originated the paper. Dr. Weightman lectures in Mechanical Engineering at London's Imperial College of Science and Technology. But history may well remember him as the initiator of the Early Times. It took him two years' work to set it up.
``I got the idea from my eldest child, Katherine, who was, I think, 10 at the time,'' he says. Katherine had started to get interested in world events and was asking difficult questions. Dr. Weightman found that he didn't have ``the time, knowledge, or patience to satisfy her demands.'' Children often have little background information, so ``you've got to start right from scratch,'' he says.
The adult newspaper Weightman reads - The Independent - was too difficult for Katherine, and even physically too big. So he ``looked around,'' but all he could find was ``Newsround,'' a TV program for children. It has little time for depth. And Katherine's busy schedule meant she often wasn't there to watch it. ``Also once it's over, it's gone. You can't go back to it and read it through.'' He thought: Adults have both TV and papers. Why don't children?
``Right from Day 1,'' says Weightman, ``the enthusiasm of the readers has been absolutely incredible.''
Amanda Gross, age 12, and her older sister Zo"e, age 14, of London, have read the ET from the start.
``Everything's really good in it,'' says Amanda. ``Just right for children. What's in the news they write simplified, which is good.'' Sister Zo"e agrees. Both think the Press Gang is the best part of the paper. They've done several interviews, including composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber and the president of Cyprus. Zo"e has had eight articles published. She doesn't plan to be a journalist, though. ``I like it as a hobby, but not as a profession,'' she says.
The paper is put together in Brighton by a staff of six using desk-top computers - though there are regular freelance contributors also. Ian Eckert, the editor, is a voluble young man in his early 20s with definite opinions on just about everything.
Does the ET perhaps make heroes out of its readers? ``No ... I think we're just treating them with a bit of respect - the respect they deserve.''
Part of this respect, Eckert says, is not to ``patronize'' children in his paper. Are their any taboo subjects? ``You have to look at sexual things very carefully,'' he says. But ``you can't ignore something that is on the 6 o'clock news.'' His aim is to approach such issues as child abuse ``from the family point of view - families have been split because of it. But it's no good trying to drown it in nice terms.'' ET uses ``correct terminology'' but not much explanation. So a reader who understands, understands. One who doesn't, can ask someone who does.
The ``one overwhelming issue'' Eckert's child readers ``want to read about, write letters about, do something about'' is the environment. By reader demand ET gives much attention to beauty-without-cruelty, elephant ivory, the fur trade, the depletion of Amazonian rain-forests.
James Palmer, age 11, of Manchester, England, puts its succinctly: ``Just about all children nowadays are interested in the environment, because you can't get away from it, basically. It probably concerns the children more than the adults.''
James is an old hand at ET interviews. But none (not even the Archbishop of Canterbury) is quite so impressive as the one he is about to conduct (with two older press-gangers for moral support, and Ariane as ``introducer''). The interviewee - the Duke of Edinburgh, no less.
In fact the Duke was so impressed with other ET interviews, that he requested an interview. The questions are prepared beforehand - ``split into three sections,'' says James - ``personal, religious, and the environment.'' Does James want to be a journalist when he grows up? ``No, I want to be a barrister.'' Clearly this young man has what Northerners call the ``gift of the gab'' - he certainly answers questions easily.
``Mmmm, yes,'' he agrees, ``and the gift of asking confusing questions!'' Watch out, Duke.
Note: See today's Home Forum for Poet in the Classroom, part of a continuing series for young people.