Teens on the Scene: Cub Reporters Cover Olympics

Newshounds get dream assignment in a first for a high school paper

It looks and sounds like a typical newsroom, but on a smaller scale. Notebooks and folders spill onto tables and chairs, phones ring, the fax buzzes, and pagers beep as reporters scramble to make deadlines.

But the reporters, unless they are conducting interviews, dress in standard uniform - jeans, cut-offs, baggy T-shirts, and the ever-present baseball caps. These reporters are not seasoned journalists, but rather high school students covering the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.

The 12 students involved in this first-time effort come from public and private high schools throughout the metro-Atlanta area. Ranging in age from 15 to 18, they are part of Youth Communications, a nonprofit organization that publishes VOX, a student newspaper written for and by high-schoolers.

While there are many student newspapers around the country, VOX, founded in 1993, is the only publication that has ever covered the Olympics. And in a host city where the journalists outnumber the athletes, the cub reporters offer a unique spin. Unlike the 15,000 professional journalists from around the world, they offer a teen perspective to a group of readers that is often ignored.

Working out of donated office space in the heart of the Olympic Ring, the teens focus mostly on people and events outside of the venues. While they do mostly features, several students were at Centennial Park the night of the bombing and may do a first-person piece or an editorial on the incident. They do daily reporting for CNN On-line and also write for USA Today, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution's youth Web site.

This energetic group was selected from 200 applicants after submitting a writing sample and several Olympic-related story ideas. Jimmy Kim, a rising senior who was in Seoul for the l988 Games, says, "It's a lot of pressure to write for big-time media, but covering the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.''

Born in Korea, Kim remembers how difficult it was to learn English when he first came to the US. He sold a story to CNN On-line on how the nearly 1,500 volunteer language agents for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) help non-English-speaking athletes. Now he's trailing a 15-year-old vendor who sells soft drinks and snacks in a kiosk near Olympic Ring for another CNN story.

Delano Maxam, a sophomore-to-be and the youngest member of the group, was surprised to be selected for the bureau. "I just did a couple of dinky stories for my middle-school newspaper, and now I'm writing for The Cleveland Plain Dealer and CNN On-line," he says. A biker and the only reporter who doesn't drive, he's putting together a feature about how biker-friendly the area around the Olympic Ring is for teens who want to avoid using public transportation.

Roya Rastegar, who is entering her senior year and who claims to have had more rejections than anyone else in the bureau, works on four or five stories at a time. And she still finds it hard to believe that she sold a story to CNN on members of Atlanta's Symphony Youth playing at the closing ceremony on Aug. 4.

While students get paid a modest fee for their stories, Roya says, "The money is not a big deal - the big deal is that we're the first teens to cover the Olympics in history."

While they do not have full press credentials to get into the venues, several of the students want to do stories or telephone interviews with the Olympic athletes. Because Roya speaks Farsi, she wants to interview Lida Fariman, a target shooter and the first Iranian woman to participate in the Olympics since 1979.

Most of the teens had some journalism experience in their high schools. Director Rachel Alterman-Wallack serves as an adviser and senior editor for the program, which has an annual budget of $100,000. But the cub journalists develop their own story ideas and then fax a query to a prospective editor. Once they get the go-ahead, they pull the story together and help one another with the editing.

Volunteer journalists from the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and USA Today also serve as mentors. Three weeks before the opening ceremonies of the Games, the teens had an intensive two-week writing workshop. But "They're getting their real training under fire," says mentor Ben Brown, a USA Today reporter.

Though these fresh-faced correspondents are younger than regular reporters on the Olympic beat, they experience many of the same challenges: constant deadlines, rude or inaccessible sources, and limited credentials. "And," Jimmy adds, "sometimes people are reluctant to take us seriously because they think we're just kids."

But the youths consider themselves professionals. "We're just like any other journalists - we check and double-check sources for accuracy," says Jennifer Hill, who will be a senior in the fall. "We're teens, but we're doing quality work."

And many plan to keep at it. Some are already thinking about how they can cover the next games in Sydney and Salt Lake City.

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