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Children’s Express, the innovative news service which was the first to put children in charge of news reporting and gathering, has closed its doors. In its 26 years of operation, it won an Emmy, a Peabody, and was nominated for a Pulitzer. Like many small nonprofit organizations, Children’s Express suffered from what is sometimes called “founder syndrome”, where an organization falters after the death of a founder whose willpower and charisma held it together. In this case, the founder was Robert Clampett, a former Wall Street lawyer who ran the organization out of his brownstone in Greenwich Village from 1975 until his death in 1996.

The organization’s first scoop came early. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, 13 year old reporter Gilbert Giles shared an elevator with several staffers for Democratic Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter who were discussing Carter’s choice of vice-presidential candidate, Walter Mondale. The aides dismissed Giles’ presence and as a result, Children’s Express announced the pick of Mondale a full day before anyone else, scooping all the major media outlets.

Children’s Express’ coverage of the 1988 Presidential elections won the organization several awards. The highlight of that coverage was when 11 year old Suki Chang put that poor hapless idiot Dan Quayle, the Republican vice presidential nominee, on the spot. Quayle, who probably expected questions about his favorite food and his pets, was asked by Chang if she was molested by her father and became pregnant as a result, would he want her to carry the baby to term. The future vice-president, darling of the flying monkey right, was forced to admit the answer was “yes”.

After Clampett’s death, the board of Children’s Express elected Eric Graham, a management consultant, to run the organization. Graham and the board put an emphasis on “progress” and expansion, more interested in running a more business-oriented organization than the one envisioned by Clampett. One of their first steps in remaking Children’s Express was an attempt to rename the organization, but the board backed down after universal protest from the young staffers.

Graham and company threw around raises, hired lots of new adult consultants, and gave out Palm Pilots like Halloween candy. Frustrated, the Indianapolis bureau broke off to form Y-Press in 1999. Nonprofits usually have a hard enough time raising money, but CE ran through grants like tissue paper. Now, the organization is $2.4 million dollars in debt - the businessmen ran it out of business. Auditors from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which gave CE a four year, $3.9 million grant which CE blew through a year early, are poring over CE’s financial records looking for evidence of fraud or misappropriation of funds.

At the local level, furious efforts are underway by staffers and parents to save the individual bureaus in New York, Washington DC, Marquette, MI, and Tokyo by folding them into or having them funded by other organizations, such as children’s museums. Children’s Express UK is an independent, unaffiliated organization.

While it lasts, their web page is at www.cenews.org.

Sources: New York Times, July 29, 2001; All Things Considered, August 03, 2001.

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