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Reporting Kids Pound the Convention Pavement

It’s just past noon in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Denver, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has just revealed that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) will be his running mate.

For reporter Ashlyn Stewart, that means it’s time to get cracking. She’s already spent the past several days interviewing, writing, blogging and Twittering, but big news has broken, and this is no time for a break.

It’s the same, really, for any journalist covering the presidential contest.

Except that Stewart is 13 years old.

The eighth-grader is one of a handful of student reporters sent to Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul to cover the presidential race for Scholastic News, the agency that for decades has reported big stories directly to kids, in a kid-friendly way.

“I think it’s taught me lessons on journalists, such as they don’t eat or don’t sit,” Stewart said of her experience. “And they try and get in people’s faces.”

Pushy grown-up reporters aside, the Scholastic team really isn’t all that different from the older folks. The agency targets its coverage to a youthful audience, writing stories in a way that is intended to be both interesting and clear to young people. And like the adult news teams, Scholastic must adapt its coverage to go with the news — when Hurricane Gustav began to affect Republican convention plans, the team refocused its reporting to cover the storm’s political effect.

Much of Scholastic’s coverage of the conventions has been online, with blogs, audio posts and news stories posted in real time, written by young people. It’s a good fit because students picked for the program catch on to the technology quickly (and, not surprisingly, often know how things work better than the adults).

“My favorite thing is how you bring news to people,” said Jack Greenberg, another Scholastic reporter. “We have to specifically find out what’s going to appeal to a specific audience.”

Most Scholastic reporters adapt immediately to the 24/7 news coverage, said Suzanne Freeman, the adult editor who runs Scholastic News Online and oversees the Scholastic Kids Press Corps, acting as a kind of combination chaperone and teacher. Stewart, for one, plunged into the challenge, adapting quickly to reporting in different sorts of ways.

“I just pushed the computer over to her and said, ‘Write the next blog entry,’” Freeman said. “She picked up Twittering really quickly, and they were doing some funny stuff.”

For instance, one young reporter posts: “We are sitting in a parking lot, waiting for a bus to take back. It turns out that Obama’s Change signs are ‘Change you can sit on.’”

But as any good reporter will tell you, good journalism starts with old-fashioned reporting, and that is what Stewart is focused on as she interviews Democratic delegates in the lobby of the Sheraton. With Freeman following closely behind, Stewart grabs a special digital recorder and walks up to the delegates to gauge their reaction to McCain’s unexpected vice presidential pick.

Most are unimpressed with Palin. But they all tell Freeman they were impressed by Stewart, with one delegate saying, “She’s very, very good, and I’ve done a lot of interviews.”

After chatting with folks for about 15 minutes, the team seems satisfied and Freeman steps away to call in the quotes.

The conventions aren’t Stewart’s reporting debut; the Colorado native has written articles about local events and even wrote a reflective piece for Scholastic about cutting several inches off her knee-length straight brown hair for the charity Locks of Love, which provides wigs for cancer patients.

But the conventions are certainly the biggest thing she’s covered.

“It was overwhelming,” she said of Denver. “There’s so many people. I come from a town of 6,000 people.”

It also was a bit overwhelming for Stewart’s mother, Tanya, who said she faced those to-be-expected parental worries about sending her young daughter to such a big event. “There’s a lot of people, and it’s a little unnerving,” she said.

But ultimately, she decided her daughter should go. “It’s an amazing opportunity that not many kids get,” she said.

Stewart only attended the Denver convention, but colleague Greenberg is scheduled to attend both. The 12-year-old said he looked forward to the conventions specifically so he could learn more about the political process.

“I always try to remain impartial, and so I’m going to be at both conventions,” he said. “That will help balance.”

Greenberg tackled a number of stories in Denver, including covering a California delegation breakfast, meeting with big-time television journalists such as Sheppard Smith, Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, and seeing Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) deliver his big acceptance speech at Invesco Field at Mile High.

But perhaps his favorite meeting was with Luke Russert, the son of late “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert. Greenberg had met the older Russert before, he recalled, and then covered his death for Scholastic.

“I’m aware that there’s journalists twice, triple, quadruple my age and so on that don’t get assignments this big,” Greenberg said. “I have learned so much.”

In the future, Greenberg hopes to attend journalism school and work for NBC News. But for now, he’ll take his convention experience back to his home in West Haven, Conn., where he attends seventh grade.

“I’ll be able to say what I saw here,” he said. “And I’ll be able to inform.”

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