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Erstwhile Cool Correspondents Reflect On Their ‘Journalism’ Careers

It was 1997 when Newtown Bee reporter and web designer Andrea Zimmermann and then-managing editor, now editor, Curtiss Clark decided to mentor a new generation of reporters. None of the “interns” were yet enrolled in journalism school. As a matter of fact, some of the new writers were not yet enrolled in first grade.

“Kids! Write Book Reviews For The Newtown Bee!” announced the initiative on the Just For Kids page. “Book reviews written by you and your friends will appear every week in the newspaper and on The Newtown Bee Internet pages,” the young Hemingways were told.

“Cool Correspondents are also needed to write for The Bee. You can write stories about your hobbies, pets, or family,” suggested the advertisement. A love of writing, sharing stories, and seeing your name in print would have been enough enticement for some youngsters to join the Cool Correspondents. But to make things a little sweeter, The Bee issued a “press pass” to each Cool Correspondent — and the first 20 kids to write reviews received a free ticket to the Edmond Town Hall Theatre.

It was a good enough deal for more than three dozen boys and girls from Newtown (and even one little girl from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who wanted to be Cool Correspondents. Some of the young reporters wrote several articles over the course of the approximately one year that the program was in place at The Bee, others submitted one or two articles before other interests drew them away.

They enthusiastically reviewed books (and television shows and movies) that they selected themselves, or chose from books provided by The Newtown Bee. They interviewed restaurant owners, baseball heroes, and wrote about their favorite places, people, and things. Submissions were penciled on lined school paper, neatly typed, crafted in careful script, and painstakingly penned in ink. One or two of the submissions even came by early e-mail.

“The idea was to engage kids in our community,” said Ms Zimmermann, who left The Newtown Bee later in 1997 for other employment. She recently came upon a box of the Cool Correspondent submissions and materials mixed into other Bee memorabilia, and shared the trove with The Newtown Bee. What became of those eager young writers, she wondered.

“Curtiss did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, such as creating special press passes and setting up the web pages. This was 1997, when the Internet was new to many people,” she said. Some of the book reviewers received review copies that publishers sent to The Bee. The Goosebumps series was particularly popular at the time, she said. “As a reward for submitting a review, the youth would keep the book and receive a movie/popcorn/drink booklet for Edmond Town Hall,” Ms Zimmermann said.

Eventually, the reporters, who on average were 8 years old in 1997, grew up. Did their experiences as Cool Correspondents have any impact?

 

A Big League Interview

“I remember we had just recently moved to Newtown from New York, and I think it was most likely my parents’ way of getting me out into the community and meeting some kids my own age,” recalled Alex Hennessey of his Cool Correspondent days. He hit a home run with his first in-person interview, though, sitting in the Mets’ dugout with pitcher Joe Crawford, thanks to some effort on the part of his father.

“That day was unforgettable,” said Mr Hennessey, “getting to walk out on the field while my favorite team was warming up,” and making small talk with the other players before sitting down to the interview. The Mets pitcher was “a good sport, friendly, answered all of my silly kid questions,” he remembered, “(Do you live in a mansion?) The icing on the cake was then seeing my story and photo in the newspaper. I felt like a pro!” he said.

Now a second year medical student, where writing “can’t wax poetic, and doctors don’t want to read an interesting metaphor for how hard someone’s spleen feels,” Mr Hennessey did channel his Cool Correspondent expertise into writing in his high school and post-high school years.

“I kept up with journalism in high school and was one of the editors-in-chief for the [Newtown High School] newspaper when I was a senior,” he said. And while the scientific reports required of him in medical school are on the dry side, “UConn has us writing journals about our clinical experiences, which has allowed me to do some more expressive and creative writing. I actually won an award for best student journal last year and have read some of my writing at a program called Schwartz Center Rounds,” he said. Mr Hennessey is also an editor for the school literary magazine — thanks, no doubt, to the experience he gleaned as a Cool Correspondent.

 

Starting With Digital Pets

“Truly, this was just the beginning of a long and illustrious career in Newtown public education journalism,” said Alex Hart, another former Cool Correspondent. At Sandy Hook Elementary School, he wrote for the Footprint Post. “Then at Newtown High, I was one of the editors-in-chief of The Hawkeye, and after that I majored in print journalism at NYU,” he said, reporting on a variety of Manhattan issues that were a lot less fun than a Newtown Bee article about digital pets.

The SHS administration laminated Cool Correspondent articles written by students, said Mr Hart, and hung them in the hallway.

“That was pretty exciting. I also remember that The Bee gave me a little ‘press pass’ card that would allow me to see movies for free at Edmond Town Hall,” he recalled.

Deciding that he was “too biased and opinionated to achieve the journalistic objectivity required in being a newspaper reporter,” Mr Hart now works in nonprofit communications, copywriting and fundraising.

 

The Fun Of Writing

“I was just 7 years old, and I wanted to [be a Cool Correspondent] because it sounded fun,” remembered Katherine Will, who is now a certified nurses aide, working in a private residence.

Ms Will offered her thoughts on her best friend, Alex, in one article, and also reviewed her favorite movie, George of the Jungle. “It’s still my favorite,” she confessed. “I remember my grandma had all the articles that were in the paper and would show them to me, and people at school had read the stories.”

When she is not working, Ms Will serves on the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company, “And I actually write now, too, little stories. So being a Cool Correspondent did help,” she said.

 

From Puppies To Politics

A 101 Dalmatians fanatic in 1997, Kelley Anne Carney submitted her review of that wildly popular movie. “I had a strong love for dogs and had always begged my parents for one,” Ms Carney said, and she was inspired to write in for The Newtown Bee after seeing the film.

“Today, I live in Washington, DC, and work on Capitol Hill for Senator Chris Murphy. Part of my job requires me to write letters on behalf of the senator on various issue areas,” she said, “one of which is animal welfare. The Cool Correspondents program encouraged me to write to a large audience about an issue that was important to me as a 7-year-old.” It may not have been obvious at the time, “but the Cool Correspondent program ended up benefiting me into my adult life.”

Ms Carney still gets to write about animals that she adores, “and two years ago, my parents finally decided to get a dog.”

It was her mother who encouraged her to become a Cool Correspondent. “At the time, I was a first grader in Mrs Feda’s class at Sandy Hook Elementary. We were developing our ability to elaborate in our writing, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so,” she said.

Writing for The Newtown Bee was a good opportunity to build on writing skills learned in school. Ms Zimmermann provided writing tips for good newspaper reporting, encouraging the Cool Correspondents and reviewers to do their best. Tips like “Say what you are writing about in the first paragraph,” “Tell more about your subject,” and “Use your senses” helped the new writers to share their information in good form.

“Tell the name of the book and the author,” she reminded the book reviewers. “Also say who would like this book.” Describe briefly what the book is about, and what the reader liked or disliked about the book, was another tip. “Could you relate anything in the book to your own life?” she suggested as information to be included in a review.

The educational component was somewhat less successful at times, said Ms Zimmermann. “I remember the editorial meeting where I attempted to explain how a quotation mark was used, and the difference between the words within quotations marks and without. I looked out at this pool of adorable little faces, some of whom had just learned to write, and realized,” she said, “none of them had any idea what I was talking about.”

 

The Joy Of Laughing

“To be fair, I don’t remember writing and submitting this book report on My Sister the Sausage Roll,” admitted former Cool Correspondent Samantha Ciaccia. Once she reread it, her memory was sparked. “A couple of things struck me. This book is about the baby in the family — and it’s no wonder I loved it so much, because I have two older sisters and am the baby, as well. My conclusion of the report sums it up, ‘I like it because it made me laugh.’ Laughing is my favorite thing to do, and something that hasn’t changed since I was 8 years old,” said Ms Ciaccia.

A 2011 graduate of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, with a BA in media communications and marketing, it seems that her Cool Correspondent participation did inspire Ms Ciaccia. She is now the channel engagement manager with Datto, an IT company in Norwalk offering business continuity solutions.

“In addition, I love to write. I’m an active blogger within the IT community,” Ms Ciaccia said, and added, “I think that writing at such a young age really impacted my love for writing professionally in my career, as well as personally. Being published in the newspaper at such a young age showed me that if you’re passionate about what you’re writing about, others will be interested — even if it’s about My Sister the Sausage Roll!”

Reflecting on the experience of introducing very young writers to the world of journalism, Ms Zimmermann said, “Not only were CCs bright and creative, they were serious about their work… The whole experience was just wonderful.”

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