WASHINGTON -- Franklin Davis spent much of the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego crouched under a table, in tears and wishing he weren't there.
"I was homesick," he recalls. "But after that passed, I became one of the best reporters out there."
Davis is now a veteran -- if you can use that word to describe a 13-year-old -- on the staff of Children's Express, a news service reported and edited by youngsters ages 8 to 18.
Their stories, which cover youth issues, are picked up from a wire service by newspapers around the country and often show up on education or opinion pages. Although the target audience is adults, sometimes they turn up on youth pages -- news from young journalists, steered to young readers.
Children's Express stories appear regularly in local papers such as the Washington Informer, the Montgomery Sentinel and the Prince George's Sentinel.
Its mission is to amplify the voices and concerns of children. Adult organizers also say it brings together and empowers youths from disparate backgrounds and turns them into smooth communicators with a solid grip on current events and a mature understanding of the world.
"How many young people get to sit with members of Congress and grill them about an issue important to young people?" asked Robert Bisi, 28, the Washington bureau director who, as a 13-year-old, reported for Children's Express. "It's the powerless speaking to the powerful. They have a real opportunity to influence change."
The youths have an impressive portfolio. Their interview subjects have included departing House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Teams have traveled around the globe, including a stop in Yugoslavia, where they spoke to young war victims.
In 1988, a television documentary on the presidential election -- reported by the youths, produced by adults, and aired nationally on PBS -- beat adult competition and won an Emmy for coverage of a continuing news story.
A nonprofit group founded in 1975, Children's Express maintains six bureaus -- with about 120 youngsters in each -- in London and Newcastle in England, as well as in Indianapolis, New York City, Washington and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It has an annual budget of about $1 million, with funding from private foundations, individuals and corporations.
Its Washington bureau is in the heart of high-powered downtown. When a group of prepubescents and teens invades the ninth floor of a lavish building for a meeting, the scene seems oddly incongruous: Knapsacks are strewn across the carpeting, candy bars and lollipops abound, and reporters are scolded for playing video pinball.
But the youths are articulate and wise to fundamental techniques in reporting. Anyway, Bisi said, a childish facade can serve as a coup to charm interviewees. "A lot of politicians will take questions from us because they don't think we'll ask the tough questions," he said.
In 1976, a 13-year-old scooped everyone at the Democratic National Convention, reporting that Walter Mondale had been chosen as Jimmy Carter's running mate. While the source was never disclosed, Bisi said the reporter was apparently on an elevator with members of the Carter camp while they were discussing the vice-presidential selection.
"There was a little kid in the elevator," Bisi said. "They didn't think kids cared about what they were saying."
The next day, as Carter was about to announce his running mate at a news conference, members of Children's Express were jubilantly handing out a four-page tabloid with the scoop.
The program has its fans. "It gives us some good insight," said Denise Rolark Barnes, who uses its material in her Washington Informer, a weekly geared to the area's African-American community, and has a son participating in Children's Express.
The program also has critics. "They're pushy. They're rude," the National Journal magazine wrote about the young reporters during the 1992 election season. "They run in packs and they're giving everybody fits. Kill them."
Conversation among young staff members who sat down to discuss their experiences shifted from how best to play paint ball to who triggered the Monica Lewinsky scandal to who has the meanest English teacher.
Matthew Kretman, 12, of Chevy Chase joined when he was 9. He said it's difficult to compete with full-time journalists who are established, knowledgeable -- and often a lot taller.
The group uses a technique dubbed "oral journalism." Reporters interview a subject, with the session captured on tape. The reporters discuss the interview in a debriefing meeting, which is also taped. Editors combine transcripts of both, adding transitions and flair to produce a story.
Reporters are 8 to 13 years old, and editors 14 to 18.
Franklin Davis, who has gone a long way since being homesick in San Diego, said he joined because his mother bribed him with $5. A student in Washington's public schools, he has undergone a metamorphosis. Shy and reserved at age 10, he now exudes confidence as he heads out on assignment.
"I can't say there is a reporter I emulate," he said. "I try to set my own standards. A lot of people, since we're kids, don't take us seriously. But all of us are more than that. It's a new challenge. If they don't respect you, you make them."
For more information about Children's Express, call 202-737-7377 visit its Web site at http: //www.ce.org.
Pub Date: 11/15/98