When the St. Joan of Arc elementary school in Lisle, Ill. lets out each afternoon, most of Heather Cook’s third grade classmates like to take it easy. They head for the cookie jar, climb a few trees or maybe watch some television. Eight-year-old Heather aims higher. In her spare time, she’s started a newspaper.
It’s not a large newspaper, mind you—just eight pages long, every month or so, with a circulation still in two figures. And its stories, though all guaranteed exclusives, wouldn’t make headlines anywhere else. Cousin Steve’s purchase of a new van was the hot scoop last November.” It’s a dark blue,” wrote Heather, “and you could almost even sleep in it!” In October, Grandpa’s missing tools rated page 2 coverage. “Look to see if you might have any, and please bring them back!” Heather advised.
To compile her aptly titled Family News, the small reporter spends about five hours each month visiting and phoning family members for updates on their lives. She scribbles notes on yellow lined paper and then, holding fast to a policy of editorial integrity (“If I like it, I put it in. If I don’t, I leave it out”), she composes her stories, most of which are brief flashes printed under headings like “Bit O’ News.” Occasionally, for a change of pace, Heather will toss in a little essay (“The gardens in this family are really special!” began a recent one). With drawings provided by 24-year-old cousin Kathy O’Keefe (then colored in by Heather), spelling corrections by her mom, 33, and postage paid by kindly uncle Tom O’Keefe, the Xeroxed News goes out to 82 relatives and close family friends, ranging in age from 5 to 102, in 12 states.
Like other, taller journalists before her, Heather got into the newspaper business to satisfy her curiosity and to protect her public’s right to know. “Our family is getting big, and sometimes we don’t know what’s going on with everybody else,” she remembers saying to herself about a year ago. “I think maybe I should write it down and send it around.” Her mother, a divorced nurse who uses her maiden name, Jeanne Altendorf, agreed, and Heather’s career was on its way.
So far the News hasn’t come in for the sort of criticism commonly leveled at the press. “Nothing I get is more important,” Uncle Frank wrote the editor from Aurora, Ill. adding that he drops whatever he’s doing when the publication appears in his mailbox. “Don’t ever think of quitting!” wrote cousin Kevin. Even the grown-up media have paid heed: Heather has been interviewed for the Chicago Tribune and recently appeared on a local TV news show, which she says was “scary but fun.”
The life of a media mogul does have its share of headaches, though. Like when teachers still expect you to find time for a book report each week. Or when well-meaning News editors challenge your authority. “I’ll ask Heather, ‘Why don’t you write about such and such,’ ” says Altendorf, “and she just says, ‘Mom, who’s the editor of this newspaper, anyway?’ ” But Heather intends to keep the presses rolling until age slows her down. “I plan on doing this until I get really old,” she says confidently. “Like 18.”