You don’t have much gang stuff. Where are your quotes from gang members?” demands Sister Ann Heintz as she grills one of her newsmen. His story is about turf wars on Chicago’s South Side. As nervous as a cub reporter, Kevin Davy, 18, promises to hit the streets pronto and get his quotes. A second teenage reporter, preparing a story on the high cost of school proms, wants to tell what “the chicks” will be wearing. The boss recoils in horror. “Chicks?” she asks. “What if I said ‘spades’?” The reporter quickly edits it to “ladies.”
The rented newsroom in downtown Chicago’s Loop could pass for the nerve center of any urban daily, but Sister Heintz, 54, and the paper she runs are unusual. Written and edited by teenagers in their after-school hours, New Expression is the fourth-largest news sheet in Chicago. With 70,000 papers distributed monthly to the city’s public schools, it claims 120,000 readers. Student ad salesmen bring in $4,000 an issue, while an equal amount to cover printing costs is donated by foundations, city newspapers and corporations. Since Heintz launched New Expression eight years ago, it has inspired similar youth news outlets in New York, Wilmington, Del. and Oakland, Calif. and sparked a national Youth News Service run out of Washington, with six bureaus manned by teen reporters.
New Expression has seen its influence grow after scooping both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Tribune with an expose of a teen pornography ring, an investigation of the cocaine trade in the city’s high schools and a report on students’ easy access to liquor and guns. In 1979 it helped force the city to put funds back into a youth summer-jobs program.
Heintz’s newspaper has given many kids (85 percent from minority backgrounds) the chance to try their hands at real journalism. Though few have any literary skills, Heintz takes youngsters who can spell only phonetically and teaches them to ask critical questions and write simple, direct sentences. “I am very hard minded. That makes them uncomfortable,” she admits. “But those who care about what they are doing think things through and learn to communicate.” Students agree. “I belong here,” says editorial director Brendalyn Legrone, 17, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy. “Now I can talk to adults.” Adds Frank Burgos, 25, the paper’s first managing editor, now a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald and a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism: “I would not have gone to Columbia if it weren’t for Ann and New Expression.”
Sister Heintz inherited her compassionate credo from her father, a salesman in Ford’s auto-parts division who “believed people ought to have their dreams opened up to them if they cared enough.” Deciding to be a writer, she studied journalism at the city’s Mundelein College, where she decided to become a nun in the Sisters of Charity, B.V.M. After earning a graduate degree, she taught in Iowa and Illinois before starting New Expression in 1977.
One of her most exciting reporters, she recalls, was ghetto-tough Johnny Vaughn. A nonreader, Johnny managed to get through two books on the Ku Klux Klan because Heintz insisted he be informed. He also broke a teenage prostitution story. Now married and working as a trade-school recruiter, he has learned typing from his wife and still hopes to break into journalism. “It’s an outstanding hope of mine that he get a newspaper job,” says Sister Ann. “The Johnny Vaughns are desperately needed.”