Friday, September 25, 2009

Get 'Em While They're Young

This past Thursday through Saturday, I attended the National Newspaper Association's 123rd Convention in Mobile, Alabama.

Meeting publishers and editors of community newspapers -- mostly weekly papers -- from all parts of the United States reinforced my conviction of just how vital their work is to the overall health of an area.

Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Greer, journalism department chair at the University of Alabama and my master's project advisor, she and I were invited to present the paper and project as part of NNA's Community Building Symposium.

We heard lots of good ideas presented by people doing everything they can to help newspapers find their way to continue serving their communities through a changing economic and technological landscape.

I maintain one key is largely overlooked -- instilling the news habit when kids are young. Common wisdom says you don't wait until your child is an adult before you teach him or her to brush his or her teeth.

The problem is that not much in most newspapers is targeted to kids, is about kids, or is on a child's reading level. Our study showed less than 7% of available news space was targeted to or referred to children age 14 and under -- about 20% of the population.

Material targeted to children is largely puzzles, games, general knowledge articles, and coloring pages.

I applaud any newspaper who does that much. They have invested money and space in those products in an effort to include the youngest members of their communities in the readership of their community publication.

But most of the material we found -- even material targeted directly to children -- was written at a higher-than-9th-grade reading level.

I contend newsrooms can do more -- much more.

Part of a newspaper's responsibility is to help citizens "navigate society," according to Bill Kovach and Ted Rosenstiel, authors of The Elements of Journalism. But how credible is the map if 20% of the population is largely missing from the picture? And how useful is the map to the community's youngest citizens if they can't read it?

Want to know more about how to write real local news -- government meetings, community events, community issues, and more -- from a "kid angle" and in simple language?

Reply to this blog posting or send me an email ( I'd love to talk to you about scaling down local news without dumbing it down.

Our children (and their parents and teachers) can use all the help they can get in finding their way through their local world.

Kid-sized real toothbrushes, kid-sized real news -- makes sense, yes?


Anonymous said...

Hi, Anne --

Yes, it makes sense!

My boys are interested in the newspaper right now mainly via the comics. But it's a start. They refuse to miss their comics.

From that, they occasionally branch out to space stories (NASA photos in particular) and occasionally make fun of stories that are weird, especially if Mom and Dad point them out.

Notice that two out of their three "connections" have to do with humor. Humor is a way to reach kids, especially past the uber-elementary level.

Once in awhile, I catch my 16-year-old even reading the weather.

I think the news should adopt the colonial newspaper habit of encouraging submissions of locally written stuff and really using it... a lot. A lot of school classes take part in this kind of thing when offered. But it should be more frequent and more clearly advertised for various audiences (teenagers answer this; little kids answer this; grown-ups answer this).

We need to be patient with children, too. I've often heard that "political awareness" is the goal -- that kids should be "politically aware" via the press. Heck, I sometimes am not "politically aware" via the press, in that many times political stories are all "same old same old." I'd much rather read other parts of the paper. We should give the kids the same room for individuality. It's just as important to the health of journalism for people to tune in to the comics!

Thanks --


Anne said...

Thanks, Julie. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

Yes, comics are a good start. Anywhere is a good start, actually, and different kids find different starting points.

I can still tell you the names of the three columnists I read in the newspaper when I was ten years old. They provided much of my growing up guidance, as my parents and I had a somewhat strained relationship.

My particular project, however, was about reporting regular local news -- government meetings, community events, and community issues -- in a way that children could understand. As part of the community, they need this information now -- not just when they "grow up." And they need to develop the "news" habit, not just the "comics, sports, gossip" habit now.

And, yes!, news organizations need to interact with their readers in much more focused ways. It's good to have an open forum, but directed conversations have their place, too.

I'm sorry you didn't see my presentation in Anniston. I shared a copy of the "Student Briefing Page," an eight-page section (!) published by Newsday in 1991 that was written for older elementary school/middle school students and contained an interactive feature. Editor Bill Zimmerman drew cartoons with blank dialogue bubbles and asked readers of all ages to write the dialogue. The topic? The Balkan War.

He still works in this line, by the way. Go to to see his current work.