Too Many Papers Are Not ‘Kidding’

By: Lesley Messer

In an attempt to combat decreasing readership among young readers, many newspapers have launched lively tabs aimed at college students and twenty-somethings. But are they aiming too high, or in this case, too old, when many in this demographic have already dropped the newspaper habit? Some papers are targeting the 8-12 year-old demo to find out.

J. Ann Selzer, president of the research firm Selzer & Co. Inc., says that this “tween” age group has been difficult to study because people of that age are not easy to survey. But that hasn’t stopped the The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s “News for Kids,” which targets an audience ranging in age from 7 to 14, for finding a good deal of success since its redesign at the beginning of last September.

Anita Harkins, the editor of the section and a mother of a tween daughter, explains that it’s a good mix of what kids should know, what they’re learning in school, and what they want to read. She notes it’s been so successful that even parents of the targeted readers read “News for Kids” for a run-down of what’s going on in the world.

“One of our really popular things is ‘Spanish for Everyone,'” Harkins says. “I revamped it because when I came, it was incredibly boring. Now there are puzzles and games that go with it. It’s interactive.”

Harkins also organizes contests for readers, with prizes ranging from books to baseball tickets. She also regularly publishes jokes that kids send in. All of this encourages kids to continue to pick up a newspaper, she says, even if it’s only to see if they won a particular contest. Every week Harkins receives hundreds of letters, a huge influx since she launched the redesign. Before, “News for Kids” received about only a dozen or so letters per week.

This type of interactivity with the Journal Constitution allows children to understand that there’s more to the news than just reading it on the Internet. Younger readers are able to see that there are people behind a newspaper and that generating the news is something that happens beyond technological means.

By writing stories with a conversational and simple tone, Harkins tries to ensure that the content is not dumbed-down, but easily accessible. She notes that her headlines often beg questions, and use the word “you.” This is to make the readers feel somewhat older and important ?a quality that she maintains is very important to recognize and address.

Harkins also makes sure the stories are written in bite-size portions that are sometimes presented in unique shapes or formats ? a concept supported by Mary Nesbitt, managing director for the Readership Institute at Northwestern University.

“What we do know is that younger adults respond to things like a variety of story forms and different entry points, so the packing of information becomes very important,” Nesbitt said. “For instance, you could have a story with some ancillary information and find that readers in this group would go to extra bits and not read the story at all. But that’s fine, because they’ve accessed the information they need. They had some value for their time.”

Northwestern University Assistant Professor Susan Mango Curtis agrees. Curtis teaches a print media design class, and in the past challenged her students to redesign the Chicago Tribune for younger readers. Curtis says it is especially important to be fair and honest in children’s publications, as they represent a generation aware of dishonesty in journalism.

“This group of people is a lot more intellectually aware than any other generation. They are aware of photo manipulation and stories being skewed,” she explains. “We need to open up our eyes and understand our own children.”

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