Kids: Engage Us, Don't Patronize!

By: Mark Fitzgerald The young people who traveled to Washington this spring to tackle the question that perplexed their elders ? what do kids want? ? came from seven nations, and from across the United States. Their hometown papers were the Zambia Daily Mail or Fydenstidninge in Denmark or the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah. But after five or six days of huddling in Washington, they found they all loved and hated the same things about newspapers.

And when they presented their conclusions at the last session of the World Association of Newspapers' (WAN) 7th World Young Readers Conference before a packed audience that treated them like rock stars, rushing the stage with digital and cell phone cameras, they got right to the point ? just as they said newspapers must, in their headlines, their stories, and their graphics.

For crying out loud, stop jumping stories, they said. Keep headlines simple ? but catchy and playful. Use bold colors. Create social networks. Involve us with contests, and man-in-the-street features. Don't use the language of bureaucrats or academics or obfuscating politicians. "When I read the newspapers, it feels like they are not talking to me, they are talking at me," complained Jack Jason Lengwe, a writer and editor for Children's Press Bureau, a news agency in Zambia staffed by kids aged 10 to 18.

Let us in the paper, the teens pleaded. "Teenagers like to see their names and faces in the paper," said BreAnn Hoffmann, who back in Utah is an editor at her high school paper and a contributor to the Standard-Examiner's youth section "TX."

Specialists in youth-newspaper readership disagree about whether devoting a page or a section to teenagers can draw young readers, or whether youth-oriented content must be in all parts of the paper. "Kids are saying, 'Don't ghetto-ize us with special sections,'" said Jim Abbott, who helped organize the conference as a WAN board member and vice president of the co-sponsoring NAA (Newspaper Association of America) Foundation.

But "The ideal teen section," said the Standard-Examiner's Hoffmann, "should have its own identity," whether it is a stand-alone product or not.

Advertising in youth-oriented papers and sections is another area the industry tends to approach gingerly. Don't worry, the youth ambassadors said. "I feel that if it's not the dominant force in the section, then teens will find advertising acceptable," said Paige Cooperstein, a high school junior who writes for The Reading (Pa.) Eagle's weekly teen section, "Voices."

Perhaps advertisers should worry, though. "With all the ads on the Web, and radio and TV and stuff," said John Slack, who created the Page One Web site for the Tribune-Chronicle in Warren, Ohio, "we pretty much ignore advertising."


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