E&P Shoptalk

Recapturing the youth market for local news

Schools have millions of students eager to learn, engage and contribute


Youth and journalism go way back. Not long ago, many kids’ first job was with a newspaper, delivering papers around their community. The next generation saw news as a profitable opportunity. Could we return to those days?

Newspapers were introduced as teaching tools in classrooms in the 1890s. Newspaper companies got involved in the 1930s when the Milwaukee Journal and The New York Times gave papers to schools for free to teach current events. This started Newspapers in Education (NIE), a joint effort between schools and newspapers to promote newspapers as educational resources to increase literacy and critical thinking.

Now, we are focused on emerging audiences in journalism and local news. How do we engage young people? How do we reach the next generation? Schools, especially middle school and younger, present an opportunity to engage young readers and build loyal audiences and customers. 

First, we have to ensure everyone can read. According to the Nation’s Report Card from the Department of Education, 68 percent of fourth-grade students do not meet grade-level literacy standards. The numbers get worse as children grow older. Today, 21 percent of adults in the United States are illiterate, and 130 million Americans read below the sixth-grade level.

There is hope. If we focus on increasing literacy, educated communities will follow. 

We can learn from what was done with Newspapers in Education (NIE). NIE grew into a powerful force from the 1940s to the late 1990s. Newspapers were in classrooms from kindergarten through college. Almost every subject was covered. Newspapers were also used outside the classroom for tutoring and adult education. Adult literacy became a key part of programs.

Newspapers employed educators to run the program. As newsprint costs and circulation counts rose, programs charged half-price for school deliveries. The annual NIE Conference was the place to be with NIE professionals sharing ideas to strengthen their programs.

Many NIE programs established local partnerships, with businesses sponsoring and paying for the delivery of half-price copies of newspapers to schools.

At its peak in the 2000s, more than 950 NIE programs delivered millions of copies of newspapers and educational programs to nearly 40 percent of all public school students in the U.S. Studies showed stronger academic outcomes.

We all know what happened next. Newspaper chains consolidated. To get rid of debt, they slashed their way to profits and destroyed their NIE programs. They still exist but no longer resemble what they used to be.

Some continue to fight the good fight. Kid Scoop and Kids Scoop News provide newspapers with quality educational tools for teachers to use in the classroom throughout the school year. 

Our National Conversation is powered by America's youth and seeks to reduce partisanship and promote practical solutions to America’s challenges.

The Strong Mind Strong Body Foundation, a nonprofit youth and community development organization (where I am executive director), has created a youth journalism program with middle school students at Ella Baker School in Minneapolis as part of our community solutions program. We are building a youth-led newsroom from the ground up. You can follow our progress at ellabakernews.com.

Perhaps, as Jim Haigh, a longtime community newspaper advocate, suggests, we can inspire an NIE revival with organization like Rebuild Local News and its nonpartisan coalition of 3,000-plus newsrooms.

Local news organizations can benefit from more outreach with schools — high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. We can engage and empower youth by listening to what they want and giving them what they need.

When I started my journalism career as an editor at ESPN.com in the early days of the internet, baseball reporter Buster Olney explained how he covered MLB clubhouses. If everyone was talking to the hero after a game, he found the unsung hero for his story.

It’s the Jimmy Breslin principle. When John F. Kennedy died, Breslin wrote about the man who dug Kennedy’s grave. Everyone else covered the funeral.

In the age of AI and algorithms, local news can go in the opposite direction of machine learning and promote more human connection. We can revitalize journalism by engaging with youth

This can make dollars. It also makes sense.

Eric Ortiz has over two decades of experience in journalism and digital media. He has been a founder, editorial leader, and innovator at top for-profit media companies, impactful nonprofits, and profitable startups. He is the executive director of the Strong Mind Strong Body Foundation, director of local and college news at Spotlight Media Labs, and a columnist and director of audience development and community engagement for the Southwest Connector, a local newspaper in Minneapolis. You can reach him at eric@strongmindstrongbody.org.


1 comment on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • guilfordlady

    The real tragedy of losing NIE all over the nation is four generations of students (over the past 20 years since NIE dissolved) didn't experience the free press. They didn't read articles written by professional reporters covering local government as "watchdogs." Now we have youth disinterested in how government should work at all levels and believing false reports and bald-faced lies. Local newspapers in the classroom, either print or digital, are exciting to students, especially disconnected youth in alternative high school programs, ESL (English as a Second Language learners), and future leaders because they discover their community in the reports. I retired from NIE in 2005 after managing the program at three newspapers in different parts of the country. Everywhere I went, teachers (especially social studies teachers) loved the excitement local newspapers brought to their often-disconnected students. NIE managers provided lesson plans for all subject areas and grade levels (even as early as first grade) and gave training lessons to teachers who attended on their own time. Even low or slow readers got involved because the content was about their own community. The loss of NIE has contributed to the loss of reading and civic engagement in our youth.

    Thursday, April 18 Report this