What On Earth Kids Service Represents New Kind of Journalism

By: Steve Outing

Schoolchildren in about 1,600 U.S. classrooms are getting a taste of what the news of the future might look like. Their schools subscribe to an electronic news service called What On Earth, a daily news presentation produced by Colorado-based Ingenius, a new-media company funded by Reuters and cable television giant TCI.

Those classrooms represent the first customers of Ingenius' attempt to present the news in a way that's interesting to kids -- and educational. What On Earth uses the computer as its medium, making use of multimedia tools: not just text and photos, but audio, video clips, hypertext links, electronic games and animated graphics.

Each school day, the What On Earth news package is sent to the subscribing schools over the wires of participating cable TV systems. It's sent overnight and received on a PC in the classroom that's outfitted with a receiving unit. The 4- to 5-megabyte daily package includes a multimedia news service targeted at the school-age set, covering 6 of the top stories of the day.

The What On Earth newsroom comprises some elements of the newsroom of the future. The team that puts out the daily issues includes 4 journalists, 4 multimedia authors and 4 educators, plus a team of animators and various support personnel. After the daily story meeting to decide what news stories to present the next day, the staff splits up into teams -- each team consisting of at least one journalist, multimedia author and educator.

The news stories come from the Reuters news wires, which are rewritten twice by the What On Earth staff -- once for a 4th-grade reading level and again for an 8th-grade level. Other components of the Reuters service, such as radio reports, photos, graphics and television clips, are incorporated into the daily package.

The journalists are the people who rewrite the wire stories into student-readable prose. In addition, they do their own reporting; for example, interviewing an expert on the topic of the story so his or her comments can be included in the package to put the issue raised in perspective. Stuart Watson, editor of What On Earth, says an example of this was when the What On Earth staff interviewed an expert on school bus safety following the recent crash of a school bus that killed 7 students. The expert was able to cite statistics about how rare such an occurrence is, and reassure kids that it's safe to get on the school bus.

The multimedia authors serve as the equivalent of a newspaper copy desk, piecing together the components to put together the electronic "publication." They build the story design, flow in text, photos, animation, audio, video and graphics, and create hypertext links within stories to supplementary materials. Their primary authoring tool is Macromedia Director. (Subscribers use a player application to view the final product.)

The educators in the team devise customized educational activities each day. They might design a multiple-choice game to test students' comprehension of a news story, or create other interactive games that exercise thinking skills. The idea is to utilize the experience of educators who are able to turn a typical news story into a learning experience. A story about hostage-taking in Chechnya becomes a geography lesson as well as a launching point for discussion of the ethics of hostage-taking, for example.

Traditional print newspapers don't appeal to many kids, and even an electronic publication needs to throw in some bells and whistles to spark their interest. What On Earth makes extensive use of animation, including a set of characters that "narrate" and guide kids through some stories. For potentially dry economics stories, Fred Fiscal, a "teenage money nut," appears -- voicing in a few words the essence of the story, or presenting a factoid to accompany the main piece. For stories about space, a character named Ray appears; he's a light glob that can morph into other objects to explain how something works. For a story about the Space Station, Ray became an animated screwdriver performing repairs in orbit.

Presenting new animation every day is a daunting task, but Watson says the characters are used over again, and animators stockpile poses which can be reused to lessen the workload.

Hypertext links are an important part of the service. They allow students to click on a word they don't know to call up a definition or a sound bite to help them learn how to pronounce the word. Or click on a person's name to hear them speak a few words, and so on. Within the main story, there will be "sidebars" or factoids that are brought up by clicking on a link. The idea is to present "multilayered story-telling," says Watson.

As for content, the What On Earth staff serves as the first layer of filters. (Teachers can block out access to a particular story if they find it objectionable.) Watson says the staff is careful about how they present stories, and there are a few topics -- such as abortion -- that they generally avoid. They don't shy away from violent stories, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, but do try to be delicate in how they word things. What On Earth did cover the O.J. Simpson trial, but stayed away from the sensational and violent aspects of the case and rather used it to examine the racial issues brought out by the trial. "Some sanitizing goes on out of deferrence to our audience," Watson says.

The service currently is marketed to schools, but because it goes out over cable TV systems, any cable subscriber on a participating system can subscribe. Cost is $149.95 per year per computer, plus a $49.95 one-time charge to purchase the data receiver. Ingenius marketing manager Linda Farley says most customer schools have only one subscription; only 10 network licenses have been sold so far for schools wanting to give students access to What On Earth on multiple computers.

What On Earth is not, by the way, a two-way medium. The concept is that a daily "publication" is piped to a customer's computer, where interacting with the content is possible entirely within the confines of the local hard drive. Watson says What On Earth encourages students and teachers to offer feedback, but it must be done by email or phone.

The service is entirely subscription supported, with no plans to accept advertising. Obviously, with 1,600 customers paying $150 per year, What On Earth has a way to go before becoming profitable.

What On Earth is interesting as a glimpse of what online news presentation might become -- integrating the full power of multimedia, and taking electronic news delivery to a level beyond the static Web pages seen today on so many newspaper Web sites. Its staffing makeup is particularly interesting, because What On Earth is bringing together writers and editors with others outside of the journalism profession. That is a trend we will see a lot more of in the coming months and years.

Movin' On

Joe Shoemaker joins the Indianapolis Star/News On-Line Web service in late January as creative director for online services. He will oversee efforts to develop Web sites and interactive advertising for commercial clients.

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