On January 16, the major news story—major enough to be compared to Titanic—was the sinking of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia. Teaching Kids News ran with the story: “Cruise Ship Runs Aground In Italy.” But on GoGoNews—”Big News For Little People”—the featured stories were about a Chinese duck making its way to California and a penny that was auctioned off in Florida for $1 million.
Unfortunately, GoGoNews and Teaching Kids Newsare the full range of English-language options available for Canadian children who are interested in current events but, the thinking goes, not old enough to consume mainstream news. By contrast, there are many American news-for-kids outlets:Scholastic News Online, KidsPost (produced by The Washington Post), and Time For Kids(an offshoot ofTime magazine) are a few of the prominent ones.
If the future of the legacy media rests on developing the next generation of news consumers, what does such a dearth of Canadian news content for children say?
Tony Burman, former managing director of Al Jazeera English and one-time editor-in-chief of CBC Television, is blunt: “Clearly, there’s a need for news organizations in this very competitive world to grab new audiences, and clearly, young people, according to every imaginable survey, don’t interact with traditional news outlets as much as perhaps their parents did. And that is a threat to the business model of newspapers and television stations and radio stations.”
The CBC, for example, has a site for kids, only it has no news content. No one at the CBC kids division, a self-described “safe place for kids to play fun online games,” responded to my request for a statement as to why it doesn’t offer news content for children. Chris Ball, spokesperson for CBC English Services, directed me to What’s Your News, a 30-minute television show that presents “news” for preschoolers where “the news is not the latest car crash or war story, but word that Zander has lost a slipper-sock or that Maya can play the piano with both hands,” CBC explains. Zander and Maya are digital puppets.
In contrast to the major U.S. kids’ news sites, GoGoNews and Teaching Kids News are mom-and-pop operations. Teaching Kids News launched in 2009, a collaboration between freelance journalist Joyce Grant and teachers Jonathan and Kathleen Tilly, who share an interest in the development of children’s literacy skills. Fascinated by how voracious a reader her son was—he could read the yield sign at three and wrote a book report on Romeo and Juliet at nine—Grant created a blog in 2009 called Getting Kids Reading to provide tips for parents. She believed kids would be interested in reading about current events, but thought newspapers were inaccessible because young readers wouldn’t know the difference between a headline and an advertisement. Her path crossed Jonathan Tilly’s in 2009 when he taught her son in Grade 3. Together they developed a 30-minute-a-week current events class, which, at Tilly’s urging, soon became the website. Teaching Kids News features one original news article each weekday for students in Grades 2 to 8; typical pieces cover stories that are of political or human-interest nature, like “Republicans Prepare For U.S. Election In November” or “Stephen Hawking Turns 70.” “We learned from the Grade 3 current-events class that kids don’t want to hear about toys and Justin Bieber and Hannah Montana,” Grant says. “They want to hear about hard news.”
A different philosophy seems to drive GoGoNews, founded by Toronto businesswoman Golnar Khosrowshahi, who was concerned by the age-inappropriate images her twin daughters, then five years old, were seeing on the front pages of newspapers. So in 2006, she created a daily newspaper for her kids—it was basic, she says, reporting little more than the weather and the occasional sports or event-based story. The next year, this daily family paper expanded into a website, which is aimed at seven- to 13-year-olds—roughly the same audience that Teaching Kids News is designed to cater to. Khosrowshahi still writes all the content herself, while holding down a position as president of Reservoir Media Management, a New York-based music publishing company.
A typical home page on GoGoNews might have a main story on a rare white penguin, along with other pieces on everything from a 17-year-old “science star” to a pop culture round-up of Hollywood engagements and divorces. There’s little in the way of current news stories that one would find headlining mainstream news outlets. According to Khosrowshahi, though, the goal is to captivate the child through the entertainment value while slipping in some educational content. “There are so many stories out there that are interesting, and funny, and topical, and appealing,” she says, giving as an example GoGoNews‘s story last fall that suggested Bigfoot might exist. “We don’t want to be seen as something you have to do, for a child. And they don’t need to know that they’re learning anything.”
The two ventures differ in other ways. Teaching Kids News is a simple, easy-to-navigate site that organizes its stories under the headings news, entertainment, science, arts, sports, and politics, plus ESL. A standard piece might be 300 words long, tagged by subject and reading level. The only interactive tools are links to social media accounts and a dictionary search bar.GoGoNews, on the other hand, is multimedia-driven, with articles sorted into five categories: planet, cool, fun, picks, and in-depth. A carousel on the home page features a photo and headline of each piece, linking to the full-length stories, which tend to be no longer than 200 words, and a sidebar provides links to interactive features like GoGoMap—a world map on which the user can click on a country to read GoGoNews articles pertinent to that geographical area. The site’s home page also provides a link to a free GoGoApp on iTunes.
Kate Hammer, education reporter at The Globe and Mail, says both sites present information in a child-friendly way, but she believes Teaching Kids News is superior in terms of content, whileGoGoNews‘s presentation and multimedia interactivity are better. “I think what’s impressive about Teaching Kids News is the issues they tackle on their site. They don’t shy away from controversial or tense situations,” Hammer says. “They tend to take a really thoughtful approach to the news and to what they cover for kids.” As for GoGoNews, she says, “I feel like they’re more on the presentation, on the different features that come with it, which I think are great, too, but there’s a little less substance.” For example, she calls the site’s coverage of the recent political turmoil in Libya, “What’s Happening in Libya?,” not very thought provoking.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the University of Toronto’s journalism program and former managing editor and chief journalist for CBC Radio, also believes both sites are laudable. However, his concern is whether they’re reaching their target audience—a similar concern he recollects from when he worked at the CBC while Anybody Home?, an hour-and-a-half magazine radio program for kids that ran from 1979 to 1983, was still on air. “In my experience, organizations that create news sites for younger readers often end up getting their parents,” he says. “There’s the balancing act that these sites need to do, which is to speak to kids on their own terms without talking down to them. To me, that’s the issue here. These are all terrific ideas and concepts. I’m just not sure whether it reaches the right folks.”
To check his point, I showed Teaching Kids News and GoGoNews to David Pastor, 12, and Celia Vercillo, 13. David, a sports enthusiast from Toronto, believes Teaching Kids News is better than GoGoNews because of its sports coverage and layout. Being too shy, he passed this message along to me through his mother, Lucy Pastor. She says aside from watching The Scoreevery morning to get sports reports, her son doesn’t keep up with the news, but he appreciates the fact that Teaching Kids News more closely resembles a newspaper. Celia, a classmate of David’s, says she sometimes reads the Toronto Star and National Post and often logs on to the CTV news site to catch up on what’s happening in the world—a habit her parents and teachers encourage. She thinks both sites are interesting, but prefers GoGoNews for its variety of topics and the multimedia aspect. Teaching Kids News is better suited to kids who are less knowledgeable, she says, because it’s a lot more descriptive than GoGoNews. She’ll return to both sites, Celia says, because she’s interested in learning more about what she hears her peers discussing.
That’s the idea, according to Grant: “Kids are hearing about it, so we want to be a safe place where they can understand it.” Still, there are types of news neither site will cover, like sexually related stories, raising the question of what the boundaries are when sanitizing news for children. She adds, “We strive to be kid-friendly but also kid-appropriate.” Khosrowshahi uses the expertise of both a psychologist and educational consultant to help her vet stories. Zein Odeh, English curriculum coordinator at Toronto French School, who is GoGoNews‘s educational consultant, notes that news can be very traumatizing to children. “If you’re going to talk about September 11, let’s say, you can’t be bringing in pictures of corpses or Ground Zero.”
Clare Brett, associate chair of graduate studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s curriculum teaching and learning department, thinks content geared to younger children can be valuable, as news is either inaccessible or overwhelming in quantity. But she questions the upper age of the audience that Teaching Kids News and GoGoNews aim to reach. “By the time they get to Grades 7 and 8, frankly, I think they should be reading newspapers,” says Brett. “If you’ve ever watched children playing video games—I mean, they’re doing that. So having these cleaned-up news stories—there’s something a little disingenuous about that.” She also points out that kids have a real social conscience and love to talk about things that matter in the world. “That idealism that they have gets squandered on the frivolity, but you really can engage them,” Brett says. “I think by ignoring real news, you’re saying it doesn’t really matter. Or you’re saying, ‘Well, this is something that only adults think about.'”
Hammer also thinks kids are ready for unbowdlerized content earlier than the websites’ creators do. She estimates that Grade 6 students should be able to benefit from reading theGlobe. As for younger children, she says, “I think certainly in the younger grades it would be a little harder to understand. And it’s a shame because the language might be difficult, but the content has a lot of lessons.”
The age issue aside, why is it that none of the country’s big news operations have produced news sites for kids?
Grant assumes Teaching Kids News is almost alone in serving kids because everyone wants to get paid, while she and the Tillys make no money off their site. Khosrowshahi, meanwhile, saysGoGoNews is the only site of its kind because it’s time-consuming to produce news content for kids 24/7.
They seem to be right. Asked why their organizations have no spin-off print or online sites for kids, Philip Crawley, publisher and CEO of the Globe, and Benjamin Errett, managing editor of features at the National Post, both cited a lack of resources. As Crawley said in an email, “By and large, editions for children lose money. They don’t attract advertisers in sufficient numbers to cover the costs, and the kids can’t pay, so the business model only works when an education body helps to fund it.”
Similarly, Errett emailed, “Our strategy is really to focus our energy and resources on what we do best,” adding, “And personally, I remember finding news-for-kidz pages dumb even when I was a kid. It’s very hard not to come off sounding like Poochie the Dog.”
Dvorkin questions their argument. “Media organizations in Canada feel they are under such enormous financial pressures that they feel this is not a good use of limited resources,” he says. “And I think they’re wrong, because I think media organizations have a social obligation to do these things which will create a better sense of civic engagement.” He acknowledges that “most people don’t get serious about consuming the news until they are in their late 20s and early 30s,” and imagines media organizations are saying, “We just need to wait and they’ll catch up with us.” This perspective he characterizes as “short-sighted, to say the least.”
Burman is just as mystified as to why Canadian news organizations aren’t more aggressive and creative in appealing to youth. “It’s certainly in the self-interest of news organizations to figure out creative ways of engaging young people so that as they grow up, so to speak, they’ll be customers of the future,” he points out.
“News-for-kids websites are like media literacy training wheels,” Dvorkin says. Without these training wheels, he worries that children will turn out to be university students who don’t have the media literacy skills necessary to connect with significant news sites on their own. “I’ve actually come to this realization after teaching this term. My first-year students don’t know how to read a newspaper,” he says. “So I’ve been struggling with this idea of, do we need to start really from the beginning and help 18-year-olds understand how a newspaper is constructed, how to really deconstruct a newspaper, how to listen to a newscast, and watch a newscast, and what the significant elements in a newscast are?”
“Young people need to be exposed to the exciting and important world that’s flowing around them,” Burman continues. “It’s easy to get occupied with Taylor Swift, or Charlie Sheen, or Paris Hilton, and all of these things that are in front of young people in the guise of news, when in reality, the world they’re about to inherit is changing as we speak.”
Photographs by Peter Bregg.