Respect the intelligence of young readers
I wrote this in Sept, 2010. It was originally a comment on a blog post by a journalism grad student at American University. I started on a twitter rant about the lack of programming on holidays at MSNBC and ended up trying to solve the booking problem. Anyway, while specific to NIE, this comment could — and should — apply to anyone creating marketing and reading material for young readers, especially those who think it clever to turn the “N” and “R” backwards on a chalkboard. Including TV.
I was at the Newspapers in Education department at a daily newspaper from 1998–2002. Anyone who has worked in NIE knows that on paper, the department was set up to “promote literacy, cultivate young readers, blah, blah” The real world was, “We’ve got a captive audience where we can dump newspapers on Tuesdays and make our 5-day ABC numbers look better.”
Before I got there, the NIE page was kids mazes and puzzles, word games, etc. the typical crap you see on kids stuff. Part of my gig was that if we were going to really increase literacy and make the newspaper a teaching tool, let’s really do it. Let’s write articles that teachers could use as lesson plans. What did we have to lose? We had a captive audience where we were dumping papers anyway.
So, we wrote serious articles about wildlife, conservation, the science of the Olympics, nutrition using a pizza analysis, the physics of snowboarding. And we used smart words; we spoke to the kids (3rd-6 grade) like we respected their intelligence. We changed the font from 14pt goofy Comic Sans to 11pt Nimrod. We wrote in AP Style. We went out and got our own photos and wrote real captions. But for the logo on the page and the small line of “editorial disclaimer” on the page, it was indistinguishable from the rest of the editorial.
And our sales went through the damn roof! Teachers couldn’t wait for every other Tuesday. When we visited classes on NIE day, kids would have the newspapers sprawled open and they were reading the articles aloud and talking about the things they were reading about. Discussions got lively! When kids got to a word they did not know, it become an ad hoc vocab lesson. And if you watched closely, they got that momentary flash of “smart” when the eyes get slightly brighter, the lips smile gently, the face flushes and the head bobs when the word is filed in the brain. And teachers had that almost giddy look of excitement on their faces. This was “real world learning” for them and anyone who knows a good teacher, you know they ache for this kind of stuff.
There is nothing like that feeling you get when you watch your work being consumed by a room full of eager 4th graders. Nothing. It made all the dirty, messy bits of pulling together a page worth going through the next week and more.
But then, the marketing people at the newspaper saw resource consolidation and figured our little 3-person rag-tag band of talent could also be used to do in-house promotions and “merged” the departments. I left then. The mission was over, the magic was gone. And NIE sales declined as more puzzles were added as filler when nobody had enough time to “write an article.”
People rise to challenges. People ache for challenge. Using simpler words is not the answer; it is the cause of the decline of readership. Newspapers and media in general have abdicated their public trust. Everything now is entertainment, but those who lead this charge are forgetting that learning and reaching are also entertainment.