Australia’s kid-focused newspaper Crinkling News wants to teach media literacy to young readers – Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard

Saffron Howden knew she was on the right track with Crinkling News, her Australian kid-focused weekly newspaper, within a few days of Donald Trump being elected. Even among Australian schoolchildren, there was a lot of trepidation about the implications of a Donald Trump presidency. One school introduced art therapy to help kids process their emotions.

The uncertainty that kids felt in November — much of which persists among both the young and not-so-young — underscored Howden’s initial motivation a year ago to create a newspaper written for the country’s young news consumers, ages 7 to 15. The world can be a scary place, she argues, and the country’s largest media companies were doing a poor job of explaining things in a way that kids could understand.

“I was hearing a lot of stories from parents about how their kids really wanted to read the newspaper, but the parents felt like they had to go through and cut out certain stories beforehand,” Howden said. “A lot of them were also turning off the television when the evening news came on, in case there were stories that were presented in a way that the kids weren’t ready to deal with.”

Howden, a longtime newspaper reporter who’s worked at The Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph, said she saw a gap in the news market for a newspaper that parents wouldn’t be horrified to see their kids reading. With complicated, scary issues, a core part of the approach is “allaying fears while at the same time explaining in the most basic terms what’s going on,” she said. After Donald Trump’s election, for example, Crinkling News ran a special explainer on the ins and outs of the United States government system in an effort to assure kids that the system’s checks and balances would prevent Trump from exercising uncontested power. The newspaper has also applied that approach to domestic issues such as Australia’s ongoing debates over immigration and citizenship.

The ongoing fight against terrorism has tested the Crinkling News model. After the London attack in March, Crinkling News ran a feature that answered basic questions about the attack (“What is terrorism?”) and reminded readers that the number of terrorists in the world remains small. The issue also featured advice from a psychologist on what children should do if they had trouble emotionally processing the attack. Howden said that the newspaper never goes into detail about how terrorist attacks are carried out. “We want to give them more knowledge to help them be less scared,” she said. But this doesn’t mean talking down to them. “We’re conscious that we’re writing for them and we don’t want them to feel like we’re imposing something on them or treating them like they’re stupid.”

The web has been less of a focus for the newspaper, at least so far. While much of its content is paywalled, Crinkling News does use the site to publish special videos, which it freely offers to non-subscribers. Recent examples include an interview with New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian.

While Howden said that the newspaper’s readership growth (it currently roughly reaches 30,000 kids across the country) has been “remarkable,” that hasn’t prevented Crinkling News from running into cash problems. Earlier this month, the newspaper launched an IndieGoGo campaign that it hopes will bring in AUD $200,000 (USD $147,761) to help it “jump the final hurdle to sustainability.” How does Howden reconcile its growth with its money problems? The team’s focus on putting out a high-quality paper has “left us little time to sit down in meetings securing additional seed funding,” she said. Crinkling News plans to use the cash to fund its marketing, subscription sales, and ad sales efforts. As of time of writing, it’s more than halfway to its goal, with $130,000 Australian raised with three days left to go. Some of its young readers have offered to donate their own money or run bake sales to help keep the newspaper afloat, according to Howden.

Newspapers and magazines aimed at children are not new (Time magazine, for example, runs Time for Kids), but the idea seems increasingly important as a general lack of news literacy has contributed to the rise of fake news and anti-media sentiment in many countries. The idea for Crinkling News was in part inspired by what Howden saw from newspapers such as France’s 19-year-old daily children’s newspaper Le Petit Quotidien and First News in the U.K. In particular, Howden said she was impressed by how Le Petit Quotidien handled the Paris attacks by giving children a way to ask questions about what happened.

Howden consciously built on the models of those papers — some of which let kids sit in on their editorial meetings — but wanted to expand the role that children themselves had in the newspaper’s production. While all of Crinkling News’ news stories are written by professional journalists, the newspaper regularly features reviews of books, movies, video games, and even animals written by young readers. It’s even brought some children on as junior reporters, giving them the chance to interview people as prominent as Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten. “One thing I thought was essential was, if you were going to engage them in the news, you have to involve them,” Howden said.

While Crinkling News is aimed at children, the newspaper has found a fairly large base of readers among parents, who have also been drawn to Crinkling News’ back-to-basics approach to news coverage. It turns out that, in writing for children, Crinkling News has also been able to effectively serve adults looking to refresh their knowledge of basic topics. (The success of American efforts such as the podcast Civics 101 shows that the approach has enjoyed wide popularity as of late.) “There’s an incredible amount of assumed knowledge on the part of the general mainstream media. We don’t make those assumptions.”

There’s also a big media literacy angle to Crinkling News, which is also built around giving children early lessons on how to process news stories and teaching them how journalism gets done. The hope is that a more knowledgeable generation of young Australian news consumers will grow up to be wiser and more civic-minded readers as adults.

“We want our readers to come out learning more about how journalism works and having more faith in professional journalists. We’ve locked ourselves away for too long,” Howden said. “It’s made it way too easy for certain people to come in and say, ‘The reporters are just making it all up.’”

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