The Australian media has long neglected its young readers, with only a handful of publications catering specifically for children over the course of the last hundred years. But things are changing, reports Krati Garg.
* * *
The first publication in Australia dedicated to young readers, The Children’s Newspaper, was launched more than 100 years ago, in 1899.
But the venture was short-lived: it closed down the following year, consigned to the too-hard basket.
“[W]e cannot see our way to start another volume,” the paper informed readers. “The C.N. is only a comparatively small production, but small as it is, the tax on our editor’s time has been too great, and even editors get wearied when they have too much work to do.”
And that’s the way it pretty much stayed for decades.
But Crinkling News, Australia’s first print and online weekly newspaper for children, is breaking the mold. Launched early last year, the publication has 3500 subscribers and more than 20,000 readers, some from overseas.
Its founder and editor, the former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Saffron Howden, says that she has always been aware of the lack of children’s publications in Australia.
“There is absolutely nothing for kids in Australia. There is Behind the News from the ABC [soon to turn 50], and us. That’s it, in terms of national news production.”
“I realised that these kids’ newspapers have a very vital role to play in making sense of what is sometimes a very scary world.”
Crinking, however, is not the only publication trying to engage school children. Melbourne’s Herald Sun recently launched Kids News, to be used as a teaching tool in Victoria’s public schools.
Editor Karina Grift says that despite the Herald Sun’s extensive involvement with schools there was an increasing demand for a tool that could be integrated in classroom learning.
“Teachers told us that kids were really becoming limited in their knowledge about the world because they were not exposed to newspapers at home like previous generations,” says Grift. Teachers often found it hard to source age-appropriate, quality content from mainstream news sites, she adds.
Media groups in other countries, notably in Europe, are already building bridges to young readers and viewers.
The Norwegian public broadcaster, NRK, launched Supernytt in 2009, its own children’s channel that runs news bulletins tailored for children. Supernytt also has Instagram and Snapchat accounts dedicated to kids.
Kristin Granbo, a news producer with Supernytt, says that the channel’s news bulletin is routinely beamed into schools during lunch break, although it is not a part of the curriculum.
The bulletin can kickstart class discussions, helping teachers explain world events.
Granbo has also studied how new platforms, formats and increasing competition online are changing the way journalists interact with a younger audience. Her research revealed that most 9-to-12-year-olds in Norway accessed news on their mobile phone and through mediums such as Snapchat and Instagram.
“Children’s news can no longer be defined as just a 15-minute bulletin aired on TV at 5pm,” Ms Granbo tells The Citizen.
“Why? Because our audience is busy at that time of the day. In fact, they are busy at all times, all day: sending ‘snaps’ to each other, liking pictures on Instagram, sharing links on Facebook and watching hilarious YouTube videos.”
As a result, news providers are taking to these platforms, with around half of the 11 programs specialising in children’s news in Europe now making content on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.
In Australia, no news provider has yet launched a child-friendly social media news product.
But Kids News editor Grift says that the Herald Sun was concerned about the growing trend of young people sourcing news only via social media more generally, which can give readers “a very blinkered view of the world.”
“How many times have you read a story in the paper that you knew nothing about before? Would you have read that story if you relied on social media?”
Margot O’Brien, a child psychologist who advises Crinkling on aspects of news coverage, agrees that children’s exposure to news and dramatic events has changed markedly over the decades.
“There is more live coverage and dramatic images. It is common for parents to turn off the TV news when [children] are around,” she says.
O’Brien gets involved with more sensitive stories, advising Crinkling editors on presentation, while on occasions adding information about how children can deal with any anxiety they may feel after reading a story.
“Finally, I always like to tap into kids’ desire to help others and add a line or two on how they might get involved and help those impacted,” she adds.
Howden sees in Crinkling an opportunity to help children become well-informed adults, to “prepare them in a child-appropriate way so that they do not go completely unarmed [and without] knowledge.”
Crinkling has reported on a wide range of issues in its first year — from terrorism, bullying and mental health issues, to refugees and same-sex marriage.
Dhana Quinn, a freelance journalist and regular contributor, says that writing for children gives her an opportunity to be creative and cover a wide variety of topics.
“One day I’ll be writing about the mystery surrounding hidden boots in old buildings and the next I’ll be covering the US political system,” she says.
“But the challenge lies in pulling the issues apart, putting them in context and delivering articles in an engaging way, which can be tough. I’ve written about the South China Sea dispute, free trade and the terrorist attack in Nice — these are complex stories to write for any audience and particularly tricky for children.”
Historically, children have been shielded from news about tragic events, says Supernytt’s Kristin Granbo. But holding back information is no longer an option.
Granbo says she was shocked to see that most news channels across Europe switched to live coverage of an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris at the start of 2015, and the ensuing hostage situation that ended with the military closing in.
“It became almost impossible to hold back on running a news story for children, who would have seen the graphic coverage already.”
Newsmakers find more suitable ways to approach difficult issues for their young audiences. Granbo says that Supernytt doesn’t give out specific numbers of casualties and approaches a tragic event from an angle that is compassionate.
Howden says that news for children shouldn’t be fluffy. The news site approached the widely-debated issue of same sex marriage recently by interviewing two children, James, 9, and Electra, 5, who live with their two mums.
“If you want to get married you should be able to,” James is quoted as saying. “What’s wrong with being gay and wanting to get married?”
Sub-editor Judy Prisk, also an ex-Sydney Morning Herald journalist, says that editing for kids is no different in terms of fairness, accuracy and balance, “the only real difference is using simpler words — make, rather than manufacture, for example.”
Crinkling has contributors ranging from ages 5-to-17 who conduct vox pops, join panel discussions, interview politicians, and write game reviews and opinion pieces.
Prisk says that the passion exhibited by young contributors and the quality of their work astound her.
Howden, who wants to nurture a culture of writing and reporting by children, says that Crinkling is planning to introduce an associate editor role for children to experience the newsmaking process.
Fourteen-year-old Diya Mehta is one such conscientious contributor, who has been writing for Crinkling since its launch.
“It feels that someone actually cares about what I think and that I can help affect the way people think and see the world, and that is an amazing feeling,” she says.
Diya, who wishes to pursue a career in political journalism, participated in a Q and A discussion hosted by Crinkling that involved Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Greens co-deputy Larissa Waters and Labor MP Amanda Rishworth.
She says that she felt honoured to have also interviewed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “It was an experience that was nerve-wracking to start with, but was exhilarating.”
Kids News’ editor Grift says that the key to capitalising on the digital revolution is by engaging children while they learn. Grift rules out a print edition for the digital-only Kids News.
“The most exciting thing about digital is that despite Kids News being a Victorian product, we are not hampered by traditional newspaper delivery boundaries.”
Crinkling’s Howden enjoys the flexibility of both mediums, despite the masthead taking its lead from the German children’s site ‘Kruschel’, translated loosely as the sound of paper being crumpled.
“All the research suggests that despite the fact that we have kindles and electronic books all over the place, kids still like reading printed things,” she says.
Of Crinkling’s potential competitor, Kids News, Howden adds: “I’m very proud [that] our ground-breaking national newspaper for kids has inspired a huge media company to try to offer news for young people in Australia.”
Crinkling, which is now at the point of breaking even, sells for $4.50 per issue. Howden, its sole proprietor, is optimistic about its future, with an App possibly on the cards.
She bases her hopes on the success of long-established, subscription-based children’s newspapers published overseas, including the UK’s First News and Le Petit Quotidien.
The advent of Crinkling and Kids News could at last signal a shift in Australian media attitudes to children.
“If we don’t have news consumers in the future, we don’t have a business,” says Kids News’ editor Karina Grift.
► An edited version of this story was also published at SBS online.