Pursuit of Youth
Newspapers owe children so much. Children sell newspapers by getting up at five in the morning but also sell them by dying in fires at five in the morning, and by disappearing mysteriously, by gazing raptly at ducks in parks on newsless summer days, and by staring with innocent eyes at horrors too immense to comprehend. There's only one more thing newspapers ask children to do. Read them, for God's sake! So that newspapers will not vanish from the earth.
The current issue of NewsInc., a trade magazine, carries two full-page ads that suggest the immensity of the debt. The advertisers are Fuji Film and the Associated Press, and each pitches its wares by offering for the reader's contemplation a photograph of a little boy taken in the Balkans. The tasteless headline of the Fuji ad boasts "The most powerful shot in Yugoslavia didn't come from a gun," and beneath the picture of the sobbing boy surrounded by sobbing adults dressed in black the copy begins: "In this case, the source was Fuji Film. Fuji offers a wide variety to optimize any assignment . . . "
The AP offers a child cringing inside a coat and pressing a hand toward adult hands separated from his by glass. The glass appears to be the window of a bus about to carry him away. "When this boy reached out, he touched the whole world," announces the AP, proud as can be. The ad goes on:
"The single perfect photo. Timeless. Yet rushed to 8,500 AP newspapers around the world in the blink of an eye. To become the news of that day. And perhaps the icon of an entire people's suffering . . . "
If children studied the daily paper they would discover how frequently they're made icons. But they don't study it; they barely pick it up--a point made by an article in the same issue of NewsInc., "See Dick and Jane not read."
A 1991 survey was cited that found "only 19.9 percent of kids ages six to 14 read any part of a newspaper on any given weekday." The reasons suggested by the article begin with the obvious--television--and proceed to fairly fancy speculation. What is wrong with the hyperdesigned American newspaper from a child's point of view may be what is wrong with the planned community from urbanologist Jane Jacobs's. It is overdesigned and charmless. It doesn't work.
"Editors now manipulate graphics and type through computers to make the newspaper page a series of perfect, symmetrical rectangles," observes NewsInc. And perhaps as a result, "Kids regard newspapers in much the same way they think of banks: places that are cold and intimidating."
Newspapers, naturally, are fighting back. The children's sections that newspapers around the country are now rolling out aren't mere advertising magnets--some of them don't even carry ads. At the Chicago Tribune, the Spots-the-dog Sunday-comics page and teen movie critics were modest preludes. Last August the Tribune introduced Kidnews, three years in the planning, honed by focus groups, and aimed at 12-year-olds who barely knew the Tribune even existed. These are busy young people, and the Tribune does not intend to try their patience.
"You've only got five paragraphs, never more than eight," Kidnews reporter Brenda Herrmann told us. "If you try to tell too much you wind up with nothing. And this is big type! So you gotta make your point and make it clear. It's more than just chopping a long sentence into short sentences. Make it clear and have some fun. I just write it like I'm talking. I talk like a kid, actually."
Age 12 is the bull's-eye of a target audience that ranges from fifth- to eighth-graders. "They don't call those the wonder years for nothing," reflected John Lux, the assistant features editor who oversees Kidnews. "It's an age when kids really do love learning. They're not yet wise guys. Hormones haven't totally ruined their minds. They're still open to new ideas. And also, it's very hard for them to read the adult paper. There's not much in the daily paper written for them."
We reminded Lux of the popular belief that daily papers are entirely written and edited at the intellectual level of the ungifted child.
"As it turns out, they aren't. The language is too adult. The sentences are too complicated. As you and I both know, you tend to get into a journalistic kind of prose that we think is clear. But it's our way of saying it, and the rest of the world doesn't necessarily think it's clear.
"Length puts kids off. It also puts adults off. Now some of the older kids in the audience [13 and 14 years old] are telling us they want more information. They're saying, "Oh, that's not enough.' We say, we know. We hope they'll be ready to go on. There's a danger in editing a kids' section in making it older and older as the readers get older. Teenagers will have to graduate to the regular paper or we're not doing our job."
Are they? we asked Lux.
"Too early to tell," he said.
Lux wanted a hip, fun name for the new section, a moniker along the lines of Sassy. He was overruled. The Tribune's marketing people supported something neutral. Since the goal was to build an audience for the Tribune, editor Jack Fuller insisted that "news" be part of the name. And former features editor Colleen Dishon, the section's primary creator, insisted on "kid."
"We called it 'kid' so we wouldn't turn it into a teenage publication," Lux explained. "It's called 'kid' to keep us honest, really."
"When we wrote about the deficit we compared it to a kid's allowance," Brenda Herrmann told us. "When Mark Caro and I got together to write about the Somalia crisis, we explained it kind of like different gangs and each one controls its neighborhood and why the people aren't getting the food is because the gangs are battling over the food.
"That was actually the first time I understood it. And we got calls from parents saying that was the first time they understood it! Kidnews is a cheat sheet. What did they call those little notes--Cliffs Notes! Cliffs Notes to the world!"
Think of the daily paper as a ponderous civics book full of material you resist studying all semester. Suddenly it's exam time and you don't know a damn thing. By the time serious citizens face their obligation to know one or two things about a Somalia or a Bosnia, it's too late to learn. Twelve-year-olds live in a world that's largely over their heads, but they aren't the only ones.
Kidnews editor Stephen Cvengros says that "twentysomethings"--a TV-raised cohort the newspaper industry took for granted and now mourns as a lost generation--have actually called to thank Kidnews for primers that had been written to edify preteens. Older adults have shown less gratitude. These are parents offended on their kids' behalf, usually by something on page three, the "Tough News" page, where items on downer subjects like AIDS, rape, and incest constantly appear.
But, says Lux, this is the page that seals the bargain. In return for their attention, Kidnews gives kids a dose of respect and a taste of serious journalism. "What we've found in our research is that unlike TV, which is a medium that pounds you with its information whether you want it to or not, kids tend to turn the page if there's a story they don't understand or that makes them uncomfortable. If parents phone in--and we answer all letters--we say it's nothing different than they'd get in the Tribune's news pages or on TV news."
"The first thing parents say when they call to complain about something is 'How many kids do you have?'" said Herrmann, who's 24, doesn't have any, but listens to her 12-year-old kid sister. "I think parents kind of underestimate their children." For example, no lasting harm was probably done to anyone this past Tuesday by a cartoon that offered a famous crotch-jockey trying to explain: "When I touch myself here, I'm not touching me . . . I'm touching a universal spirit of love for all the children on this planet and others."
But Herrmann rolled into work, flipped on her voice mail, and out came the usual. "I think your Michael Jackson cartoon today is almost pornographic," grumbled an adult female voice. "It's not the kind of thing I think children should be seeing."
"It's early," Herrmann told us. "I'll be getting more calls."
The Crime of the Century, a new Bantam paperback, is a 462-page look back at the Richard Speck murders. Its wealth of inside detail is unbeatable, and the authors' extraordinary sensitivity to the cast of characters also stands out.
For example, here's a portrait of head prosecutor William J. Martin on the eve of the trial. Martin has reluctantly decided to drop an experienced colleague from the state's prosecution team in favor of a much younger man:
"This bitter and lonely decision was personally abhorrent and painful to Martin, who knew that Glenville would be heartbroken. Chicago Daily News reporter John Justin Smith had described Martin in print as a man who 'treats smiles like diamonds and is slow to give them away.' Although many casual observers found Martin to be cool and remote, he was underneath a very caring, emotional, warm man."
Look for The Crime of the Century in bookshops soon. It was written by Dennis L. Breo, a Chicago journalist, and by William J. Martin.
Annals of paradox. From the press booklet:
"'The Incredible Journey' was first filmed as a motion picture by Walt Disney in 1963. Three decades later, Walt Disney Pictures has retold the story in an updated version of the timeless classic."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.