Smart kids crave breaking news.
They are a natural audience — intelligent, curious, fascinated by the story, able to assimilate facts and associate ideas at cyberspeed. And they live with one foot in the online world.
But some parents worry that the news is too often presented in a violent, graphic or hypersexualized way. Or that it’s just not age-appropriate.
“Once I started distilling news for my 7-year old,” says Claudia Heitler, a former producer for NBC’s Today Show, “I found it was a lot more work than I thought it would be. It sometimes took me hours between finding an appropriate story and finding the right way to tell it.”
For example, she says, “could I say that North Korea was in ‘time-out’?”
Heitler figured that other families might be in the same boat. So she launched Here There Everywhere – News for Kids.
Increasingly, Heitler says, there are more outside influences on young people as they grow older — video games and television and various marketing campaigns. “This seems to be the savviest generation of kids ever” she says. “All fine, but let’s also take some time to tell them about what’s going on in the world and make that accessible to them, let’s make them savvy about that, too.”
Recent HTE stories include: “Should Dogs Wear Seat Belts?” and “There’s a New Country” about the Republic of South Sudan.
Here There Everywhere is not the only news-for-kids site. There are others, including DOGO News and Youngzine. Another site, GoGoNews, is designed to be read by people who are at least 7 years old, says founder Golnar Khosrowshahi. “Given the variance in literacy levels for the under 7 set, while the content is suitable, the most satisfaction would probably be gained when viewing it with the help of an adult.” For the under-7 set, the site provides a way for kids to listen to the articles.
All of this attention to newspups brings back memories of last century, when newspapers and magazines – battling against declining circulation — created kid-oriented sections, hoping to “young up” their audiences. Time magazine even launched a Time for Kids edition.
Now in the digital age, that quest for youth continues. There is a Time for Kids website. The New York Times also has a student-oriented blog called the Learning Network. The BBC created the Children’s BBC for pre-teens. The Washington Post publishes a web version of its KidsPost section. And there are many others.
There are obstacles. All the sites must reckon with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which makes it illegal for a website to collect personal information or track the online activities of anyone younger than 13, without parental consent.
And what about bad news? The recent attacks in Norway, for instance. How do these news-for-newbies sites handle adult stories?
Here is the lede of the GoGo News story: “After a bomb was detonated in the Norwegian capital city of Oslo, further reports came in of a man in a police uniform killing more people at a summer camp on Utoya Island outside of the city.”
Golnar Khosrowshahi explains that her site covered the Norway tragedies for several reasons. “The second attack occurred at a youth camp and there would be a greater likelihood that children would hear about it and have questions,” she says. And “the unexpected nature of the event — given that it occurred in a normally peaceful northern European country — has made it front page news and topical discussion, more so than a roadside bomb in Iraq or a suicide bomb in India.”
She adds: “There is no intent to undermine those incidents or assign a lesser value on lives lost — just an editorial decision of if and when it is appropriate to publish news that is appropriate for children to consume.”
Here There Everywhere dealt with the situation differently: “This is the slippery slope where I agonize,” Claudia Heitler says. “For all my advocacy for news and awareness, including some of the weightier topics, I am not writing about the Oslo attacks. I mourn for those people with all my heart, but I also believe in filtering and omitting for the sake of children.”
She uses her son as the litmus test. “I have not brought it up with him,” Heitler says. “Rightly or wrongly, I do not want to potentially instill fear in a young child that they could be the victim of calculated, horrific violence anywhere at anytime — especially if the children I am telling are not my own.”
At this stage, she says, the site “is not meant to be comprehensive. It is meant to start conversations.”
Tracy Grant, editor of KidsPost, agrees about the mission of kids-news sites. “Big news-bad news stories have to have either a connection to kids’ worlds or historic significance,” Grant says. “Part of this is the notion that we have an unwritten pact with parents. We don’t want to needlessly put something on the breakfast table on a Tuesday morning that is going to engender an uncomfortable conversation. But we do want to help them have interesting conversations about the news.”