A 'Grand Vision' For New Readers
She was precollegiate education's most remarkable communications wizard. In the Roaring Twenties, when such media titans as Hearst, Pulitzer, McCormick, and Chandler were building newspaper empires, she conceived of a newspaper whose circulation would eventually dwarf all others--becoming perhaps the most widely known mainstay of the 20th-century elementary classroom.
It was in 1927 that Eleanor M. Johnson, then a director of elementary schools in York, Pa., concluded that her students were ill-informed about the world around them and decided to do something about it.
The no-nonsense Ms. Johnson approached William C. Blakey, publisher of the American Education Press in Columbus, Ohio, with the idea of a weekly newspaper for elementary-school students. Apparently, he was impressed.
In August 1928, Ms. Johnson received a telegram from Mr. Blakey stating simply: "Save Sunday. Ready to Start Your Newspaper."
A month after their Sunday strategy session at Chicago's Blackstone Hotel, My Weekly Reader published its first issue.
Ms. Johnson died Oct. 8 at the age of 94, but the publication she founded, now known simply as Weekly Reader, continues to inform millions of students about the world they live in.
9 Million Weekly Readers
The newspaper, which has a circulation of 9 million, reaches 80 percent of the nation's schools and is read by 40 percent of its elementary schoolchildren. Field Publications, Weekly Reader's current publisher, estimates that two-thirds of all American adults have read the periodical at some point.
Terry Borton, the Weekly Reader's current editor-in-chief, said Ms. Johnson's idea for a news periodical tailored for elementary-school students filled a special niche, presenting news and world events to children in a format and with a perspective that was both palatable and attractive to them.
The first issue, dated Sept. 21, 1928, for example, featured a profile of Presidential aspirants Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, highlighting their humble beginnings as poor schoolchildren. The issue also included an item on traffic policemen's clothes, a poem on the merits of cod-liver oil, a description of a ride in a German glider, and exercises in drawing, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar.
Ms. Johnson helped steer the publication through its early years by providing advice and guidance to its editors and joined the newspaper as editor-in-chief in 1935.
She retired from that position in 1961 but was a consultant for the next 10 years and returned for a year-long stint in 1977, when she was 85. She remained in close touch with the newspaper's editors until she died.
The newspaper's original publisher, American Education Press, in fact provided a model for Ms. Johnson's publishing concept. Early in the century, it had been incorporated when the Phelps Publishing Company teamed up with a Massachusetts farmer named Charles Palmer Davis, who had employed his background as a newspaperman to devise a paper called Current Events for his daughter and other junior-high-school pupils. It was to that venture that My Weekly Reader was later grafted.
American Education Press was bought in 1949 by the Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Conn., which in turn sold the publishing company to the Xerox Corporation in 1965 for 400,000 shares of Xerox stock valued at about $56 million. The Chicago-based Field Corporation acquired the company in 1985, maintaining the newspaper's headquarters in Middletown.
The Weekly Reader's staff has increased from two in 1928 to about 25 today, not including its business personnel, and the newspaper's annual sales have risen from about $750,000 at that time to roughly $20 million today.
'Grand Vision, Specific Items'
Mr. Borton attributed Ms. Johnson's success in launching Weekly Reader to a combination of imagination and organization. She possessed the rare ability to "have a grand vision and boil it down to very specific items," he said, noting that she laid out intricate grids and charts describing each element of the newspaper but was never "trapped by her own grids."
Mr. Borton said Ms. Johnson's ability to anticipate the needs of teachers and students also contributed to the newspaper's success. For example, he said, Ms. Johnson "very early got interested in the early- childhood movement and established a kindergarten edition" of Weekly Reader.
She essentially "developed a reader for kids who couldn't read at a time when that was a very radical idea," Mr. Borton said. Ms. Johnson also helped develop separate editions for each grade, working diligently with reading specialists to develop distinct vocabulary, concept, and sentence-structure criteria for each one.
The newspaper's basic format has remained constant over time, and today's teachers use it much the same way as their predecessors did, Mr. Borton said. Teachers generally turn to Weekly Reader on Friday afternoons to stimulate discussion of news, history, geography, math, science, and literary events, he said.
Even the periodical's price has not changed dramatically. Annual subscriptions, which generally are paid by students or school districts, cost 75 cents in 1928 and now cost $2.25 a year.
Broader Scope Today
But current issues of Weekly Reader address a broader range of social issues than the early editions, including such subjects as racial conflict, treatment of the handicapped, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and drug abuse.
The most recent issue included a 4-page supplement for parents containing highlights from an April 1987 reader survey on children's attitudes towards drugs and alcohol, a poster illustrating their effects on the body, and tips on how to discuss drugs and alcohol with children.
"When Weekly Reader started, it was many children's only access to the news," said Mr. Borton. "What we generally find now is that kids will know an event happened and that adults think it's important, but they won't understand what it's about."
The Weekly Reader helps fill in the background "so that something vague and mysterious becomes understandable and comprehensible," he said. That approach reflects the mission expressed by Ms. Johnson when she founded the newspaper, according to the current editor.
"Her greatest talent was to be able to take an idea, a vision of an education that had more life to it, and find practical ways to make that a reality," Mr. Borton said. "That's what Weekly Reader really is: a very simple device for bringing excitement into the classroom. But like anything simple, there is an enormous amount of complexity to making it work."
Ms. Johnson, who died at her home in Gaithersburg, Md., worked in public schools for several years before the launch of My Weekly Reader. She taught in schools in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania; was director of elementary schools in York, Pa., and Drumright and Oklahoma City, Okla.; and was assistant superintendent for curriculum in Lakewood, Ohio.
She was also a visiting professor at Columbia University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Chicago.
She graduated from the University of Chicago, earned a master's degree from Teachers College at Columbia University, and received an honorary doctorate in literature from Hood College in Maryland.
Ms. Johnson wrote more than 50 workbooks on reading, arithmetic, and geography and was co-author of several textbooks.
Over the years, Ms. Johnson also worked in various capacities on Weekly Reader's sister publications, including Current Events, Current Science, Every Week, and Our Times.
In December, Field Publications also plans to launch U.S. Kids, a periodical designed for home use by 5- to 12-year-olds.