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With Special Sections and Curriculum Guides, Newspapers Move To Grab Younger Readers

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While most readers of the Fort Worth (Tex.) Star-Telegram are content to follow the daily goings-on in the Congress and the city council, young readers there know that each week they can turn to a special section to find out about schools, fashions, and movies.

Created in 1989, "Class Acts," a slick weekly section, offers cover stories on drugs and child abuse, as well as fun features like "Adventures in Babysitting" and "Surviving the Summer Home Alone." One recent feature examined a trend toward neon orthodonture. More than 500 local youths applied to be models for the tabloid's fashion features.

"Our thinking is that, if you can read and you are in school, we want to have something in there for you," says Bruce Raben, an editor with the Star-Telegram.

Though only two years old, "Class Acts" is a pioneer in a rapidly growing trend in the newspaper business. Long welcomed into classrooms to help teach current events and other subjects, newspapers are now paying even greater attention to an audience critical to their future: children and teenagers.

Alarmed by declining long-term readership trends, newspapers are realizing the importance of establishing a daily reading habit among young people at the earliest possible stage.

Many newspapers are developing special sections or pages for young readers that either simplify the "adult" news or tackle topics of special interest to youths, such as music and dating. Others are coming up with innovations on the 50-year-old tradition of newspapers in the classroom.

"We thought when they go away to college, they will read [the newspaper], but they didn't," Mr. Raben says. "Then we thought when they start in business, they will read, but they didn't. So we decided we had to start earlier."

Publishers acknowledge that efforts like "Class Acts" are essential for newspapers to survive.

Researchers know that children raised in homes where their parents regularly read the paper are more likely to follow that pattern. The trouble is, fewer of today's parents are likely to be regular readers.

According to the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, the percentage of adults aged 30 to 44 reading a newspaper everyday declined from about 75 percent in 1972 to about 45 percent in 1989. Young adults, in the 18 to 24 age group, do slightly better, with 53 percent reading in 1990, down from 73 percent in 1970.

According to a 1989 survey by the bureau, 41 percent of those aged 12 to 17 look at a daily newspaper on the average weekday. But only 16 percent read it five days out of five.

In response to such grim statistics, newspapers across the country have taken up the challenge and developed new products. For example:

The New York Times's syndication service is spreading to a host of newspapers some features from the Fort Worth section.

The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald-Journal has a similar weekly section called "hj," which has recently run stories on gay teenagers, anorexics, and students whose mother or father have died. Not every story is so serious--the section also includes movie and music reviews, student profiles, and a "prom prep" column.

"There's no condescension in the section; it's written for the teenagers," says Grant Podelco, arts editor of the Herald-Journal, who oversees "hj." "In the past, we haven't treated their lives and society as something worth covering."

Florida Today, based in Melbourne, Fla., recently launched a weekly page for teenagers called "Yo! Info!" The Washington Post also created a new weekly page titled "Under 21--Fresh news and your views."

The Chicago Tribune has introduced a daily index for young readers, a panel of high-school-aged movie reviewers, and beefed-up coverage of high-school sports. Up next, when funds become available, is a pullout section focusing on "tweens," or middle-school students, says John Lux, the paper's associate features editor.

Pre-teenagers are at the age "where you can really grab them," Mr. Lux says.

In addition to developing new sections, newspaper industry officials also argue that more resources should be devoted to one of their more reliable ways of hooking readers early: enlisting the aid of classroom teachers. In fact, they are developing new products and ever more creative ways to persuade teachers to use their products in the classroom.

The traditional avenue for newspapers in classrooms, Newspapers-in-Education programs, has its roots in the 1930's, when The New York Times became the first major paper to offer discount deliveries to schools.

Now, 9 out of 10 newspapers distribute their product to schools throughout theel10lschool year, according to the American Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

"The key to it is involvement," says Betty Sullivan, director of educational services for the anpa Foundation. "If the young person can feel a sense of involvement, then they are going to want that news product in their lives on an ongoing basis."

Several papers have also beefed up their education programs to take advantage of interest in current events, such as the Persian Gulf war.

New York and Long Island Newsday, for example, which instituted a daily "briefing page" for students during the war, have turned it into a twice-weekly feature on current events.

"With the changes in the news in the last two years, teachers and students have to rely on newspapers to keep up," says Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

While newspapers continue to provide their publications to schools, many are now going beyond simple distribution to develop methods of incorporating newspa6pers into the entire school curriculum.

USA Today, for example, has a 20-page catalogue of educational products that offers ideas on how the splashy national newspaper can be used in the classroom.

Among its newest products is a curriculum guide entitled "How to Teach Math with USA Today." The key feature is a game called "Stat Rat Fantasy Baseball," which includes a statistics booklet that encourages students to use math to figure players' batting averages, fielding percentages, and pitchers' earned-run averages. Major League Baseball and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have endorsed the project.

USA Today also has one of the most technologically advanced programs for providing curriculum guides to the daily newspaper.

Each day, a team of educational writers at the newspaper's headquarters near Washington develops teacher tips and teaching activities tailored to the next day's edition. The "Classline Today" curriculum guide is then sent out via satellite to each of USA Today's 30 printing sites nationwide so it can be delivered to schools with the newspaper.

The Wall Street Journal is going a step further.

This fall, it will launch a classroom edition of the business newspaper. Articles culled from the parent paper will be layed out in a full-color tabloid that will go monthly to schools. A prototype includes articles on the recession, on McDonald's attempts to develop a pizza product, and on the high debt burden many college graduates are facing from their student loans.

The Journal is promoting the use of the 24-page section primarily for business and economics classes, but a teachers' guide also suggests how it could be applied to journalism, mathematics, science, and social-studies courses.

"Twenty-eight states now require some type of economics class," says Melinda Grenier Guiles, a one-time high-school teacher who is the classroom edition's editor and publisher. "There is a need for timely, relevant economics information for the classroom."

"The other broader purpose, obviously, is that, if people aren't educated about economics and business, then they aren't going to have much need for our newspaper," she adds.

Newspapers are also experimenting with new technologies aimed at students. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette has "Kidsline," a phone line that provides information on children's events, library tips, riddles, and "facts of the day."

Knight-Ridder Inc., which publishes The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other papers, has developed "Medialine," an online computer service that provides weekly lesson plans to teachers, graphics, and current-events tests. Students can also use the system to do research for papers.

The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee has tested a program where schools can access its entire library of past editions via computer. A curriculum has been developed to have students do further research on a topic in the day's newspaper. Next year, the area's largest school system will be installing "Beeline" in 27 schools, according to Sandy Mather, the newspaper's director of educational services.

It's clear the newspaper industry needs schools, but how valuable are newspapers to the school curriculum?

Most educators seem to hold a special place for newspapers. Few object to the fact that papers are rich with advertising, while classroom TV-news projects, like Whittle Communications's "Channel One," which includes two minutes of paid commercials, continue to raise hackles.

One reason may be that newspapers have been shown to aid student achievement.

"They have a great impact on current-events knowledge, as you would expect," says Edward F. DeRoche, dean of the school of education at the University of San Diego. "But they also help with reading achievement. They make a natural reading material."

"And using newspaper content to teach math has been shown to be a good teaching instrument," adds Mr. DeRoche, who has studied the topic extensively. "It brings the real world into the math world."

Newspapers "give you content to think about," Mr. DeRoche says.

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