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The Paper Chase

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"Class Acts'' is part of a rapidly growing trend in the newspaper business. Alarmed by long-term declines in readership, newspapers are realizing that they have to do more to woo the audience critical to their future: children and teenagers.

According to the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, the percentage of adults age 30 to 44 reading a news- paper every day declined from about 75 percent in 1972 to about 45 percent in 1989. Young adults, in the 18 to 24 age group, showed a similar decline, from 73 percent in 1970 to 53 percent in 1990. And according to a 1989 survey by the bureau, just 41 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds look at a daily newspaper on the average weekday; only 16 percent read it five out of five days.

These grim statistics have inspired many newspapers to develop special youth-oriented pages or sections like "Class Acts'' that either simplify the "adult'' news or tackle topics of special interest to teens, such as music and dating. For example:

  • The Syracuse (N.Y.) HeraldJournal has a weekly section called "hj,'' which has recently run stories on gay teenagers, anorexics, and students whose mother or father has died. Not every story, however, is so serious--the section also includes movie and music reviews, student profiles, and a "prom prep'' column. "In the past,'' says Grant Podelco, the editor who oversees the special section, "we haven't treated teenagers' 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, hired a panel of high school-age movie reviewers, and has increased coverage of high school sports. The paper is also planning a section that will focus on middle school students.

Newspaper publishers have long enlisted the aid of teachers in their effort to hook young readers. As early as the 1930s, publishers were distributing newspapers to schools, usually offering discounted subscriptions. Now, they are also developing new products and ever more creative ways to persuade teachers to use their products in the classroom.

Several papers have beefed up their education programs to take advantage of student interest in such current events as the Persian Gulf war and the collapse of communism. Newsday of Long Island, N.Y., for example, instituted a daily "briefing page'' for students during the Gulf war and has since turned it into a twice-weekly feature on current events.

Other publishers have a more ambitious goal: They want to incorporate their newspapers into the entire school curriculum.

USA Today, for example, offers a 20-page catalog of educational products designed to help teachers use the splashy national newspaper in the classroom. Among its newest products is a curriculum guide titled "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 batting averages, fielding percentages, and earned-run averages. Both 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 writers at the newspaper's head- quarters near Washington, D.C., develops teacher tips and learning activities tailored to the next day's edition. The "Classline Today'' curriculum guide is then sent via satellite to each of USA Today's 30 printing sites nationwide, so it can be delivered to schools with the newspaper.

This fall, The Wall Street Journal went a step further, launching a special classroom edition. Articles culled from the parent paper will be laid out in a full-color monthly tabloid that will go to schools. A prototype included articles on the recession, McDonald's attempts to develop a pizza product, and the high debt burden many college graduates face from their student loans.

The Journal is promoting the use of the 24-page publication 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.

"There is a need for timely, relevant economics information for the classroom,'' says Melinda Grenier Guiles, a one-time high school teacher who is the classroom edition's editor and publisher. "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.''

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

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

And The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee has tested a program that allows schools to access its entire library of past editions via computer. A curriculum has also been developed that lets students do further research on a topic in the day's newspaper.

It's clear that the newspaper industry needs schools, but how valuable are newspapers to the school curriculum? Most teachers seem to think they are worthwhile educational tools. Although many educators have fought to keep commercially sponsored TV news programs, like Whittle Communication's Channel One, out of the nation's schools, few object to using newspapers in the classroom, even though they, too, are loaded with advertising.

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 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.''

Newspapers also are an effective tool for teaching math, says DeRoche, who has studied the topic extensively. "It brings the real world into the math world,'' he notes.

Overall, he says, newspapers give students "content to think about.''
--Mark Walsh, Education Week

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