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Four years ago, media giant Time Warner unveiled a new magazine that sent tremors through the genteel world of classroom periodicals. Until then, grade-school kids read venerable, old-paradigm publications like Weekly Reader, Highlights for Children, and Scholastic News; interesting and useful, those revered titles present the world as a secure, insulated place. Great for teachers, safe for kids, beloved by parents, they thrive as the bound-and-stapled equivalents of warm milk.

The equivalent of an old-fashioned newspaper war is brewing in the usually staid backwater of children's publishing.

From its launch in September 1995, however, Time for Kids signaled that it would spike the drink. Rather than touting a story on kite-flying or cookie-baking, its debut cover featured a photograph of a crying Bosnian boy, a victim of the Balkans conflict. Accompanying text struck a poignant note: "He's only known war." The image was stunning enough that it could have fronted an edition of the adult Time magazine. And that was precisely the point.

With that issue, Time for Kids changed classroom magazines forever. Peppered with real-world details and brimming with breaking news, Time for Kids has tackled issues ranging from the sugar content in soda pop to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Benefiting from Time's bureaus, copy desks, and international reach, the magazine has delivered unprecedented news coverage to grade schoolers. Circulation has climbed from 700,000 to 2.6 million-the fifth-largest among Time Warner publications-and the magazine has won numerous awards from the Educational Press Association.

This fall, the old guard of classroom publishing answered Time for Kids' challenge with two new magazines. The Weekly Reader Corp. is partnering with Newsweek to produce Teen Newsweek for ages 11 to 15, and Scholastic Inc. has aligned with the New York Times to produce Upfront, for students 14 to 19.

Together, these three publications promise to change how kids learn about the world. Executives and editors at each contend their stories will inform kids and even make them better citizens. And that may be true; many teachers have embraced the new real-world coverage. But as the offspring of multimedia conglomerates, each magazine breaches the once-sacred, now-crumbling wall dividing business and education. And each has inherited its parent corporation's style of journalism, warts and all. In the end, the three walk a fine line in their bid to prove to parents and teachers that the new breed of classroom magazines is, indeed, good news.

The Time for Kids invasion of the classroom magazine market was inevitable. Time Inc., the magazine division of the Time Warner conglomerate, boasts more than 30 magazines and 120 million readers. Though it's known for launching such genre-defining titles as Life, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune, the company in recent years has had more success spinning off titles than creating new ones. Two of the industry's hottest magazines, In Style and Teen People, were cloned from the celebrity-hawking People. And the 10-year-old Sports Illustrated for Kids remains one of the steadiest performers in the Time Warner stable, with ancillary products including a best-selling CD-ROM sports encyclopedia.

Time for Kids mirrors the news sensibilities of its adult namesake. Founding editor Claudia Wallis is a 20-year veteran of the Time newsroom. Though many Weekly Reader and Scholastic editors come to publishing from education, Wallis is a pure newsie; her credentials include two National Magazine Award nominations and 19 cover-story bylines. (Wallis remains a Time contributing editor and recently won an Education Writers Association award for the 1998 cover story, "How To Make Your Kid A Better Student.")

Time for Kids featured an 'interview' with Mattel's legendary Barbie doll. A dubious story choice, perhaps, compounded by the fact that the magazine let the blond bombshell shill her CD-ROMs and 'fabulous outfits.'

Under Wallis, TFK has made good use of the legendary Time resources. The magazine is produced in Time Warner's Rockefeller Center headquarters in Manhattan, and its editors have arms-reach access to Time story files. Working in classic Time Inc. style, TFK writers build child-tailored stories from the legwork of Time reporters. "We share Time magazine's news service," explains Wallis, "and we have access to all of Time's reporting. Sometimes we will append a request to a story that is being covered by Time. We'll add our own set of questions to the correspondent's list." If TFK wanted a story from a war-torn nation, she says, "We'd ask the reporter to get quotes from children returning to the scene [of a bombing] or else from a refugee camp."

Though some TFK stories are created from scratch, they retain the Time imprimatur. The story on soda sugar content, for instance, had the look and feel of a Time-for-adults article--right down to the computer graphics that used teaspoon-of-sugar illustrations to show the amount of sweetener in a can of Coke. TFK coverage has won numerous awards, and the magazine got a big pat on the back last spring from its adult counterpart when Time followed its story on video-game addiction with an article of its own.

Teen Newsweek, the joint venture of Weekly Reader Corp. and Newsweek Inc., followed TFK's lead in its September debut with its own cover story on the continuing Balkans conflict: a hard-hitting look at how Kosovo children despise Serbians and even chant "Kill Serbs" while playing with toy pistols. The cover photo-an angry boy near a burning Yugoslav flag-ran with the blunt blurb: "The Children Who Learn To Hate."

The story and its packaging sent an unmistakable message: Teen Newsweek would eschew the soft-focus lens through which most Weekly Reader Corp. publications view the world. Though the 71-year-old company is a leading children's publisher--its 15 magazines have a combined readership of nearly 17 million K-12 teachers and students--swashbuckling journalism is not its trademark. But the company's marriage with Newsweek, a subsidiary of the Washington Post Co., gives it journalistic muscle. Teen Newsweek is unabashedly a Newsweek clone. It runs the same cover as the adult version (except when the cover is deemed unsuitable for its middle-school audience), the same stories (retrofitted for kids), and many of the same departments. For each issue, Weekly Reader staff select Newsweek stories and tailor them for teens.

Teen Newsweek Editor in Chief Sandra Maccarone, an ex-teacher who has also logged years in curriculum development and textbook publishing, claims the Newsweek brand name will give her magazine credibility and appeal. Market research done before the launch indicated that middle school teachers were more familiar with Newsweek and liked it better than Time, she says. "Teachers told us they were impressed with the news-gathering of Newsweek plus the curriculum expertise that Weekly Reader provides." (TFK's Wallis dryly replies: "Time certainly does not lack name recognition.")

Upfront, the other fall entry in the classroom magazine sweepstakes, is Scholastic's 16th classroom magazine. The company's magazine division fields more than 100 full-time writers, editors, and designers, but its collaboration with the New York Times aligns it with a journalism superpower. Scholastic editors will adapt Times reporting and stories for a teen audience, and Times reporters will write original pieces for the magazine.

David Goddy, editor in chief of Scholastic's classroom magazine division, says, "We have excellent journalists here, and we know how to translate world events for young people. What we do not have is a 1,000-person newsroom and bureaus around the world."

The Times' influence on Upfront is evident in its debut issue: Ethan Bronner, the newspaper's longtime education reporter, wrote the cover story, a piece examining threats to teenagers' civil rights in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Like the Times, Upfront features themed sections--sports, arts, business, etc.--and even a crossword puzzle by Will Shortz, the newspaper's puzzle editor.

Still, Upfront is arguably less of a spin-off product than either TFK or Teen Newsweek. At 28 pages per issue, it's much more substantial than its 8-page counterparts. Upfront also offers a richer editorial mix, relying less on breaking stories and more on features. "We will look for connections to young people," says Goddy, a 15-year Scholastic veteran and a former teacher. "There will be serious features, but also lighter features on sports and fashion and digital technology. All those things affect [kids'] lives. They don't see a separation between wanting to talk about serious things and lighter stuff."

Certainly, Goddy is not lacking ambition. He vows, "The magazine is going to deliver a sea change in terms of how you talk about important issues for teenagers. They want to be listened to and take their place in the world. That is the mission and motive of our magazine."

Though the three magazines do not directly compete--there's little overlap in their targeted audiences--the equivalent of an old-fashioned newspaper war is brewing in the usually staid backwater of children's publishing. Time Warner has tested a magazine for older students, and Wallis doesn't rule out mustering a challenge to Teen Newsweek or Upfront. Yet even without a head-to-head contest, editors are already sniping about whose magazine is better. "Upfront is a substantive magazine with a lot of material," sniffs Goddy. "Teen Newsweek and Time for Kids are eight-page publications that are more like headline services."

Why are Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times opening a new front in the nation's media battles? Editors and executives at all three magazines wrap their products in good intentions. TFK promos boast that "the core values of the magazine are integrity, respect for children, and excellence and innovation." And an editor's letter in the teacher's edition of the debut Teen Newsweek called its role in the classroom "a profound responsibility that we take very seriously."

Still, the magazines are as much about advancing old-fashioned American capitalism as they are about educating a new generation of model citizens. The nation's 53 million K-12 students represent a vast, captive audience for consumer publishers--an audience that the media titans backing the new magazines have yet to tap. Bottom line: The magazines offer these corporations privileged access to kids--kids who may interpret the magazine's appearance in the classroom as an endorsement from teachers.

Ultimately, if the new magazines are to succeed, they will have to satisfy kids, teachers, and parents. And when the issues of the day range from Monicagate to the sexual politics of women's soccer, that's a tricky task.

Of the three magazines, only Upfront takes advertising. It has snared ad commitments from clothes retailers, college services, and the armed forces. According to Goddy, Upfront does not accept the sexually charged ads typical of teen magazines or any advertising that "will diminish the self-esteem of the young person or be inappropriate in the [classroom] setting." He explains: "We don't accept ads that will get in the way of the magazine's core mission: to help turn young people into engaged, active, involved citizens."

Goddy's high-minded rhetoric doesn't completely square with his magazine, however. The premier issue featured a DKNY ad with a rail-thin model in the Kate Moss, heroin-chic mold. The young woman is perched on a car, her full lips slightly apart, eyes staring directly at the camera in Madison Avenue's patented come-hither look.

Melanie Rosen, a New York Times executive involved in Upfront, acknowledges that the magazine ran some suggestive fashion ads in its first issues. But with today's worldly teens, she says, the threshold for what's age-appropriate is hardly clear. "We're still feeling our way with our audience."

Though the other two magazines don't accept ads, they offer corporate America a slick vehicle to gain entrée to the classroom. TFK last spring devoted a cover and two pages to the new Star Wars movie. Another issue featured an "interview" with Mattel's legendary Barbie doll. A dubious story choice, perhaps, compounded by the fact that the editors let the blond bombshell shill for her product line, promising more CD-ROMs, more Web sites, "and, of course, lots more fabulous outfits!"

All three new titles are riding a recent wave of marketing aimed at kids. In the booming economy, young people--teens in particular--have become big spenders, doling out billions of dollars a year on clothes, food, movies, and other entertainment. The magazines acknowledge their readers' clout in the marketplace, even if they deny that they want to capitalize on it. The press kit for Teen Newsweek, for example, heralds the spending power of their readers, noting that nearly one-third of teenagers have credit cards in their own names, while 17 percent own stocks or bonds. "Today's teens possess abundant buying power," it proclaims, "and are often better at spending money than saving it."

Even if the magazines are not out to make oodles of money, they give their parent publications ample opportunity to establish brand loyalty with kids. It's no coincidence that the TFK and Teen Newsweek logos mimic those of their adult counterparts. And New York Times executives say Upfront is key to their efforts to cultivate future Times readers.

"Our newspaper can be extremely daunting for kids,"Rosen says. "The company is definitely looking for ways to extend the brand into that age group."

Many teachers may not be put off by the commercialism of the new mag azines. In recent years, administrators of cash-strapped schools have sold advertising space on buses and hallways, negotiated million-dollar deals with soda makers, and opened their doors to market researchers. Compared to those business intrusions into the classroom, a magazine with a Star Wars cover or a Newsweek logo can seem harmless.

Tedd Levy, a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, says teachers using the magazines should explain to students who is producing them. "There is a huge amount of commercial material coming into the classroom-much of it blatantly promotional," Levy says. "So teachers need to be alert, and they need to speak with their students about the suppliers' motives. Students need to know who wants to capture their dollars."

But even if teachers and parents look past the profit motive, they may object to the magazines' conscious imitation of the brand of journalism practiced by their media-giant parents. Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times in recent years have expanded their coverage of culture, Hollywood, and celebrities, and the classroom magazines seem to be following their lead. Recent issues have featured a two-page fashion spread on jeans (in Upfront); a story on Felicity star Keri Russell's decision to cut her infamously long hair (Teen Newsweek); and an article on the opening of Universal Studio's new Florida theme park (Time for Kids).

The magazines' coverage of real-world events may not sit well with adults, either. Much of the magazines' news coverage is above reproach: All three go to great lengths to educate readers about the context of world and national events. The Teen Newsweek cover story on Kosovo, for example, offered a meaty sidebar on the roots of Balkan conflict and ethnic hostility. But that same story included a photo of Kosovar children kicking the head of a fallen statue of a Serb hero-an image some adults might consider too intense for middle schoolers.

Of course, the booming circulation of TFK suggests that many teachers welcome real-world news coverage in their classrooms. "The inclusion of these kinds of things adds to the understanding of world events," says Ed Ladue, an American history teacher at Corona Del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona. "We adopt textbooks every four or five years, so they can't have recent coverage of events. Weekly and monthly publications allow us to make comparisons between past and present, to focus on current events that have roots in historical events. Plus, the magazines have a certain legitimacy in students' minds. They're real things, not textbooks."

Still, some observers argue that news magazines don't belong in the classroom. "I think there's a need for students to concentrate on history, math, literature, and science," says Will Fitzhugh, a former teacher and the editor of the Concord Review, a history journal that publishes student essays. "They can get current events on their own by watching the news and reading the paper. We pay taxes to give people academic educations. Let them worry about current events and that sort of thing outside of school."

Ultimately, if the new magazines are to succeed, they will have to satisfy kids, teachers, and parents. And when the issues of the day range from the Lewinsky scandal to the sexual politics of women's soccer, that's a tricky task.

During her first year at the helm of TFK, Wallis introduced some controversial topics in the magazine. The debut issue featured not only the Bosnia story but also an article about the resignation of U.S. Senator Bob Packwood, who was accused of sexually harassing women in his office. Later, Wallis received a letter from a mother who objected to the magazine's coverage. The woman wrote that she did not let her children watch television news and shielded them from most of the world's goings-on. Children should be allowed to be children, she argued.

The letter hit home with Wallis, a mother of three, and she says it has influenced her story selection. Maybe kids who are years away from getting a driver's license should not know the details of international genocide.

"We don't want to darken childhood," Wallis says. "I think about that when we write about war and mudslides."

Wallis hesitates for a beat before the journalist in her rises to the fore. "But eventually they will have to be exposed to the world."

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Pages 24-28

Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as Hard Copy
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