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Catch 'Em While They're Young

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, March 8, 2009

A money-losing newspaper, mired in a bad economy, has to make some wrenching decisions.

Like many businesses, The Post is in the midst of a far-reaching internal assessment to decide what stays, what goes and what should be altered.

If you're a reader who likes the paper as it is, here's some advice: Buckle up. Book World is gone, its contents dispersed. The Sunday Source is history. And more changes are coming. Over the next year, The Post could experience its greatest transformation since it came to prominence in the 1970s.

It's delicate. Post executives worry that even small changes will erode support among devoted readers, many of them older. They also fret about how to attract younger readers for the future.

And that brings us to KidsPost. Should it stay or go?

Created nearly nine years ago, this feature has been copied by many U.S. newspapers. Appearing in print and online Monday through Thursday, its stories, graphics and photos are aimed mainly at 7- to 12-year-olds.

At first glance, it would seem there's a case for killing it.

Children like the Web, not smudgy newspapers. And besides, KidsPost occupies prime real estate on the back of the Style section, where half-page ads can go for $40,000 and a full page can fetch $100,000.

Marcus Brauchli, the Post's top editor, told me last week that KidsPost is safe "for now." But given the financial climate, he added, "I'm not making promises."

Dig deep into The Post's readership data, and it's clear KidsPost is valued by parents as well as by children. And many of those parents -- especially women -- have been targeted by The Post as must-keep readers.

"I think there's no doubt that part of its value is that it allows The Post to be perceived as a partner with parents," says Tracy Grant, who edits KidsPost.

Brauchli agrees: "It's something that connects to readers in a family setting and helps young people connect to newspapers."

A Post survey of more than 400 metro-area parents with children between ages 5 and 13 revealed two years ago that 57 percent said it was their children's favorite section of the paper.

The same survey showed that parents who read The Post tend to have kids who read the paper.

"There is a lot of evidence that if [kids] are newspaper readers in their late teens, they are most likely newspaper readers for life," says Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University.

But the product has to be relevant to kids ranging from the very young (think Dr. Seuss) to the late teen (think college prep). That's a tall order, given short staffing and limited space; KidsPost is a half page most days.

Right now, KidsPost does as well as it can in print and not very well online.

As recently as 2007, it had five full-time employees. But that's dwindled to Grant (who also edits the Weekend section) and a few staffers who split their time with other tasks. It has the feel of triage.

Online, KidsPost isn't working. Visits to its "section front" are modest. "It's always been low and has never done much in the way of traffic," says Ju-Don Roberts, managing editor for washingtonpost.com.

To work, it would need to be beefed up far beyond what appears in the paper. Simply replicating a newspaper's youth content doesn't work "because the way kids read online and engage online is not the same as print," says Sandy Woodcock, director of the NAA Foundation, which has done groundbreaking research on young readers for the Newspaper Association of America.

Young people who go online want interactive games, animated cartoons, music and videos. Doing it well requires a sizable staff. Even then, Roberts says, "I'm not convinced we'd move the needle."

So, how can The Post lure young readers?

-- It can start by developing a comprehensive strategy. The Post doesn't appear to have one. It has a variety of youth-oriented content, such as the Mini Page, which is tucked inside the Sunday comics. And it participates in the NAA Foundation's Newspaper in Education program, which makes The Post available in schools as a teaching tool. But there's no kindergarten-to-college plan.

-- It can keep KidsPost online, but as it is until resources are available to improve it.

-- Finally, it can make a multiyear commitment to KidsPost in the newspaper and shift some precious resources to make it better. That requires investing when money is tight. But since the printed Post must pay the freight for many years to come, it's an investment worth making.

"It's a hard choice," says Woodcock. "But for me, I'd keep KidsPost. I'd cut something else."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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