During a recent visit to the West Coast branch of our family, I was invited by my grandson's teacher to talk with the third-grade class about newspapers and journalism. The 20 or so youngsters, ages 8 and 9, had just published the first edition of the 3A Times and were getting ready for the next one. I arrived with copies of the Constitution, the First Amendment and The Washington Post.
Along the back wall of the classroom was a bank of computers that the kids use as naturally as I turn pages. We talked about lots of things. I told them why, despite the Internet and television, I thought newspapers were special and would always be important, and I told them that I first realized this when I was their age, in 1943, when the darkness of World War II cast a shadow over all the grown-ups in my life. Each day, in my civics class at P.S. 114 in the Bronx, a stack of New York Times newspapers was delivered. We could buy one for a few pennies. I can still smell those papers, still feel the weight of one in my hand as I walked home. I could not yet understand much of what was in it. But the sense that it was important, that it was part of growing up, was natural and unmistakable.
I'm not sure how much of a grabber my stories were, and it was too soon for the First Amendment to sink in. But when I opened The Post that day and laid the KidsPost page on the table, the whole class gathered around, eyeballs and fingers following each item. The connection was immediate, and none of them, except my grandson, had ever seen The Post before.
It was a particularly good page that day, Nov. 26. The main feature was a critical review by youngsters of 24 toys and games that should or should not make holiday gift lists. But for my money, and from what I gather from parents and youngsters, KidsPost, which appears on the back of the Style section, is a grabber every Monday through Friday, a brilliant and well-executed idea that at least has a chance of connecting youngsters to newspapers at a time when there is a blizzard of other visual and digital images to attract their attention.
All the surveys show that fewer young people read newspapers today than their counterparts did in previous generations and that children who grow up in homes without newspapers tend not to subscribe as adults. Many newspapers are trying to find ways to change this. KidsPost seems to me to be the most important step toward such a change, because not only is it cleverly done, it is also daily. It's a special page with news that happened the day before, with a weather report, a page that entertains and informs and sows the seeds of a daily habit that its editors hope will blossom in years to come. The Post, I believe, is alone in publishing a daily newspaper page for kids.
The idea came from a study by Managing Editor Steve Coll in 1999. The page made its debut on April 10, 2000. It has been run until now by John Kelly, a 13-year Post veteran with two kids, plus the wit and sparkle to produce the chemistry of news and fun -- everything from what the confrontation with Iraq is about, to who are all those guys on the sidelines at Redskins games, to a contest about the grossest thing your dog ever ate -- that makes kids look for it every day.
"The world is a funny, tragic, fascinating place," Kelly says, "and we want to tease out what is most interesting, to break it down in a way they can understand, whether it's September 11th, Enron, a dog that saves a family from a fire or a kid in Thailand who has a crocodile for a pet; things that a kid at the breakfast table is going to talk about.
"I want it to be normal for kids," Kelly says. "We want them to say: 'Here's a part of the paper that writes stuff for me.' I don't need them to be impressed by that. I just want them to depend on it."
A few weeks ago, Kelly left KidsPost to join the Metro reporting staff. His successor is Tracy Grant, another talented Post editor with two kids.
Happy New Year to all, young and not so young.