In Other Words

New Kid on the Block

First News June 23–29, 2006, Woking "Catch ’em early, catch ’em young," goes the saying. In that spirit, British Chancellor Gordon Brown hosted a Downing Street reception in May for the launch of First News, the first modern British newspaper published exclusively for children. The venture is designed to reach an untapped market. In Britain, ...

First News
June 23–29, 2006,
Woking

"Catch ’em early, catch ’em young," goes the saying. In that spirit, British Chancellor Gordon Brown hosted a Downing Street reception in May for the launch of First News, the first modern British newspaper published exclusively for children. The venture is designed to reach an untapped market. In Britain, nearly 200 magazines are targeted at the Harry Potter set, but none has serious news content. And with overall newspaper readership steadily falling (in the past 40 years, the circulation of British dailies has plummeted by 27 percent), there’s plenty of room to grow. If First News succeeds in instilling a lasting newspaper-buying habit in the next generation, it will deserve the undying thanks of an ailing industry.

Although the paper is aimed at 9- to 12-year-olds, it doesn’t steer away from serious subjects. First News cleverly uses maps to present visually appealing summaries of domestic and international news. For example, items on prison breaks in Russia and military developments in Iraq and Afghanistan appear in the June 23-29 issue. There are also useful primers that accompany stories — a particularly clear and informative one on apartheid complements a neighboring article on children in Africa. Yet, at times, the language can obscure as much as it reveals. For example, a piece about HIV/AIDS states that the virus "is passed on through blood and other body fluids." Why not just say outright that it can be transmitted through sex? Are the publishers too afraid of disturbing the delicate sensitivities of their readers (or, more likely, their parents)?

After all, the newspaper is aspiring to be a quintessential British tabloid. And for the most part, it’s certainly achieving those goals. Another June issue has a large photo of a water-skiing squirrel splashed across the front page. Look inside, and you’ll find plenty of shots of the rich and famous, juicy celebrity gossip, and a hefty dose of sports.

Celebrities such as Virgin founder Richard Branson and pop singer Pink write regular columns. And just like the language of the grown-up tabloids, the sentences are short, the words are blunt, and the graphics are king. The only thing missing from its pages are nudie pics, like the (in)famous photos of Page 3 girls that appear in The Sun.

Perhaps First News‘s direct style isn’t so surprising, considering that the brash tabloid veteran Piers Morgan is the editorial director. Morgan has himself often been the subject of gossip columns. In 1994, Rupert Murdoch put him in charge of the Sunday tabloid News of the World, making Morgan, at age 28, Britain’s youngest national newspaper editor since World War II. His antics at press awards ceremonies are legendary — he has brawled, hurled profane abuse at fellow editors, and gotten drunk enough to elicit cloudy memories of Fleet Street’s heyday. Morgan is most famous for being fired in 2004 from his job as the editor of The Daily Mirror for publishing what turned out to be fake images of British troops abusing Iraqis. Many critics think he should have been sacked even sooner. Four years earlier, he was investigated and rapped on the knuckles by the Press Complaints Commission for purchasing large quantities of shares in a computer company the day before his own newspaper tipped it as a good buy.

Morgan’s track record might make him an odd choice to run a children’s newspaper. But his publishers seem to think that he can convert an Internet generation into newspaper readers. Are they right? The initial signs seem promising. First News already boasts a circulation of at least 50,000, and Morgan claims that up to 300,000 readers are well within its grasp in the next 12 months.

Publishing a children’s newspaper is a bright idea that, for journalism’s sake, one wants to see succeed. But in its present form, it’s doubtful that First News can create a new generation of newspaper readers, however many copies well-meaning adults purchase. After all, they’re the only ones who can afford it. At one pound ($1.85) per copy, First News is almost three times more expensive than the other tabloids, 75 cents more than The Times, and the exact same price as the Financial Times. It’s hard to imagine children spending a greater percentage of their income on newspapers than adults do. (The average British child receives only $15 a week in pocket money.)

If the editors of First News do manage to convince parents to purchase the paper for their kids’ edification, it still might not translate to a loyal young readership. By constantly nagging their offspring to include some news in their leisure diet, mothers and fathers could make newsprint the publishing equivalent of Brussels sprouts. The patronage of concerned parents might keep the presses rolling, but tweens will soon conclude that no one reads a newspaper for pleasure.

First News also lacks an authentic age-appropriate voice, with articles that are often too saccharine for children’s tastes. The headline for a front-page story about children against war in the June 23–29 edition reads, "Give Peace a Chance." Ten-year-old Rebecca Rothwell informs First News, "The point of [a] petition is to tell the Prime Minister that fighting isn’t the way to solve problems." It’s hard to imagine this goody-two-shoes tone going over very well in the school playground. As the liberal columnist Philip Hensher recently opined in The Independent, "I can well imagine the fate, too, of any kid caught reading [First News] by his or her peers…. Mockery [and] derision."

It’s also difficult to see what First News offers that children can’t find elsewhere. The showbiz stories are extensively covered in numerous magazines, and the sports are in mum and dad’s paper. That leaves you with the water-skiing squirrel — who may be cute, but isn’t worth a pound of anybody’s money. It’s more likely that many copies will suffer the fate of the one I handed to a 9-year-old for feedback: He instantly tried to turn it into a paper airplane.

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