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Nov. 5, 2020, 11:55 a.m.
Business Models

With many children still learning from home, kid-focused news products aim to fill some gaps

Parents “are very much looking for sources that are reliable and sources that will answer questions in the same way that they would answer them.”

Remember the 90s? Big time for educational content targeted at young people. PBS Kids premiered in 1994, Time for Kids launched in 1995 and Peabody award-winning Nick News ran from 1992 until creator and host Linda Ellerbee’s retirement in 2016. Over some 30 years, little changed in kids’ news media, despite a number of shifts in journalism more broadly. (One notable exception is the 2012 folding of Weekly Reader, a classroom-distributed magazine founded in 1928.) Five years ago, there weren’t a lot of age-appropriate news sources outside of classrooms that parents could offer their children at home. But now that, for many, home is the classroom — in a recent survey of parents of K-12 children, Pew found that 46 percent of those parents said their children are receiving online instruction only — news outlets for children are increasingly in-demand and available.

Today, there are two strains of current events coverage designed for young consumers. On the one hand are news products designed exclusively for kids and educators, which often feature school-age reporters and follow the structure of traditional news outlets. Sources like these include the Time for Kids Explains podcast, which launched this year, and Scholastic Kids Press. Both of these outlets are extensions of long-running print publications created for classroom use that have a limited circulation this year. On the other are playful spinoffs of larger media brands. Examples of this include Vox’s Today, Explained To Kids podcast and Marketplace’s personal finance–focused Million Bazillion, both of which ran as summer miniseries.

A number of youth-focused media sources launched after the 2016 election, which brought with it a fast-paced, often harrowing news cycle that highlighted the importance of thorough, resourced reporting. During this period of increased reverence for journalism, new and established outlets saw an opportunity to create coverage designed for young people that could be supplied by eager parents and consumed at home. In 2017, The New York Times kids’ monthly print section first appeared. In 2018, veteran journalists/parents founded KidNuz, a 5-minute headline show aimed at 6- to 12-year olds. (Today’s episode topics: “Vote Count Continues, Cough App, Screen Time Woe, Accord Adieu and Mahomes Election Assist!”)

2020 has brought its own wave of hard-to-explain news, and with it, a succession of kid-focused content. This spring, news outlets launched products to explain coronavirus to kids. Now, as the pandemic wears on, podcasts have filled a gap for parents who see fact-based reporting as an essential part of their children’s at-home education — or as a way to occupy them while they’re at home. “Kids are as interested in the world around us as adults are and there really hasn’t been, up until recently, a kid’s perspective on news in the podcast space,” says Maggie McGuire, CEO of Pinna, a subscription audio-streaming service for kids that recently offered parents rec. [Ed. note: In my house, we subscribed to Pinna when stay-at-home orders began in March, and since then my kids have listened to it multiple hours a day. — LHO] The company sources content from providers like PRX and WNYC Studios, but also creates originals like Time for Kids Explains, which premiered this spring with a coronavirus special episode ahead of a planned series premiere at the end of August. The weekly show, which is produced in real time throughout the week, is hosted by kid reporters from across the U.S.

Vox’s editorial director of podcasts, Liz Nelson, says that its Vox Explained for Kids podcast was also in development before this spring, when it launched with a pandemic-focused special. At the beginning of the year, Vox surveyed parents to learn what they were looking for content-wise for kids 9 to 13. “As we see our audience starting to age into the demographic where they have children in this age group, they are very much looking for sources that are reliable and sources that will answer questions in the same way that they would answer them, or would want to learn about these topics,” says Nelson. The result is a whimsical five-episode series hosted by Noam Hassenfeld, a reporter/producer on Vox’s (adult) daily news podcast Today, Explained and former third-grade science teacher. Vox also brought on an early childhood education consultant, who advised them to lean into engaging young people through their imaginations. Nelson and her team assumed preteens were “maybe getting a little bit old for make-believe,” but they learned that world-building was actually particularly attractive to them. “So we created the Island of Explained,” says Nelson, “which is the imaginary place we can take kids to think about things in what we see as a safer place than the world we’re all living in right now.”

Nelson describes Vox as “an explainer brand,” and sees educating the next generation as part of its public service mission. PBS, which celebrates half a century this year with education as its mandate, is a kind of precedent to this self-definition. Like Vox’s kids’ podcast episodes, the recently aired PBS Kids Talk About: Race & Racism, is paired with an online supplement. The format features discussions between parents and children prompted by race and injustice-themed clips from shows like Arthur. PBS Kids head of content Linda Simensky says that this format helped “contextualize the concepts and make it more engaging for children.” The standalone, on-air and on-demand format gives parents a discreet opportunity to start a conversation with their children about race. Simensky says the program is part of a larger effort to serve parents who “have increasingly asked PBS Kids for resources to address tough but important topics with their kids.”

Similarly, Vox’s content for a young audience is designed to serve a need expressed by parents and invite discussion. (“The episodes about race and elections probably raise more questions than they answer in kids’ minds,” Nelson said.) Pinna also has parent and educator advisors, but sees itself as more of a kid-centric brand. “We have ambitions to really grow our non-fiction catalog,” says McGuire, who cites Time Explains for Kids as one of the platform’s top shows, holding its own next to typically popular genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery. ”Kids get very passionate about their personal interests, whether it’s sports, art, science, or tech.” Podcasts offer kids another way to learn about those areas, and, with its wide but cordoned-off library, Pinna is uniquely positioned to “tap into kids’ innate curiosity about non-fiction topics.”

A number of others media outlets also see the potential of tapping into that craving for knowledge, and a captive audience of remote learners. Group Nine Media’s video news site Now This launched a kids’ vertical in August. The Ten News, a biweekly show “for curious kids age 8 to 12,” premiered in September. And as for Nick News? It’s back.

Rachel del Valle is a writer living in New York. She has previously written for Nieman Lab about quiet and journalism for people who are home all the time.

Photo by Ivan Radic used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 5, 2020, 11:55 a.m.
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