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Cutting Off the Kids


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When I used to live in the Bay Area you could take your kid to the ballpark for a dollar and if you went on Wednesday you could buy her a hotdog for one dollar more. The A's had empty seats to fill, but it was a great long-term strategy regardless. Children, stuffing their faces with dogs, filled the park every Wednesday.

There is no better way to build a perpetual audience than to give parents an easy way to transfer a passion for baseball to their kids.

My journalism students complain that I take too long in this column to get to my point. So here it is: If you want to ensure a long term future for a news product you have to get people interested in news as early as possible.

One day last year, as I walked my little girl to her toddler class at the HSU Children's Center I saw a teacher in the preschool wave a copy of the Times-Standard. "It's time to read the news!" she told the crowd of 4-year-olds who gathered round her.

Until this year, teachers and students at HSU had free copies of the Times-Standard, care of the Newspapers in Education program. The program, which dates back to the 1930s, provides free copies of local papers to schools throughout the country. The students could get free copies of the San Francisco Chronicle as well. The Chron ended delivery to the schools here last year, offering instead free access to the paper's online edition. The Times-Standard followed suit this year, offering schools instead free access for their students to the paper's online edition. You may have noticed ads that tout the switch as an effort to make the program more green.

But if the Times-Standard really wanted to be green and save trees, it would move all its subscribers to the E-edition and end paper copies altogether. To end delivery of newsprint only for those who got them for free just seems cheap.

I can't help thinking that the severing of the cord between kids and newspapers began in the ~~~80s, when newspapers let go of their army of newspaper delivery boys and girls. When I was a kid, the newsboy in my neighborhood made $25 a week, which seemed a fortune to me then. He'd come by the house once a week and collect our weekly subscription. Everyone subscribed, because to not subscribe meant turning away that polite kid at your door. Every kid in the neighborhood knew who had the paper route. When he let it go, he'd pass it on to a friend, who would then pass it on to a friend, and so on.

I think killing free paper copies to kids severs the last tie. It prevents any teacher who does not teach in a computer lab to use the newspaper in the class.

At HSU, bleary-eyed students would troop into the little building that houses the journalism department first thing each morning to grab copies of the Times-Standard before class. They won't have a reason to do that now.

In the grade schools NIE lesson plans help teachers use newspapers to teach geography, to turn students into reporters, to learn to think critically and to teach them active citizen participation by showing them how to write letters to the editor.

It was probably a costly program, if the number of copies delivered just to just HSU was any indication. And I do think it is wasteful and unenvironmental to deliver stacks of papers that might end up in the recycling bin without every having been read. But better to phase down the program than to phase it out. Rather than kill the free paper copies altogether -- offer it on demand. That way only the schools and educational programs that use the newspapers as part of the class curriculum would get it. And teachers who had access to computers could opt for the digital edition instead.

So much of what the news industry is doing these days seems shortsighted. News organizations grasp at new technologies like Twitter and video blogging without knowing how best to use them and abandon long-standing practices without understanding the repercussions of doing so.

Instead of flailing they need to focus. We need to return to basics in business. In good times or bad a company that wants to stay in business and prosper needs to ask itself two questions: How do we satisfy existing customers and how do we get new ones?

I do believe that in 10 years paper copies will go the way of the dollar seats at the ballpark. But I think that school kids should be the last ones to see that system end, not the first. Don't sever any ties between young people and newspapers until you provide a proven alternative, not a work in progress.

Kids can't cut up a digital copy with safety scissors. They can't smear glue on it, wrap it around a milk jug and turn it into a piggy bank. They can't turn the stories, photos and headlines into a collage and hang it on the fridge. And that's a shame.

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.


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