Can children save print newspapers from extinction?

We’ve all heard that newspaper audiences are shrinking. But as Crinkling News editor and founder Saffron Howden writes, the tiniest readers are opening up big opportunities.

In Germany, the name of the kids’ newspaper, Kruschel, translates loosely as the crinkling sound paper makes when crumpled.

Once a staple of the breakfast table orchestra of plates clanging, cutlery pinging, and voices chattering, the sound of paper being handled is increasingly foreign.

But reading something on a physical piece of paper laid before you is a singular experience.

It lends itself to contemplation, to a savouring of the written word that is difficult to sustain online with a finger ready to swipe away to the next bit of colour or baiting headline.

For children there is almost an imperative to give them that tactile experience of news — for literacy, for comprehension skills, and to grow and help them retain general knowledge.

And there are many signs it is also what they want.

As the founder of Australia’s first printed newspaper for children, Crinkling News — just launched this January — I have encountered a few smirks and the odd dinosaur joke from my journalist friends.

But there is precedent. In the UK, the children’s newspaper First News has been going for 10 years and boasts a weekly readership of two million. Its web presence is minimal and in order to access the articles, one must read the paper in print.

Similarly, three daily print newspapers for kids in France use their websites as a gateway to subscriptions. Le Petit Quotidien (My Little Daily), Mon Quotidien (My Daily Life), and l’Actu (The News) – all targeted at different age groups — have a combined audience of around 150,000.

In tiny Austria, with a total population of just 8.5 million, The Little Children’s Newspaper has a circulation of 19,000. Kruschel in Germany was started four years ago and shows no sign of waning.

A recent front page from Crinkling News: click to see the website. Courtesy of Saffron Howden

A recent front page from Crinkling News: click to see the website. Courtesy of Saffron Howden

First News editor-in-chief Nicky Cox wrote recently that her team was “ridiculed” when they launched nearly a decade ago.

Cox went on to talk about the phenomenal response from child readers to the First News opinion poll canvassing views of refugee unaccompanied minors.

At Crinkling, we have no major publishing houses or media companies behind us. The response from the general public has put all the naysayers to shame. Within three weeks of going live with our website — still two months out from regular print production — we had dozens of schools and well over 500 paid-up individual subscribers (at $4.50 a week) from across Australia.

In just a fortnight, we had 9,000 unique visitors to our website and 30,000 page impressions. This was achieved with no marketing budget, through sheer old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

We cover most of the news adults consume, but in a child-friendly way. We don’t shy away from stories about the migration crisis in Europe but we offer hope and potential solutions in our coverage.

Nor do we leave politics to the grown-ups. Crinkling took two child “reporters” to Canberra to interview Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Greens leader Richard Di Natale.

It was not the usual sit-downs with journalists to which politicians are accustomed. They were asked about their favourite book characters, what they plan to do for kids after the coming election, whether they have solar panels on their roofs at home, and the scourge of Australia’s youngest generation: mental health problems.

Our readers may not yet be of voting age, but the decisions made in Canberra still affect them.

And we offer them a voice in the national conversation. While Crinkling’s news is produced by professional journalists, photographers and designers, our opinion pages are written entirely by kids, as are our book, movie, game, and arts reviews.

Saffron Howden, editor of Crinkling News. Photo: 702 ABC Sydney/Amanda Hoh

Saffron Howden, editor of Crinkling News. Photo: 702 ABC Sydney/Amanda Hoh

In many ways, we are lucky at Crinkling. Collectively, we owe much to our years at Fairfax and News Corp. and the professionalism and tricks of the trade they taught us along the way.

But we don’t have the same financial imperatives. Crinkling does not need to be a big media player to survive. We have no shareholders to whom we have to answer. We just need to make enough money to pay our very experienced contributors fair rates and cover our costs.

It’s not easy, but it’s eminently achievable. And people are eager to pay for the quality we offer.

Print, all the evidence suggests, is on its way out of the news business. But with metropolitan dailies shedding readers on a daily basis and belt-tightening the new norm, kids’ newspapers seem to be on the up.

As a then-18-year-old political correspondent for First News wrote a few years ago: “At a time when the press industry is facing its most volatile decline, our readership has risen more than 18 per cent over the past 12 months.”

The days of mass circulation newspapers may be over for now, but that “kruschel” sound is finding its way back to the breakfast table in new ways.

Saffron Howden is editor of Crinkling News, Australia’s only national newspaper for children. It is a weekly printed newspaper and will launch in April. For more information, visit our website: www.crinklingnews.com.au