News-O-Matic offers a safe window to the world
At Google Play: tinyurl.com/oo2pw6t
By GWEN OREL
Who says that journalism is dead?
Over at News-O-Matic, there are five new stories per day for kids — for whichever level a child may be at. It publishes every weekday, every week, and native speakers translate the stories into Spanish, French and Arabic. Every article, at every level and every language, is also read out loud.
It is America’s first daily newspaper for kids, launched in 2013.
Today it has half a million readers. It could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
When the kids age out of News-O-Matic, they may still want to read the news.
There’s even an app. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers can receive free access to News-O-Matic through July.
Chief content officer Russell Kahn, a Montclair resident, helped found the online paper after
noticing the “summer slide,” where kids lose academic ground over the summer. He also noticed that children were not reading non-fiction.
Kahn has a background in journalism and publishing, having worked for Houghton Mifflin and others, and he had gone back to school at Montclair State University for elementary education.
“I wanted to inspire with non-fiction,” he said. “Ultimately, I think once kids are reading on their own, they should be learning about the real world. They should be finding out how the world works. By fourth grade, 50 percent of all literacy that's going on in the classroom should be informational texts like newspapers.”
That was not happening.
So he, with partners, founded News-O-Matic.
In 2020 News-O-Matic won a Teachers’ Choice award.
The origin story, Kahn said, was that his then-business partner had a 7-year-old daughter who was walking in New York City and saw a picture of the dead body of Muammar al-Qadaffi on the front page of the New York Post.
The little girl asked, “Who is that man? What happened? Am I safe?”
“She didn’t understand that this was a faraway place,” Kahn said. “She saw a scary image and she didn't know how to make sense of it. And there was not a single resource in this country for her to make sense of what’s going on.”
News-O-Matic aimed to give children a safe place to learn about what is going on in the world, in a way and at a level they can understand.
A child psychologist, Dr. Phyllis Ohr, helps decide the approach to the stories.
“Covering news for kids doesn’t mean ignoring the scary things that are happening, but it means approaching it in a way that provides them some comfort and calm and actually can alleviate some of their anxieties,” Kahn said. “So much of what media does is about creating anxiety. And so, you know, we really tried to flip the experience.
“Again, I went to journalism school. I learned ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ And, ‘How many dead, how many hurt?’ That's what sells. But we tried to change that completely.
“You don’t want to give kids a feeling that the world is not such a scary and dangerous place, but that people generally are good and want to help.”
There are 200-word shorts for new readers, and 600-word stories for middle-schoolers.
SAFE AT HOME
Having this outlet for kids is particularly important right now, when children are at home, Kahn said.
The interactive nature of the newspaper means kids can send questions and comments, vote in polls, and draw pictures. And they have something new to read every day.
Reader comments suggest News-O-Matic is meeting its goal of reassuring young people: “Hi! Thanks for the COVID-19 letter. It made me feel better and braver. Thank you for continuing to write, and I hope you and the team stay safe also. I hope it will go away. Thanks again. ❤ — Devin,” wrote one reader.
“I hope to go back to school again. Your article about Carl Goldman, who recovered from the coronavirus, gave me so much hope,” wrote a reader named Ahilan.
Children can read about what’s going on in the world that affects their distance schooling: the stimulus package, for example, as well as how to stay positive and active.
But not all of the stories are heavy; there are stories about MineCraft, or “YouTube Millionaires,” or YouTube personalities who have a million or more followers. Children write movie reviews. Editors have been sharing “books we love.” Kahn kicked off the series by writing about “Hope for the Flowers,” by Montclair resident Trina Paulus.
Kahn has profiled a few Montclair kids in recent editions, too. Township children were featured in stories for “Siblings Day” and “Only Child Day” in April.
Hannah Shmerlis, 13, a seventh-grader at Glenfield Middle School, was in the “Only Child Day” article. Her mother, Stephanie Gerson, said, “The article gave her a chance to shine. Lately she’s been secluded, and alone. It’s been hard for her to be an only child with so many people sticking to family.
“Another child that commented said, ‘I feel like Hannah,’ and that gave her some validation that she wasn’t alone as an only child.”
“I thought it was super-cool,” Hannah said. “I don’t really get my opinion out that much. I’m not a celebrity, not the popularest kid at school. I’m quiet sometimes.
“I want people to know, especially kids my age, if you’re an only child you have friends and family and you can talk to them.”
Hannah’s in an art program at Glenfield and has begun painting random things, including herself, she said: “Yesterday I was so bored I just drew on my face.”
Being in News-O-Matic made her feel happy that someone would want to hear what it’s like to be her. And reading what other kids are thinking makes her feel things are relatable.
And she’s learning about current events, about COVID-19, about how the earth is changing. “It’s really amazing,” she said. “My mom doesn’t let me watch the news. It’s so depressing to hear about what’s happening. She’ll ask me, ‘Do you want to hear what happened or no?’ I always say no.
“This is a paper I get to read myself. I get to choose.”