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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Future focus: Inside the business of kids’ media

March 18, 2021 | By Greg Dool – Independent Media Reporter @GregDool

In the constant scramble for sustainable, long-term audience growth, an increasing number of media companies are placing their bets on news products aimed at kids.

Since last April, Lester Holt has been anchoring a weekly kids edition of “NBC Nightly News.” The New York Times is currently developing a digital subscription product based off of its “NYT Kids” print section. And, in August, Group Nine Media’s NowThis launched NowThis Kids, a weekly video series complete with a dedicated newsletter and podcast.

For a news outlet whose audience is largely made up of millennial parents, it was a natural expansion, said NowThis president Athan Stephanopoulos. Moreover, amid a pandemic, an economic recession, and nationwide protests against racial inequality, it fulfilled a pressing need.

“This was a moment where we saw that there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Stephanopoulos. “How do parents communicate these complex issues to their children? It was the right time for us, with what was happening in the world. And quite frankly, we saw a business opportunity to program to this audience and bring in big-brand partners who saw a need for this.”

TIME for Kids has long been a presence in elementary school classrooms. But when the pandemic halted in-person learning, TIME for Kids began offering digital editions of its print magazine free of charge. In September, it transitioned that offering into a digital subscription product marketed to parents.

“I think families understand that if we’ve been in classrooms for 25 years, then we’re a resource that they can trust to handle issues well with their kids,” said TIME for Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco.

Another, more established, player in the digital area of the children’s news space is Canadian public broadcaster, CBC. That outlet’s kid-focused online vertical debuted in the fall of 2018. However, it was an idea that originated in its Halifax newsroom as early as 2016.

“The whole idea of misinformation and fake news was really surfacing, so it became more and more apparent that CBC, as a news organization, should have a news service for kids,” said Lisa Fender, senior producer at CBC Kids News.

Inspiring a new generation of consumers

In all three cases, the long-term benefits of forming trusting relationships with a rising generations of news consumers are clear. But each outlet’s editorial approach differs based on its respective strengths.

NowThis Kids focuses on highlighting inspirational stories about kids and adults putting kindness into action, says Stephanopoulos. Many of its key topics—equality, climate change, body positivity—reflect those covered by its parent news outlet, which primarily targets liberal-leaning young adults. “It’s an opportunity to cover the core issues specific to NowThis through a lens that’s inspirational [to kids] about what’s happening in the world around them,” Stephanopoulos said.

TIME for Kids approaches its audience as two distinct groups: younger students learning to read, and third- through sixth-grade students who are reading to learn. “Once we make the jump to the reading-to-learn crowd, we’re really focused on making sure that they can recognize authentic journalism and value it and see all the different voices that we use as a magazine of journalists, as opposed to a textbook,” said Delbanco.

Like NowThis Kids, TIME for Kids focuses on inspiring kids to action. It also seeks to give them a sense of agency and hope, she said. And while it leverages TIME’s newsroom as much as possible, creating news for kids requires a different skillset from traditional journalism. A dedicated editorial team is complemented by a curriculum team. They create teaching materials and parent resources to accompany each story the editors produce and provides guidance on which content is appropriate for each age group.

“We have to assume that kids have no context for any story we’re telling them about, which is  different,” Delbanco said. “It also takes a really specific focus on what will interest kids, what will be understandable to them, and how we can make sure that we’re not talking down to them.”

Keeping a finger on the pulse is one of the biggest challenges faced by CBC Kids News, according to Fender. Kids under 13 aren’t supposed to have social media accounts. Of course, many of them do. Fender’s team solicits feedback from kids directly when working on stories as well as through regular surveys. Identifying stories of interest to children is paramount, regardless of the topic.

“We never shy away from doing anything because it’s sad or scary or sensitive,” Fender said. “If kids are talking about it, then we want to make sure that we have the information there for them so they’re not getting misinformation from somewhere else.”

Reaching children—and their parents—online

Audience marketing in the platform era is a matter of constant adjustments for news outlets of any kind. When the end users are children—and parents mindful of what their children are exposed to—it opens up an entirely different set of considerations.

While TIME for Kids and CBC Kids News are both ad-free, NowThis Kids has been exclusively sponsored by Cheerios since its launch. Stephanopoulos said the kids edition requires a higher degree of vigilance about how and when a brand is integrated, and identifying the right partner was critical.

“We have a shared ethos around promoting positivity and bringing families together,” he said. “It’s an integration that doesn’t feel disruptive or inserted in a way that’s going to impact parents’ reactions to the content.”

As part of the transition from teachers to parents as the target market, TIME for Kids has leaned into a lot more cross-promotion, such as its partnership with Nickelodeon on a “Kid of the Year” franchise. But Matt Stevenson, TIME’s VP of product marketing, said TIME for Kids has seen “great success” by partnering with Cricket, a long-standing children’s literary magazine that is ostensibly a competitor.

CBC Kids News has no dedicated marketing budget, Fender says, relying mostly on word-of-mouth. However, it does leverage many of the CBC’s existing channels to cross-promote its content.

Context is key

While clearly self-serving, helping kids understand the topics dominating the news cycle and the importance of reliable sources benefits the industry—and by extension, society—as a whole. But Julie Smith, a communications professor at Webster University who specializes in media studies and sits on the board of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), remains skeptical.

“This isn’t a public service; it’s about making money,” Smith said. “I understand it. They’re in business to make money. But we have to consistently remind parents to ask why they’re doing this.”

Parents need to remember that kid-focused news outlets function as a resource for conversations with their children, but not a substitute, she said. The sender of a message, their motive, who is profiting from it, and what information is being left out are all aspects that parents should ask their children about when consuming news. These are terrific topics to discuss with children as a means to improve their media literacy.

Media literacy

“Most kids get their information from YouTube,” she added. “That’s significant. Do kids understand the difference between fact and opinion? Or a reporter and a pundit? I think kids need to understand that if we’re using an app or a website for free, we’re not the customer. We’re the product.”

To that end, news literacy is a “huge area of focus” for TIME for Kids, according to Delbanco. From the minute they learn to read, she reasoned, children should be taught to be critical of what they’re consuming.

“Of course, we are thrilled to be raising generations of people who love TIME. But beyond just the TIME brand, what we’re really hoping to do is help raise a generation of kids who can do better within this information crisis than previous generations have.”

CBC Kids News allows teachers to book virtual “hangouts” in classrooms, taking kids behind the scenes on the production process for a particular story. This provides an opportunity for teachers to deliver lessons on media literacy, as well as another chance to solicit feedback on the topics kids are interested in.

Building for the future

Transparency around how stories are produced is a good first step, said Smith. Rising awareness of the importance of media literacy education, including the growing number of states enacting legislation to that end, has her feeling more optimistic than ever before.

As for the publishers, early returns suggest that it’s good business, too. TIME for Kids generated approximately 75,000 digital subscribers in its first four months, Stevenson said, and TIME has no plans to discontinue it after students are fully back in their classrooms.

“We’re very happy with the early response, both in terms of what we were hoping for and where we can see this going,” added NowThis’s Stephanopoulos. “Video is what we’ve built ourselves around, but we’ve also seen great growth around the newsletter and the podcast.”

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