How one Iowa newspaper is providing fun and educational COVID-19 coverage for kids

Since mid-March students in Iowa have been stuck at home due to the coronavirus, and schools are closed in the state through the end of the academic year. 

School districts, of course, have created distance learning programs for the students, but The Gazette, the daily newspaper in Cedar Rapids, wanted to help keep kids entertained and educated. 

Over the course of a few days in March, the paper launched two products aimed at children: The Kids Gazette, a dedicated page in the paper with news and activities for children, and it turned over four pages in its PennySaver circular to the Cedar Rapids school district to publish updates and activities for students and their families. 

Though these are two separate products — one created by the newsroom, one created by the school district — I’m going to cover both in this week’s Solution Set to show how The Gazette as a whole acted quickly in the face of a crisis to identify ways it could serve a distinct audience. 

Solution Set is a weeklyish newsletter from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. We take an in-depth look at one interesting thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.


 


TLDR

• The Challenge: With space to fill in its products due to coronavirus-related closures, The Gazette saw an opportunity to serve a new audience: Kids. 

• The Strategy: The paper launched The Kids Gazette, a three-times-a-week kids page in print, and it partnered with Cedar Rapids schools to offer space for educational material in its PennySaver.

• The Numbers: The Gazette has a print circulation of more than 30,000 daily papers. 

• The Lessons: Both products were launched quickly and they have been able to iterate and evolve based on feedback and changing user needs over the past few weeks. 

• The Future: As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, The Gazette plans to continue publishing both for the time being, and it is beginning to think about what they will look like once quarantine ends.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down for additional examples for how news organizations are creating coverage for kids during the pandemic.

• Anything to add?: The News Book Club is meeting this Friday at 1pm EDT to discuss Lewis Raven Wallace’s “The View from Somewhere.” Scroll down for details on how to join us!


The Challenge

Last month, as schools closed, sports leagues shut down, and non-essential workers settled in for their work-at-home quarantines, The Gazette, the independent family-owned newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, set out to adjust to its new reality. 

It had to develop workflows to support its staff, which was working from home, but it also needed to figure out how to adjust its coverage plans: What would fill the pages typically occupied by sports coverage? Would it continue to print its entertainment focused tabloid when all the theaters, restaurants, and bars are shut down? How would it confront the losses in advertising — both from a revenue perspective as well as how to fill the space in the paper.

“We knew that we needed to make some changes to our daily edition right away,” Zack Kucharski, The Gazette’s executive editor told me. 

In addition to the daily paper, The Gazette also publishes a weekly PennySaver circular of ads that is sent to every household in Linn County, where Cedar Rapids is located. 

The PennySaver is typically filled with ads for upcoming events, restaurants, and other entertainment venues. But many of those advertisers have cut their spending as they have been forced to close down due to the virus. 

“There’s a lot less going on to fill those pages,” Kucharski said. 

And with kids stuck at home from school, The Gazette saw an opportunity to repurpose some of its resources to help kids pass the time. 


The Strategy

The schools in Cedar Rapids closed for in-person learning on Monday March 16. When the shut down was announced, Kucharski realized there could be an opportunity to help out the district and fill pages in the PennySaver. 

He reached out to the district superintendent and offered space in the circular to print educational material to help with distance learning, since it’s sent free-of-charge to everyone in the county. 

Only 30 percent of Iowans use broadband Internet service, The Gazette reported last year, so accessibility was a real concern for the school district. By printing information and resources in the PennySaver, the schools could ensure equitable access to learning materials. 

The Cedar Rapids district has partnered with other districts in the area to create the resources in the PennySaver. It produces four tabloid pages within the circular each week. 

The districts publish a mix of information aimed at parents in addition to activities for students. It divides the material into projects for students in kindergarten through 5th grade and then for those in 6th through 12th grades. 

The content aimed at younger students includes coloring pages, counting exercises, or instructions on how to make a map while out for a walk with their families. Older students received instruction on how to create a professional resume, a plan to create an informational flyer to raise awareness about a cause, and also coloring pages, which can serve a stress reliever. 

The idea was to provide tools for parents and guardians to help kids learn in informal environments, Ryan Rydstrom, Cedar Rapids schools’ director of access and instructional design, told me. 

“We don’t want families to become teachers,” he said. “That adds a lot of stress during a stressful time already…You can go for a walk and have them compare and contrast things — find a big rock and find a small rock — those are all skills that kids need, and you can do that in a very non instructional way as well.” 

While the school district has helped fill space in the PennySaver, The Gazette was also strategizing on what else it should be reporting on beyond the breaking news and public-service focused reporting on coronavirus. It added additional coverage of hobbies and activities for people to do at home, it began featuring additional stories of uplifting news, and it decided to launch a kids page, The Kids Gazette.

“We have not gutted our page count,” Kucharski said. He added that the paper sees the kids page and the educational materials in the PennySaver as separate products, though they’re aimed at similar audiences.

“We have viewed them as separate to this point… one is geared toward academic growth and ours is to have a little bit of fun for an activity,” Kucharski said.

The idea for a kids page emerged out of one of The Gazette’s news meetings. Staffers were batting around ideas for how to fill the paper when Lyz Lenz, a columnist and editorial board member, pitched a kids section. 

Lenz just joined The Gazette last August, and it turned out that the idea for coverage aimed at children had been circulating at the paper for a while. In 2018, education reporter Molly Duffy had put together a proposal for a Sunday section aimed at kids ages 8 to 14. 

“We noticed that there really was no reason for somebody in that age bracket to find value in the print product,” Duffy told me. “We wanted to give them something to look forward to and maybe to say to their parents — hey The Gazette is doing this cool thing, we should subscribe so I could get the section.” 

Based on Duffy’s initial research and content plans, the pair, working with a designer at the paper, were able to launch the kids page in less than a week. They still had their day jobs, but their editors allowed them some extra time to focus on developing The Kids Gazette, which required them to learn print design and to start to think in column inches. 

The first edition was published on March 25. The Gazette publishes the kids page three days a week — on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The first issue featured an explainer from Duffy on how a newspaper gets made, a scavenger hunt for kids to find things mentioned in the paper, and space for them to write their own newspaper story and pictures. 

“Crises are an opportunity,” Duffy said. “It gave us space and the drive to get it off the ground.” 


The Numbers

There are 89,807 households in Linn County, Iowa, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data. The Cedar Rapids Community School District has an enrollment of 16,294 students. 

The Gazette is donating the space in the PennySaver to the school district. 

“It’s not an ad,” Kucharski said. “We felt it was the right thing to do.” 

The Gazette has an average weekday print circulation of 33,330, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Its Sunday circulation is 38,522.

When we spoke in early April, Kucharski said “events and ad revenue had been hit hard.” The Gazette hadn’t had to reduce staff at that point, but Kucharski said “we’ll have to figure that out,” if the the pandemic continues to impact business over the longterm. 

Like most local outlets, The Gazette saw an increase in its digital audience last month. In the last week of March, The Gazette attracted 70 new digital subscriptions, “which was good for us,” Kucharski said. Similarly, he said “we’re up a few hundred subscriptions, which is also good for us given the time of year. That’s been very encouraging.” 


The Lessons

• Launch and iterate: The first kids page The Gazette published in March was “fairly improvised,” Kucharski said. 

“We didn’t have the weeks of market testing…we just launched,” he said. “That’s been one of the freeing things of the whole thing. When you’re in survival mode, you don’t overthink things, you just get going.” 

In the weeks since then, Lenz and Duffy have learned what’s worked and not worked as they’ve continued to develop the page. They’ve begun to involve other desks at the paper to help create child-focused coverage and they’ve gotten feedback from community members and local organizations who want to help contribute. 

They’ve also been able to figure out a workflow as they’ve gone along. The first few weeks were hectic as they tried to create a new product on top of their full time jobs, but Duffy and Lenz have developed a schedule. They hold a weekly meeting with the designer to plan out the pages, and they’ll plan out as much as they can ahead of time, trading off writing responsibilities. 

“There have been a couple of pages where my byline is the only byline or Molly’s byline is the only byline,” Lenz said. 

By launching with effectively a minimally viable product, The Gazette was able to meet the needs of its readers in a moment of uncertainty and then continue to improve it in response to their feedback and evolving needs. 

The school districts’ PennySaver pages have similarly evolved over the weeks. The first few issues focused primarily on informational material on access to health services, mental health resources, and details on how the districts were distributing academic materials and free meals. 

But in recent weeks it has started to feature more academic material, mostly pulling content from the 3,000 or so academic packets that it is also mailing home to families in addition to online material. It’s thinking of the circular distribution as an addition to its other distance learning efforts. 

“Now that we’re doing a more sustained effort on academics, this will be a more supplemental idea of more things you can do or even just enjoy like draw a picture or color,” Rydstrom said. “Not every family has a coloring book at home. This is allowing space for students to have that creative thought process.”

• Make it interactive: During quarantine, residents throughout Cedar Rapids are putting teddy bears in their windows for kids to find on walks around their neighborhoods. On Monday, Kids Gazette published a teddy bear that kids could color in and hang in their own windows. It then invited them to email The Gazette — with an adult’s permission! — to share how many bears they see around town. 

Find a whole month's worth of tips for kids to defeat boredom, in today's Kids Gazette. Pick one up at newsstands today.

Posted by The Gazette on Monday, April 20, 2020

“Papers, physically, are a tactile experience,” Lenz said. “You touch them, you hold them, you interact with the news in a physical way. Some of the things that Molly and I have been thinking, especially for kids [is] how do you take that benefit of a tactile experience and expand it? How do you make it interactive?” 

A recent sports-focused page, for example, featured a volleyball-themed maze and also taught readers how to calculate baseball statistics such as earned run average or batting average using basic math. Another included a pizza recipe. 

They regularly ask for feedback and submissions from readers, and they will publish some of what they receive in the paper. But with only one print page, print is an issue, so Duffy and Lenz are thinking about how they can create a corresponding digital experience, since The Kids Gazette only appears in print. 

They’d like to work with the paper’s web team to share some of the submissions on Facebook. 

“We want to make sure it carried over that same interactive component,” Lenz said.

• Put the community first: One of my favorite things about local news is that journalists are members of the communities they cover — they send their kids to the same schools, shop in the same markets, and go to the same restaurants as their neighbors — and that means that ideally the journalism is reflective and representative of the community as a whole. 

That also means that local publications have a unique ability to be a central gathering place and to provide resources to connect people. 

The Gazette’s partnership with the school districts epitomizes this. Though, of course, The Gazette is a business, it recognized that it could help out its community during a crisis. 

 “My hope is that people see us in a different light than they have been…[we’re] rising to the occasion,” Kucharski said. 


The Future

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said last week that the state’s schools will remain closed through the end of the school year. 

The Gazette, Kucharski said, plans to keep offering space in the PennySaver to the school district for as long as the shutdown lasts. 

And while Rydstrom said the district hadn’t received any direct feedback from students or families, it’s planning to continue to publish the weekly pages in the circular.  

“If one family benefits from it, it’s worth doing,” he said. 

The Gazette plans to keep publishing The Kids Gazette for the time being as it figures out its longterm plans for it given the economic uncertainty hanging over the industry at the moment. 

Another complicating factor is that Duffy is leaving the paper in June to go to graduate school and Lenz has a book coming out in August. “I would like to see someone take it on and build it out in a cool and beautiful way,” Lenz said. 

For his part, Kucharski said he’d like to see both products continue in some form. But, he noted it will be harder if the shutdown continues for an extended period, and once things resume to normal — and The Gazette has sports and entertainment news to fill the paper — finding space could be a challenge.

“We’re playing it by ear,” he said.


Want to know more?

• For more insight into how Kids Gazette came about, check out an account Lenz wrote for her personal newsletter last month just after it launched.

• Last month, Democracy Fund’s Local Fix newsletter rounded up some examples of how newsrooms are meeting kids’ information needs.

• The New York Times has been publishing a regular kids section since The Before Times — all the way back in 2017. Here’s a Nieman Lab story from its launch about the thinking behind the print-only product.

• Other news organizations have also created dedicated coverage for kids. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has turned the backpage of its Sports section into Kids Times. It’s also answering kids’ questions online.

• Josh Stearns and his kids have created a cool new daily newsletter, Ping and Echo, that shares one podcast episode each day that is a great listen for both adults and kids.

• This isn’t directly related to kids coverage, but it’s an important piece from Lizzy Hazeltine that arguing that local journalism should be funded like the critical infrastructure that it is. Hazeltine shares tips for how funders and individuals can support local news at this time.


Anything to add?

Join us on Friday at 1pm EDT for News Book Club! We’re reading “The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity” by Lewis Raven Wallace. The coolest part is that Lewis will be joining us for the conversation. 

Lewis’ book details how “journalists have never been mere passive observers—the choices they make reflect worldviews tinted by race, class, gender, and geography. He upholds the centrality of facts and the necessary discipline of verification but argues against the long-held standard of ‘objective’ media coverage that asks journalists to claim they are without bias.”

We’ll be meeting on on Zoom. Sign up for our newsletter to get a reminder with the Zoom link. You can add the meeting to your Google calendar here. Also please feel free to join our Slack channel or discuss the book on Twitter with #NewsBookClub

I hope to see you on Friday!

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