These days more than ever, it’s important to get kids interested in journalism while they’re young. The customs and courtesies forged in childhood often sustain throughout the rest of one’s life. Hook ‘em while they’re young is a marketing strategy that has worked for groups as disparate as tobacco companies, the Jesuits, and the Star Wars–industrial complex. The child who reads Slate grows up to be the delightfully counterintuitive adult who is inured to spurious presidential claims of FAKE NEWS.
Often, though, intermediate steps are necessary to close the distance between The Poky Little Puppy and the Economist. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, entrepreneurial do-gooders have been dumbing down the news in order to train kids to be better readers and citizens. Today, there’s a vast array of news sources for children that promise to turn kids into confident readers, critical thinkers, and all-around good people. The most interesting entrant into this field is a website called Newsela: an ed-tech startup that uses current news stories to teach reading comprehension to children. The site’s staffers adapt and simplify articles from mainstream outlets—the Associated Press and the Washington Post are two common sources—and disseminate them to users. According to Crunchbase, the site has raised over $22 million in venture funding since it was founded in 2012. A recent Business Insider story asserted that Newsela is currently being used in 75 percent of American schools.
What, exactly, are these children reading? I wanted to find out. For a week in mid-February, I stepped out of the news cycle and read nothing but Newsela. I wanted to see what total immersion in its product would tell me about the world as children are being encouraged to see it.
Newsela’s world is filled with kindly, curious, and helpful souls. No problem is ever insurmountable. No animal is ever anything less than adorable. Scientists are always doing something cool, girls are always being empowered, unfamiliar cultures are always interesting and worthy of respect, and Donald Trump is barely present.
On any given day, Newsela runs three news stories, with each story adapted at five different reading levels. The simplest adaptations, meant for readers who have not yet mastered complex sentences, were inevitably my favorites. I liked how they distilled current events into a series of brisk declarative statements. Take this lede for an adapted Scientific American story about the polar ice caps: “The very top of the world is called the Arctic. It is very cold. Last year, the Arctic saw some changes. The ice covering the sea around the Arctic got smaller. It should have gotten bigger.” I also liked how Newsela handled President Trump’s choleric response after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted the implementation of the Muslim travel ban: “Trump sent angry tweets after the court decision. He sent the first tweet on Thursday. He sent another one on Friday. He used all caps.”
This is the news as modernist minimalism, and I, for one, see great merit in it. There is so little in these stories that what remains is crystalline. Their simplicity makes them hard to refute or misinterpret. At times, these simplified news articles assume a literary quality, like this excerpt from a piece about an ancient volcanic eruption: “Dark smoke filled the sky. Waves of hot gas and rock ran down the volcano’s sides. The air was filled with ash for days. It fell like snow. It filled rivers and caused them to overflow.” As I read this I started to imagine a fictional game show called Newsela or Hemingway? I started to see questions everywhere. (“[She] was barefoot and dressed in gold. A long, yellow-gold silk cape flowed behind her. It seemed as if she was in water. OK, contestants, for $1,000: Newsela or Hemingway?)
The Newsela adaptations meant for more advanced readers are generally less suited to absurd game-show concepts, but they still do a good job adding context that even adult readers might appreciate. Journalists and editors tend to assume that their adult readers are familiar with basic facts about the world and its structures; that citizens of our republic do not need to be constantly reminded that, for instance, Obamacare is the same thing as the Affordable Care Act. This assumption is naïve and wrong. Many adults these days are civically illiterate, and journalists should probably assume that their readers do not actually know how the branches of government work. So it was good to see Newsela augment its midlevel piece on the 9th Circuit’s travel-ban stay with the following information: “Federal courts, such as the courts of appeals, hear cases to decide whether they violate federal law or the constitution. Decisions are made by judges, not juries. The 9th Court is just one of 13 courts of appeals. They are below the Supreme Court.” I also liked how Newsela added context in the lede of an adapted CQ Roll Call story arguing that Black History Month is especially resonant this year: “More African-Americans are in Congress than ever before. Congress is made up of two groups, representatives in the House and senators in the Senate.” That’s good context, both for children and, sadly, for a lot of adults.
But the context that Newsela doesn’t add is just as noteworthy as what it does. The real reason why Black History Month is especially poignant this year is because it began days after America’s first black president was replaced by a crude, demagogic bully who rose to power by pandering to the worst instincts of the country’s dumbest white people. You will never see this sort of insight on Newsela. The articles featured on the site generally conform to a staid journalistic philosophy in which credibility means neutrality. In an era when the best journalism is more willing than ever to call bullshit on liars, this view-from-nowhere ethos seems quaint, if not outdated, like teaching geography from maps featuring Austria-Hungary and the Belgian Congo.
Many schools and parents would balk if Newsela started to insert any sort of newsy judgment into its articles, which is probably why the site doesn’t do it. On all levels, the site is reluctant to engage with potentially divisive political news. Its curatorial philosophy is, basically, “Why run a story about the president when we could instead run a story about a cool jellyfish?” If the individual articles on Newsela are characterized by deft condensation and addition, the site’s corpus as a whole is an exercise in topical redaction.
During the week I spent reading nothing but Newsela, Donald Trump did a lot: He accepted the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn; he accused U.S. intelligence agencies of leaking classified information to the press; he held a press conference in which he deemed the media to be the enemy of the American people. None of this made it onto Newsela. The Trump administration was featured once on Newsela during the week of Feb. 13, in the aforementioned story about the 9th Circuit. The stories that took precedence involved the Boy Scouts, Beyoncé, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the declawing of cats, and colorblindness. On Friday, Feb. 17, one day after Trump excoriated the media in a historically unpresidential rant, Newsela’s top story was about a prize-winning dog.
The dog in question, Rumor, had just won the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Rumor is clearly a very talented dog. This is still terrible news judgment! If I were a newspaper publisher, I would fire any editor who chose to run “Dog Wins Prize” on A1 rather than “President Goes Crazy.” What’s more, it seems to me that going with the dog over Trump passes up a potential teaching moment. But of course Newsela is not a news outlet at all, and neither is it an educational institution. Newsela is a for-profit startup that has raised a lot of venture funding, and it hopes to realize profit by appealing to as broad an audience as possible. And, thus, so long, “President Goes Crazy”; hello, “Dog Wins Prize!”
There is nothing new about a children’s news source watering down the events of the day. In his 2003 doctoral dissertation about My Weekly Reader, Walter Duane Carpenter noted that the pioneering children’s news source shied away from controversial and negative news over the course of its history: “One recurring pattern is the matter in which negative events are portrayed. … The basic tendency was avoidance. When not possible to avoid an event, and it was widely reported in the media, it was introduced to readers gradually, when possible.” Newsela is news for children, so I do not blame the site for focusing on topics that kids might find interesting and avoiding stories that might confuse and terrify. But when your company has “news” in its name, it is hard to justify so completely ignoring the biggest news story in decades. The only story that matters right now is our Chaos Muppet president, and in Newsela’s world, he barely exists. Newsela’s aspirational universe is neat and inspiring. But it is not the real world, and it is certainly not the news.