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Pandemics, protests and politics: How The Week Junior tackles tough topics with its readers

Keeping up with the news is challenging for us adults at the best of times, and more so now than ever. More than 1 in 5 British people now actively avoid news consumption, with many struggling to deal with the overwhelming cycle of crisis and chaos.

So how does a weekly current affairs magazine for children cope when the news cycle takes a turn for the worse?

In a PPA Live webinar this week, The Week Junior’s Editor in Chief Anna Bassi spoke to Barry McIlheney about coronavirus’ impact on UK subscriptions, launching the US version smack bang in the middle of the pandemic, and how they approach difficult topics with their readers.

Early lessons in difficult topics

The Week Junior team is no stranger to translating world-changing events for its young audience. In fact, their first UK issue launched on November 20th 2015, just a week after the Paris attacks.

“We had plans for a big celebration, a huge shebang launch cover with lots of energy and excitement,” Bassi explained. “But of course on that Friday night, it became very clear very quickly that we were going to have to lead with a really tragic story.”

“It was very difficult, but I think it forced us to show that we could do what we always said we would do, which was to write about challenging topics and to do it in a way that would help children understand an event like that,” she said.

In writing about the terrorist attacks, the team aimed to demonstrate to their audience – children aged 8-12 – that although terrible things do happen that seem senseless, there are always people who will help very quickly: a policy that has emerged as a cornerstone of The Week Junior’s editorial approach to difficult situations.

Covering coronavirus

The recent US launch has also been anything but straightforward. The first issue of The Week Junior US came out on March 20th, as various US states began to go into lockdown.

“As we were planning for the launch, we sat round and discussed the things that could potentially go wrong, and the risks, and I spoke at length about what had happened to us in the UK,” said Bassi. “We hadn’t anticipated launching with the cover that we did [in the UK], but we had to, and we said, let’s hope nothing like that happens here.”

“Then a week before the first issue was due to go to press, New York locked down. The team had only really just come together, we’d done just one dummy run of the magazine, and then all of a sudden they had to take all their stuff, go home, and start creating a magazine from their own homes.”

Coronavirus coverage in The Week Junior has been kept straightforward, addressing questions like ‘What is a coronavirus?’ and ‘Why are people worried about it?’, as well as tips on how to wash hands properly and stop it spreading. 

But aside from the facts, the teams have focused on acts of kindness. “Rather than writing about the guy who hoarded 80,000 medical masks, they instead wrote about how Massachusetts families started a fundraiser to feed children who would lose meals to school closures,” Nieman Lab reported.

The UK issues have focused on positive stories of NHS heroes who are working to keep people safe, Captain Tom Moore’s fundraiser, and plenty of creative crafts and activities to keep children entertained in lockdown.

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Addressing the protests

From one difficult topic to another, world events have not let up for the editorial teams on either side of the Atlantic. In the middle of a global pandemic, The Week Junior has found itself having to tackle the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests across America.

Bassi explained that The Week Junior’s editorial approach in these situations is to not focus on the details of the riots, or the latest inflammatory thing the President has said. “We need to explain to our readers what really matters,” she said. “What they want to know is, why are people so angry? What has caused this? What is the historical context? So we have to explain what happened, but we would never go into graphic detail.”

“Most kids are looking up the news but they may not hear the whole story. It’s important for us to give them the facts, but without any of the inflammatory language, so we don’t use language like ‘crisis’ or ‘chaos’. We try to be calm, and we try to be reassuring as well.”

With many tricky topics, the magazine also includes guidance about how to discuss these topics with parents – something that has been requested by parents of subscribers. Bassi highlighted that increasingly on their Facebook page, the editorial team are highlighting what the focus of some issues will be in advance, and how to prepare for comments or questions from children.

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Crucially, the magazine tries hard to be non-political, and remain neutral about politicians. Even in the case of Trump, the editorial team would avoid offering an opinion.

“It’s very difficult to quote Trump,” said Bassi, explaining that in cases where he was being inflammatory, he wouldn’t be included. “If we were to directly quote something he says, we would probably oppose it with a quote from somebody else to show that there are lots of different ways of looking at things.”

“It’s really important that children realise it’s not always black or white, right or wrong, good and evil.”

The COVID effect

The crisis has had a positive effect on both the UK and the US versions, with The Week Junior UK now distributing just over 90,000 copies. According to Bassi, around 95% of these are subscriptions, which have seen growth as parents look for educational resources for their children at home.

The lockdown has helped boost US subscriptions as well, with the publication clocking up over 30,000 subscribers just 11 issues later.

However, coronavirus has proved disruptive to distribution in some cases. In the UK, Royal Mail made the temporary decision not to deliver large letters on Saturdays, which resulted in delays for some subscribers. In response, the team brought forward the release of a digital app, which existing subscribers could access for free.

“We’ve been developing the digital edition for a while, but with the lockdown and concerns over the supply chains…we decided to get the app out there earlier,” Bassi outlined.

A readable format

Bassi’s key learning from working on developing The Week Junior was around form and layout. Many children’s magazines are incredibly busy, with content “exploding” off the pages. “What I’ve learned from various smart development work was that’s not how a children’s magazine has to be,” she said. “If you actually want a child to read something – and when children read, they really do read it cover to cover – you have to design it in a way that encourages them to do that.”

“It’s not about dipping in, it’s not about grabbing information from the page. It’s about providing them with an experience that’s really accessible, that they can navigate really easily.”

As a result, The Week Junior’s layouts are simple, structured, and easy to navigate. There’s little in the way of “chaos” on the pages, which helps the readers know where stories start and finish. This plays a critical part in addressing more serious topics.

“It’s been a revelation to most people who’ve worked on the magazine, that you don’t have to do what everybody else does,” Bassi explained. “If you want a child to read, give them something they can read. We take our readers really seriously, and we speak to them as we’d like to be spoken to – we’re not talking down to them.”

“My biggest takeaway is that kids are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for, and deserve a lot more respect than they usually get.”

Catch up with the webinar on-demand here.