The little desk that could

SINGAPORE - Telling adults that your job is to get young people reading the newspaper is a lot like saying you are looking for a unicorn to ride to the North Pole.

Some think you delusional ("The young don't read the paper anymore, right?"), some are acerbic ("There's this thing called the Internet nowadays"), while others are just plain dismissive ("That's not 'real' journalism").

Most are ambivalent. Even if they have heard of the nine-year-old Straits Times News In Education (NIE) programme, they are unlikely to have paged through its weekly magazines for secondary and primary school readers, IN and Little Red Dot.

Even if they have read about its multiple awards, they might not know what these are for.

The upside? Our niche audience - young readers, teachers and parents - are extremely supportive. We receive a daily stream of calls and enthusiastic e-mail seeking to subscribe, while teachers champion its resources as a portable, economic way to "make reading cool again".

Our responses today are a far cry from when we began in December 2004.

For a start, our desk comprised three inexperienced reporters, one deputy and a nervous editor tasked to run The Straits Times Media Club for school reporters and launch a 16-page weekly for teenagers.

Instead of asking questions, we had to field answers, chiefly to confirm that "yes, we really are part of The Straits Times...".

Today, the team remains lean, despite its increased range of deliverables.

At any time, there are fewer than 10 people - reporters, editors and artists - producing content for its two weekly 20-page publications and outreach events, and books.

The same staff generate English learning resources for The Straits Times Education Programme (STep), and conduct media training workshops for parents and teachers.

The result: about 100,000 subscriptions among schools every week, and a familial response to its mission and events.

Most prominently, the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship, The Straits Times-MOE National Current Affairs Quiz and The Straits Times National Youth Media Competition have a loyal following among those seven to 17.

Among its spin-off titles, 2012's teaching resource 48 Values From The News: The Straits Times Guide To Building Character, was especially well received. It aimed to get young people thinking about their relationships, identity and choices, using news stories to broach otherwise hard-to-discuss issues - chastity, equality and respect for the elderly, among others.

Over the years, such resources and events have earned many distinctions.

More than an ego boost, they are an affirmation from a worldwide peer group that this paper's NIE initiative is delivering on its most critical function: creating quality classroom resources that entrench the news in education.

To a publisher, NIE's value extends to its very long-term goal - that of predicting news consumption trends - or as a former journalism professor called it: "Chasing the Holy Grail."

After all, tomorrow's reader is an elusive quarry especially in this platform-fragmented media age of print, social media and online newspapers.

As teens of today, they exploit the Web to champion causes. Tweens turn to YouTube to learn anything from juggling to baking, and tots attempt to pinch and swipe their parents' print magazines.

It is anyone's guess how they will relate to content as adults a decade from now, though it is not the key focus of main operations in media organisations to fathom what or how.

That work does, however, reside with newspapers' young reader departments, which keep track of patterns as they evolve in children while supporting language learning and media literacy. Young people from 10 years ago were, in fact, the first to invite IN and Little Red Dot journalists to their blogs, Maplestory and Friendster.

They told us about trolls in cyberbullying, and taught us how to Tweet, tag and lol.

Today, they are adult Gen Y readers who take for granted instant participation and response. In line with their needs, The Straits Times has added to its core agenda social media, online video, even stories that can be told in 140 words or less.

To the Galahads labouring at the Schools section, current trends already exist in the past. Their quest has moved on to stories about young YouTubers who have massive fan followings, photo trends like "horsemanning", and the inexplicable popularity of a video featuring a singing Pakistani fishmonger.

The results of their ongoing mission might not emerge for several years.

Then again, if it is the Grail they are after, it is possible they will be a while.

Post your view at the Readers' Post website at readerspost.straitstimes.com or e-mail it to streaders@sph.com.sg

MAJOR AWARDS

2006

- Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers' Association (Panpa) awards The Straits Times Little Red Dot for editorial excellence in reaching primary school readers.

- World Association of Newspapers (WAN) awards The Straits Times Media Club and IN a World Young Reader Prize brand commendation for engaging teens through journalism.

2007

- WAN awards The Straits Times Media Club and IN a World Young Reader Prize brand commendation for excellence in promoting media literacy.

2010

- Global body World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-Ifra) awards its top World Young Reader Prize for Newspapers In Education to The Straits Times for the revamp of IN and the spin-off teachers' guidebook, Using The Newspaper In The Classroom.

2011

- Panpa awards its Young Reader Prize, a marketing strategy award, to The Straits Times Education Programme (STep), which consists of weekly worksheets pegged to the news.

2012

- WAN-Ifra awards a World Young Reader Prize brand commendation to the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship (The Big Spell), developed with the Ministry of Education.

- Panpa awards The Big Spell Best Newspaper Event 2012.

2013

- WAN-Ifra's Asian Media Award for Community Service (Gold) goes to the teachers' handbook, 48 Values From The News: The Straits Times Guide To Building Character.

- WAN-Ifra awards its top World Young Reader Prize for Learning With The News to the 48 Values book and special editions of IN for Racial Harmony Day and National Day that led to the use of The Straits Times nationwide within the Education Ministry's curriculum for Character and Citizenship Education.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.