Russ Kahn is the Editor-in-Chief for Press4Kids (P4K), a publisher of daily news apps for young readers. P4K's first app, News-O-Matic, is the first daily newspaper for children. We spoke with Russ about the app, how it has become more international and how it can be harnessed in the classroom.
Tell us about yourself.
Okay! I’ve always had a passion for storytelling. I went to college (Boston University) for Print Journalism and started my career after that in the newspaper industry. But seeing the circulation trends in the late 1990s, I decided to segue to my other true love: education. I spent a decade in educational publishing, developing scores of books and online products to inspire young students. I authored 12 books, including guides to the Common Core State Standards and a book to help kids decide what to be when they grow up. Finally, I combined my experiences in journalism and education to create America’s first daily newspaper for kids!
What inspired you to create News-o-Matic?
My two partners and I all have young children. Whether we liked it or not, our kids were being exposed to the news. There was no way to shield them from potentially scary news events, and we felt they deserved a resource to understand what was going on. Before News-O-Matic existed, there was no resource to help us explain what was happening to our kids in a simple, age-appropriate language. Most importantly, the news is often aimed to create anxiety by leading with the negative. (“If it bleeds, it leads,” I learned in school.) We wanted to flip that and inspire children with the positive events in the world — and completely transform the news experience for a new generation. It may sound grandiose, but we honestly believe we’re doing that.
What age level is News-o-Matic geared towards?
We write each article at a variety of levels so that students in different grades can all access the information. Using Lexile readability levels, we strip down the text to its simplest form so emergent readers can use the app. Then we add complexity and more advanced concepts to the stories so middle school students are challenged as well. So we really do gear News-O-Matic for all levels from K through 8.
How can teachers use News-o-Matic as part of the curriculum, especially as more and more schools are looking for Common Core resources?
News-O-Matic aligns with the Common Core perfectly. Thanks to the CCSS, 50% of all reading a student does in elementary school should be nonfiction. But look around a classroom in a younger grade, and you’re unlikely to find that equal split. There’s just not enough quality nonfiction out there. Educators need high-interest nonfiction content that will inspire their students to love reading. Many students sadly association nonfiction with boring stories. That’s where we come in. Every article also includes assessment questions correlated to the CCSS. Students can read the editions and answer the questions; then the teacher can monitor the progress within each CCSS standard.
Is there a place where students can share their perspective and ask questions?
At News-O-Matic we aim not to simply relate the news to students but to empower them to take action! Each article gives kids tips to act on the lesson of the story and apply it to their own world. We also encourage them to express themselves by commenting, asking questions, or even drawing pictures about the news. That’s how we can develop critical thinking — by asking students to form their opinions about complex debates and sharing it with a global audience of their peers.
Where do your readers come from?
We’re a New York-based app, but we have readers from every corner of the globe. So far we’re read in 150 countries, though the majority is from North America. We’ve been added to the reading curriculum in schools from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, England, China, South Korea, and many other nations.
Can you share how News-o-Matic has impacted students and their knowledge of current events?
It’s affected students in ways that I never thought possible. I always knew that young readers would enjoy our science, sports, and arts stories. But I didn’t consider how much they would appreciate the hard-hitting world news. They are so grateful for the opportunity to learn about the same stuff their parents are learning. Sometimes I’ll get a comment or a drawing related to a “grown up” topic like the G7 Summit or an election in Tunisia, and I’ll think to myself, “Wow, these kids are really getting it!” Last year we had an 8-year-old reader draw “G8,” then he added a red line through it and wrote “G7.” We literally had a second grader understand the repercussions of Russia’s aggression — that it was being punished and kicked out of a club. I’ll include a handful of drawings that really show this.
Does your team always write the stories or are there opportunities for guest writers as well?
We write the vast majority of stories in house, but we absolutely use guest writers as well. We have an ongoing series called “Roamschooler,” written by an 11-year-old girl named Lilian as she travels the world on a year as a homeschooler. Our movie reviews are always written by kids. We’ve had kid reporters write from other events, such as the One Direction world tour opener. But my favorite guest writer was a 9-year-old Syrian girl named Sham. She saw one of our ISIS articles and felt compelled to share that the group “does not represent my religion!” We initiated a dialogue, and she ended up writing a couple of stories about her experience having to escape Syria and find a new life (with new friends) in a new country. I’ll send you some screenshots of that too.
Is News-o-Matic available in different languages?
Every story is translated into Spanish (by a native Spanish translator). Then, just as each English story is recorded in our sound studio so users can listen along, every Spanish story has this “Read To Me” function as well. This allows ELL students greater access to the information and gives students studying Spanish an easier entry to learn the language. So every story every day is not just translated but actually recorded by a real person.
Are you able to share any upcoming features we can look forward to?
Well, this English/Spanish bilingual feature is just the start. We have plans to add more and more languages to the app as we grow. Then there is the fact that we have now published about 3,000 stories. It’s difficult to create a searchable archive for all that information (it gets heavy with all the multimedia). But we are working on a system where kids will be able to search for a topic and access all the stories since we started publishing daily in November 2012. (Yes, we’ve put out a new edition every weekday -- including holidays -- since then.) So, if a student wants to track, say, the Ukraine crisis, he or she will be able to see our first reports about the unrest in Kiev in 2013 and learn how that led to the first invasion of Crimea and all the way to the current situation. Plus, students will be able to access a huge wealth of topics for reports or further research.
It’s funny; when I first read your question, I started to write about all the fun features to come in 2015. You know, like the fact that mankind is sending a satellite to Pluto on July 14. Or that the United Nations turns 70 years old in the fall. But that wasn’t what you meant at all, I don’t think. :)
Thank you Russ it's been a privilige to speak with you. We look forwards to staying up to date with current events with News-o-Matic.
To learn more about News-o-Matic visit their wesbite here.