I see so many news stories about publishers’ trying to recruit younger audiences, mostly by jumping into TikTok like it’s the fountain of youth for their aging subscriber base.
Anna Bassi, Editorial Director of The Week Junior (TWJ), can claim an advantage in the audience age stakes. Targeted at children of eight to 14, her magazine is one of the first real-world media experiences most of her readership has.
Over seven years and more than 350 issues, the TWJ team have changed the face of children’s magazines. Confounding conventional wisdom, Bassi and her team have proved children are interested in news and will read it in print, with the title reaching an astonishing average weekly circulation of 100,000 in 2021.
However, in this age of ubiquitous distraction, keeping younger audiences engaged isn’t a given. At The Magazine Street conference in Edinburgh earlier this year, Bassi explained how TWJ keeps its young audience away from their screens long enough to read the current affairs weekly.
A daunting mission
Children read, because they’re curious, said Bassi. And reading is empowering: “When you know stuff, you can engage with the world, you can have conversations with people and you can share your knowledge.”
But researchers have noticed a worrying shift in children’s reading behaviour once they have learned how to read by themselves. “By age nine most children can read, but that doesn’t mean they want to,” Bassi said.
This phenomenon, first documented by publishing house Scholastic, has come to be known as the ‘Decline by Nine’. In its 2019 Kids & Family Reading Report, Scholastic discovered that while 57% of eight-year-olds said they read books for fun five to seven days a week; by age nine, that had dropped to 35%. And while 40% of eight-year-olds said they love to read, by nine, only 28% say that.
The change appears to come once children reach the point of reading independently. Bassi wondered if this is when they have stopped learning to read, and started reading to learn. This is also the time when a lot of parents stop reading bedtime stories to their children. “Reading perhaps starts to feel a bit more like a chore rather than a pleasure,” she said.
Add in the busy social life of a nine-year-old child — friends, sports, clubs — and the inevitable draw of digital screens, and there are so many things that can get in the way of reading for fun.
Reading for pleasure
Does it matter if children read for pleasure? Isn’t it just a means to an end?
Bassi would argue yes, cultivating a love of reading before the age of nine is absolutely critical.
“If you can get the child to love reading before they’re nine years old, then hopefully they’ll carry on reading and they’ll do it because they want to and not because they have to.”
For most adults, reading plays a vital part in our ability to survive and thrive; from following recipes to flying a plane, written instructions guide us. But people also read to be entertained, to learn, to find out what other people’s lives are like, to escape.
“During Lockdown I read a lot of travel magazines,” Bassi laughed.
She also pointed to research around the positive effects of reading on mental health. “Unsurprisingly, if you’ve escaped or you’ve been entertained, or you feel empowered, learned something new, it reduces depression, it increases self confidence, resilience, and it helps with relaxation.”
While the studies on reading for pleasure have tended to focus on books, Bassi sees an important place for magazines in the fight to keep children reading. “A lot of the research around reading for pleasure has been done by publishing companies and charities that work with children around literacy, but magazines are a great way to get children engaged in reading for fun.”
For a child who may not be the most confident reader or who doesn’t have the attention span to tackle a book, reading a magazine is a less daunting prospect. They can be picked up and dipped into, you don’t need to read from front to back and they are generally more attractive visually.
“There are loads and loads of beautiful picture books for young children,” said Bassi, but when you’re older, it’s all about the words. Magazines are really colourful, they’re full of pictures as well as words.”
Magazines are also cheaper than books and represent a lower risk investment for a parent whose child isn’t reading regularly. And there is less pressure on children to respect magazines the way we do books. “You can share a magazine with a friend, you can rip pages out of magazines, you can make things out of magazines,” Bassi explained.
Bassi says TWJ goes out of its way to reward children for reading; for every big, chunky, serious story, there’ll be something fun as a payoff. She talks about TWJ’s Splobs, fun facts sitting on bright blobs of colour to draw in children that may be intimidated by word-packed pages. “I like to think of them as playground currency,” she says. “You find something out in the magazine, and you go and tell your friends.”
Throughout the magazine, Bassi says the team at TWJ follows some straightforward editorial rules to keep its audience on side.
You don’t always have to be funny
“We don’t do that, we respect our readers, we just treat them as though we’re having a conversation with them.”
“We work really hard to make sure that our readers have all the information they need to make sense of a story.”
“We try to show them that the world is still a good place… there are lots of good people who are trying to make things better. We always offer hope.”
“We have to get our facts right, we are feeding young brains here and they deserve to have accurate information.”
Represent your readers
“We want every child who reads the magazine to see somebody who looks like them on our pages.”
Help them learn how to think
“We just want children to read the magazine, learn about the world and make up their own minds.”
TWJ’s offer of hope is interesting in the context of adult news fatigue, with so many avoiding the news because we are exhausted by the permacrisis of the last couple of years.
Bassi hopes her readers won’t get news fatigue: “They get a sort of balanced diet, a healthy media diet. They get to see the world in all its shapes, the good and the bad and the ugly stuff that’s in between other silly stuff and fun stuff.
She spotlighted the issue of climate change, featuring regularly in the pages of the magazine. “We try not to fill them with doom and fear. We try to offer solutions and demonstrate positive outcomes and introduce them to real-life heroes, people who are doing these amazing things that they feel that they can do this stuff as well.”
Bassi says the real secret of The Week Junior’s success is that children want to read it. “That sounds like a really simple and obvious statement to make, but there are lots of magazines that children don’t read, that they think are boring or that they just want the toy on the front.”
Most TWJ’s readers are subscribers, their parents paying to have the magazine delivered to their house every Friday. “That’s a bit of an event,” said Bassi. “Children actually like picking up the magazine and reading it. And if they didn’t, their parents wouldn’t carry on subscribing.”
Unlike branded titles or magazines with environmentally catastrophic covermounts, TWJ has total freedom with its covers.
“We don’t have to put a Peppa Pig on the front cover… we’re reflecting what’s going on in the world. We want a magazine that children want to pick up off the doormat and read straight away.”