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A thirst for knowledge

Volume 33, Number 2, June 2022

Who says a new generation isn’t interested in news? All it takes is a more imaginative way to present it

My five-year-old granddaughter studies the war in Ukraine. In her primary school reception class, she has learned that Putin is a “bad king” who drops bombs on people but that he is “probably losing”. She is interested enough to have made her own excellent drawing of downtown Kyiv, complete with rubble, fires and mangy-looking birds of prey.

For older students, it is not war but other news that interests. If you go by the most-read stories on our digital newspaper for schools, they prefer (despite the availability of well-written stories about Ukraine and Partygate) Pegasus spy software, what happens to recycled plastic bags, the return of sailing cargo ships, the Earth BioGenome Project, Welsh dragons, the importance of trivial knowledge, the global food system and, most of all, edible insects.

And these same students think, debate and have views. As I write, 57 per cent think Twitter should be completely unmoderated, 77 per cent think Putin has a messiah complex, 56 per cent think that God exists, 88 per cent think nuclear energy is safe, 85 per cent think there is no such thing as true originality, 83 per cent think we can still avert climate disaster, and 77 per cent think there is nothing wrong with cloning pets.

A significant number are interested enough to prepare work for an under-18s journalism competition called The Global Young Journalist Awards. These take serious effort and the award is a trophy, not cash or an iPad. Entries must be a finished piece of reporting, a podcast, a photo-essay, a short film or a graphic project and must relate to one or more of 10 categories, including Campaigning Journalist of the Year, Interviewer of the Year, International Journalist of the Year, and Political Journalist of the Year. More than 15 per cent of the entries are from Africa.

What’s behind all this interest? Teachers tell you that news matters more than it ever did – especially to young people. In the past five years, since the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke (October 2017) and the launch of #MeToo, the young have been galvanised, shocked and riddled with anxiety by threats that can strip a person of their identity or their life, distilled in events such as Greta Thunberg’s School Climate Strike (August 2018) and the rising urgency of the climate crisis; George Floyd’s asphyxiation (May 2020) and the Black Lives Matter marches; the first Covid-19 fatality (January 2020), global lockdowns and six million deaths; and the Russian invasion of Ukraine (February 2022) with its spectre of mushroom clouds. The year I was born, 1956, had its dark shadows – the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary – but how harmless they seem by comparison to today’s threats, and how they were leavened by the cheering news of Elvis Presley’s first big hit (Heartbreak Hotel), Grace Kelly’s wedding and an attempt by the House of Commons to end capital punishment.

Some teachers also point to a deeper reason. Stephen Green nails it in his 2009 book Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World when he talks about how the simple polarities of the old East/West divide, have been replaced by a far more complex geopolitical reality. His notion of the “complexification of everything” as established patterns and structures (churches, banks, businesses, academe, governments) transform themselves beyond recognition is convincing. Trade, culture, ideas and geopolitical relations have become exponentially more intricate as money and ideas flow in an ever-increasing variety of directions between countries. The resulting loss of certainties has a profound effect.

Viktor Frankl, who experienced a breakdown of the moral order during his three years in Nazi concentration camps, used this to develop a school of psychiatry, based on the will to meaning. He ascribed many anxieties to the rapid disappearance of the communal traditions which buttressed behaviour and taught us what to do in important life situations. Frankl saw this leading to two major neuroses: the will to power and the will to pleasure. Behind them, for him, lies the sense of drift, experienced by so many in developed societies, and he would not have been remotely surprised by today’s rises in anxiety and mental illness, particularly among the young.

So, why does journalism matter in schools? Because the underlying issues in the news are more urgent than at any time in the past 70 years, the globalised world is infinitely more complex, the traditional explanations no longer hold water, and our brains need new mental road maps.

Is that all? No. There’s one more reason, and perhaps this is the overriding one for many of the young who take to the streets and occasionally topple a statue. The way humans attempt to organise, regulate and shape a just society is under threat as never before. The travails of late consumer capitalism and the rise of the autocrats and propagandists across the globe in Hungary, France, America, Russia, China, Brazil has been joined by the surveillance society, its bots and algorithms, to undermine our ability to discuss things sensibly. Who knows what is true? Without that, how can we talk? We are reduced to jabbing angry fingers at each other.

In response to all this, a decade ago we launched The Day, an advertisingfree digital “newspaper” (because it is run like a newspaper, with writers and editors, and has a daily edition) for schools. It has not been a roaring success and I am not Mark Zuckerberg. But we are a for-profit business practising capitalism-with-charitable-characteristics, and we are the biggest news title in the UK for 18-and-unders.

Schoolchildren ‘forced’ to read what The Day says

Quietly and steadily, more than 1,000 schools, teaching around a million pupils have taken out paying membership. Very few do not renew each year and, for those that don’t, more replace them. According to our own numbers (so you don’t have to believe them), an average of 378,000 children are reading and studying our stories every weekday, which (to take our three biggest news rivals) compares to estimated circulations among under 18s of 344,000 for The Sun, 212,000 for The Guardian and 192,000 for the Daily Mail. However, it is not a fair contest. In most schools, The Day is effectively part of the curriculum. Pupils have no choice. They must study our stuff while Instas, Facebook posts, TikToks, WhatsApps and Sidebars of Shame lie dark on confiscated mobiles.

How does it work? Everything is virtual. There is a swift early-morning round of conference calls with our writers to discuss the two or three stories of the day, and once a week there’s an online meeting with our editorial board of teachers to check whether we are missing any key topics or concerns. By midnight, each story is edited, illustrated and ready to go live on the website for the following day’s edition. If there is breaking news in the morning, stories will be updated until the first classes of the day at 8.30am, which means we will usually be ahead of the papers. Each story starts with a newsy intro and headline but evolves into a news feature centred around a quasi-philosophical discussion (“the question”) that aims to split opinion in the average class straight down the middle. The story will give the basic facts, background, context, a glossary of terms and further reading to enable a healthy discussion based on solid, well-established shared knowledge.

The first version of any story is written for the older students, indistinguishable from adults if not already adults, and then (if suitable) subbed down into five different reading levels corresponding to the five key stages of the English syllabus, so there is even something for the granddaughter. Teachers use them in form time at the start of the day, or to spice up an English, maths, science, history, geography or RE lesson with a topical intro. And in these lessons an exciting alchemy is emerging in which the revolution in media is clearly being mirrored by a revolution in teaching, driven by a new emphasis on the science of curiosity and inquiry-led learning.

Anyone who has not heard of the XP Trust, its four secondary schools and five primaries in and around Doncaster, should rush to the website immediately. In mainstream coverage, Rachel Sylvester has led the way in The Times. As she points out, XP is pioneering a new way of thinking about education in this country by importing practices that have already been successful in the US, notably the idea of expeditionary learning. What this means in practice, co-founder Andy Sprakes points out, is that XP puts a heavy emphasis on the skills that employers say they want. “We set our curriculum like that, so it’s about collaborative working and problem-solving. It’s about critical thinking. There’s too much in the UK education world around ‘Well, it’s got to be like this or it won’t work’, and that’s just rubbish. Our curriculum is knowledge-rich but it’s rich with powerful knowledge, because the kids learn things to then do something with that knowledge.”

As a result of XP and the momentum of the critical thinking movement, The Day has adopted an inquiry-led, six-step set of drills to every story. These exercises guide students through a process of listening, thinking and questioning designed to teach fake news detection skills, an appreciation of other points of view, collaboration, and imaginative writing – and the signs are that they are doing some good.

Education research is beginning to show that the practice of critical thinking, objective analysis and evaluation of an issue to form a judgment is not only a driver of academic success but that it lies at the heart of addressing educational inequality, intolerance, democratic disengagement and the vast geyser of misinformation erupting hourly from the internet.

The young readers are telling us that the media they want when they are running the train set in 15 years should be more thoughtful and challenging than the diet they are getting today. Here, to conclude, are 10 forecasts from an informal focus group of six teenagers convened for the purposes of this article. If you listen to the children, journalism has a dazzling future – but it won’t be much like anything that exists now. Hold on to your hats.

WHAT SORT OF JOURNALISM DO YOU EXPECT WHEN YOU ARE 35?

  1. Written journalism will be more analytical, critical, objective and philosophical. Like Astral Codex Ten on Substack.
  2. Writing will be more succinct. Current journalism is too waffly. We are used to texting.
  3. The old “specialisms” such as politics, science, education, health will be blown to bits and reinvented.
  4. Threads and strings of short texts will be very important.
  5. There will be no personal columns about me and my dog/fridge/children.
  6. Opinions for the sake of opinions will be no more, even if they are sometimes funny.
  7. Printed newspapers and magazines will be well and truly gone.
  8. Artificial intelligence will do all the basic news, data and graphics.
  9. Investigations and reportage will be mainly film documentaries.
  10. Catching up on complicated news topics will be important and best done by podcasts.

Richard Addis, a former editor of the Daily Express, is editor and founder of The Day. theday.co.uk

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