So long Weekly Reader . . .

That magazine’s demise does not signal an end to kids’ need for reliable news — especially about science

I read with sadness this week that Weekly Reader is about to disappear.

Earlier this year, Scholastic Classroom Magazines purchased the publication, one that had been an iconic source of news (throughout my elementary-school years, anyway). The buyer already had 28 subject-specific publications. It will now begin “combining the features of Weekly Reader into the Scholastic classroom magazines,” says Cathy Lasiewicz, with Scholastic in New York City. “There will be some co-branding,” she told me, meaning vestiges of the old publication’s name may be appended to the occasional Scholastic title.

When I was growing up, Weekly Reader was a household name, a fixture in classrooms across America. Even among many adults, it had substantially higher visibility than Science News.

It’s something I learned early in my career. Time and again as I introduced myself, people would ask: “Science News: Isn’t that the Weekly Reader of science?”

It was a recurrent frustratration that so many people seemed to assume the brief format of our stories meant we were writing for the grade-school set. In fact, we labored hard each week to concisely sate the curiosity of astute (and often quite science-literate) adults.

I’m happy to say it’s now been quite a long while since anyone has confused us for a kids’ publication. But that’s not to say kids don’t need good science journalism, particularly throughout that middle school window when a fascination with science and tech so often threatens to flag. The result: In early 2003 we launched Science News for Kids.

It took a while for SNK to find its niche. Today this online magazine reaches more than 1.5 million people annually. During peak periods, the site serves more than 15,000 people a day.

Free of charge — and free of advertising — SNK now posts between 2 and 6 news and feature stories some 50 weeks a year. Each is archived for retrieval at any time from anywhere (our readers have been logging in from 200-plus countries and territories).

Most of our offerings target students in middle school, although we hear there is a significant spillover into younger and older age groups. SNK’s feature stories often introduce serious and cutting edge topics, everything from dark matter and epigenetics to fracking and electronic tattoos. We know that some appeal largely because they’re just fun or quirky, like the science of mummies; investigations of the world’s elusive, legless amphibians; and how scientists are attempting to create meat in the test-tube.

Although targeted for kids, these stories are not superficial. We just make new developments — and the controversies that may surround them — accessible to kids who may arrive at our site with a limited vocabulary or knowledge base.

SNK’s far shorter news stories tend to digest new developments that were recently covered in Science News. Increasingly, however, even these stories may be original to the kids’ site. Among several that have proven popular: why dog’s paws don’t get frostbite, how the sun can power self-cleaning clothes and a new way to harvest energy from temperature changes.

A Cool Jobs series debuted this year. Each of the dozen stories that has begun rolling out profiles a trio of researchers that have something in common. It may be their research discipline (like robotics or math), where they conduct research (in the field) or what served as their initial motivation (something they’ve loved since childhood). The series’ goal is to broaden kids’ horizons on the many interesting — and perhaps unexpected — careers that depend on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM fields). We don’t expect kids to necessarily be looking to answer that perennial what do you want to do when you grow up question. And that’s why we’ve designed each of these pieces to sell itself on the basis of the interesting work that the profiled researchers do.

Over the past year, the site has also begun developing stories for educators and others.

The first batch described how parents and mentors can help kids begin the research that could lead to science competitions, including those created and administered by our parent organization, Society for Science & the Public. Adults may also appreciate a thought-provoking pair of stories looking at the role of creativity in science and the idea that the scientific method — as the way that good science is conducted — may actually constitute a myth.

Teachers have told us that they like our stories as a supplement to their required curricula (see a smattering of comments). To help others figure out how to use news, we posted a feature today in which teachers share their experiences introducing current events in the classroom, pointing to what works and what doesn’t. Among those sources that have proved useful: stories from Science News and Science News for Kids.

If you haven’t seen us, check out our site. If you are among the many returning visitors, thanks for appreciating the news that my dedicated team of writers and editors brings to kids from 9 to 99. And if you’re a teacher or other regular reader of Science News for Kids, please feel free to weigh in on what you like, what you don’t and what additional features or content you’d most appreciate seeing.           

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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