Ask Nicky Cox, editor-in-chief of First News – the UK’s only national newspaper for children – why her publication is important, and her answer is both pithy and profound. “How does the world become a better place if people don’t know what’s going on in the world as they are growing up?” she says. “We want adults that understand what makes the world tick.”
It’s not a bad publishing purpose, as publishing purposes go. But for Cox, it’s also been her personal mission ever since starting out at the Croydon Advertiser as an eighteen-year-old trainee, which was when she asked her first boss why the title didn’t make an effort to appeal to kids some 30+ years ago.
“I look back and think, why was that in me – why was that a question, even?” she now marvels. “Yet for my entire career, children and publishing – children and the news – has been what’s driven me.”
Cox launched First News in May 2006 with Piers Morgan following 13 years as editorial director at BBC Worldwide where she oversaw 50 children’s magazines. She is also chief executive officer of Fresh Start Media production company, maker of Sky TV Kids’ news show FYI.
Back in 2006, the need for a children’s newspaper was clear – to her at least. And based on instinct, not consumer research.
“The fact was that more than ever, children needed a trusted source of news,” she recalls.
Not that everyone back then agreed. While doomsayers said kids’ preference for going online would leave the venture, well, doomed, others said such a title would already exist if there really was a need.
“When we launched, it was to enormous ridicule – even from those newspapers you’d imagine would support it,” Cox readily admits.
The title, targeting seven- to 14-year-olds, recently reported a 17.5% increase in readership to 2.6m weekly readers across all platforms. Today, she proudly points out, First News has a bigger readership than The Times, the Guardian, and the Telegraph, combined.
Growth is being driven by a marked increase in both home and school subscribers – a digital edition was distributed free to all schools in the UK during the summer term in the first lockdown and now nearly half of schools in the UK are subscribers – as well as environmental concerns (characterised as ‘The Greta Thunberg Effect’) and growing awareness of and interest in fake news and citizenship.
Listening to children is an opportunity – they have so much to say, so much hope.
Out of the mouths of babes…
Success has come from some important lessons learned over the years.
“When we launched, it was about us giving news to children,” Cox explains. “What quickly became apparent, however, was the need to give children a platform for their own voices to be heard and to campaign with them on the things that matter most to them, which we are doing a lot of now.”
Another watershed moment came two years in when First News ran a feature about child soldiers. Off the back of the reader response this generated, the title joined forces with Save The Children and the Department for International Development to launch a campaign – Conflict Children – through which children were offered a letter to sign calling on world leaders to end the practice of using children in wars.
“I thought we’d get one or two thousand children signing but we ended up getting something like 280,000 and ended up with then Foreign Secretary David Miliband reviewing British government policy and taking the issue to the United Nations, where a special session was held,” she recalls.
“It was fantastic to say to every child who signed the letter ‘You made a difference’. Since then, listening to children to find out what their concerns are and to give them a voice on the national and global stage has become a real passion.”
Scepticism voiced by some that certain topics are too difficult or scary for children has proven unfounded.
“The reality is that a lot of adult news media organisations sell their news on fear and stuff can be sensationalised. I see our job as to put that in context,” Cox continues. “A terrorist attack is scary, but for everyone one of us is probably the least likely way we will die. We are truthful – we don’t shy away – but we will always reassure by putting things in context and offer advice of where to go for support if they are worried.”
Successful news publishing to children is all about providing equality of access to information and taking these younger readers’ interests and concerns seriously – so showing respect. And with all the technology around now, she believes, it has never been more important to listen to kids and give them a voice.
“Forget the old phrase that kids should be seen not heard. Listening to children is an opportunity – they have so much to say, so much hope. They’re not cynical like adults. And out of the mouths of babes can come the most amazing solutions,” she adds. “I have enormous respect for children. We all should.”
It’s a powerful point. And one relevant to those newspapers now struggling in the face of declining readerships, especially.
We are truthful – we don’t shy away – but we will always reassure by putting things in context.
You can hear Nicky Cox being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Acorn Web Offset, the Yorkshire-based specialist A5 and A4 magazine printer.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.