Priority Shifts

Newspapers in Education programs are getting lost in the JOA shuffle.

Since the approval of the joint operating agreement that will bind the business departments of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post forever and ever (or at least until one side atrophies and dies), the minions at the Denver Newspaper Agency have been working overtime to coordinate what DNA communications director Jim Nolan refers to as the debut of "the combined newspapers" on the weekend of April 7 and 8. As such, they've had to prioritize -- tackling some programs affected by the deal immediately but allowing others to drift along aimlessly. Examples of the latter are the Newspapers in Education operations at the News and the Post, which will likely float in limbo for months.

In recent years, NIE offerings, most often consisting of lesson plans that allow educators to use free newspapers as instructional tools in their classrooms, were heavily hyped. Indeed, house advertisements in both papers even appeared in the days after then-Attorney General Janet Reno's January 5 sanctioning of the JOA. That week, the Post touted a sample CSAP test over its NIE logo, and the News plugged a four-week curriculum based on "Fish Story," a multi-part report by Todd Hartman, with a huge ad sporting this banner: "Teachers: Sign Up Today!"

But by mid-month, NIE had seemingly fallen off the edge of the earth. When I called the Post and the News asking for information about how Newspapers in Education would change as a result of the JOA, I was told by representatives of the publications -- including News marketing director Linda Sease, whom I reached the day before she jumped to a new position at Clear Channel -- that the DNA would take over the program the following week, and I should ask whomever was put in charge of it. But since then, nobody has been able to tell me who that someone is. DNA's Nolan says only that "I expect that the individual programs will continue through this school year -- but whether we combine them in the future or keep them separate is still on the table, and we're not prepared to discuss it." He adds, "We have a plan for who's going to administer the NIE program, but I'm not prepared right now to go into that, because it's still being evaluated."

Fred Harper

Nolan also asserts that "the Agency is committed to the NIE program," but that doesn't mean it'll avoid being radically scaled back -- and the end of the newspaper war is a big reason why cuts should be anticipated. After all, the free newspapers provided to schools are actually paid for by businesses through sponsorship agreements and therefore are counted as paid circulation, while other costs are kept under control through a variety of clever accounting measures. The News, for instance, established a tax-exempt foundation to handle NIE curriculum development, sponsorship pacts and distribution of papers to the schools. But now, with the JOA approved, the papers don't care nearly as much about growing their readership totals, because profits will be split down the middle no matter who sells more subscriptions. Hence, any number-cruncher worth his pocket protector is apt to be much less enamored of NIE from here on out.

Of course, NIE does more for the Post and the News than just pump up circulation figures. Getting youngsters accustomed to reading newspapers makes good business sense: Think of them as future subscribers. Likewise, the publications engender goodwill and positive publicity by associating themselves with pro-kid, pro-education pursuits -- and so do sponsors, who are often convinced to back curricula that tie in to their businesses in ways that sometimes seem more about promotion than teaching. Such as? Try some of these News NIE programs on for size:

· "The World of Travel," sponsored by Frontier Airlines, in which students in grades three through six "learn all about travel, the travel industry, geography, airplanes and more";

· "Meet Me at the Mall," sponsored by Cherry Creek Shopping Center, which offers fifth- and sixth-graders "thoughtful and fun ways to learn about money management and the retail industry"; and, perhaps best of all...

· "The Road to Your First Car," designed "to teach high school students the process of buying, insuring and maintaining their first car." Brought to you by Progressive Insurance and John Elway AutoNation USA.

That's not to say that all NIE presentations are useless. A casual sampling of several area teachers generates a handful of positive responses, particularly for stock-market games made available by both newspapers; they help hone math skills even as they inform children about the rudiments of Wall Street. And even those educators who've had unrewarding experiences with particular lessons generally like the idea of introducing kids to newspapers as a way of making them aware of current events and underlining the importance of literacy.

A librarian who oversees NIE use at a K-eighth grade school in the south suburbs (she asks that her name not be used -- no use ticking off the administration) has seen a variety of these reactions among teachers. According to her, about five instructors per year ask for programs at the school; most of them are new to the profession. But some have complained about the suitability of programs available for specific age groups: "The middle-school curricula have been pretty good, but the intermediate ones have sometimes been too broad and not really geared to lower-level thinkers," she says.

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