Sitting in my online journalism class, in my second year of my journalism degree at Ryerson University in Toronto, I am told the mother of all rules for a journalist: know your audience.
Keeping this rule in the foreground of my mind has helped me as an up-and-coming online journalist. In everything I write, I strive to stay focused on the audience I am writing for. In journalism school we are taught how to write the perfect lead and how to tell a story in good inverted-pyramid style, without all the fluff. We are even taught how to copy edit a piece of writing within an inch of its life. But, that is just the foundation.
The most important lesson, in my mind, comes when we are thrust into the real world like wide-eyed five-year-olds on their first day of school. The lesson comes when we take our first steps into a real newsroom... or office, or studio, or whatever other dwelling that we may be working in. We are forced to develop our own news judgment.
This summer, as I approach the looming inevitability of my fourth and final year of university, I am working as an intern sourcing and writing stories for an online kids news website. I am also getting a taste of that need for individual news judgment. Writing the news for children is foreign and yet comfortable; it is both difficult and rewarding.
I have some background in childcare, so I thought I had a good sense of how to write news for children, and I did. But, it didn't take me long to learn that there is so much more to it than just 'putting it in Layman's terms.'
On my first day in this unknown world of 'news for kids,' I wrote an article about an earthquake in Spain. Imagine my surprise when I edited the article and found glaringly obvious words that I knew a child wouldn't understand.
What six-year-old kid knows what an epicenter is? And wouldn't it just be that much easier to use the word 'center?'
Imagine my surprise even further when my editor found more words and facts that needed to be changed to suit the child audience of the news website.
I had all kinds of doubts about my ability to gauge the news for this new, and foreign, audience that I was being asked to write for. All those hours of listening to professors talk about hard news leads was kind of, well, out the window.
But, it turned out to be a very good thing.
As the summer has progressed, I am happy to say I have found my inner child. I have learned to approach writing a story as if I don't already know the context and backstory to it -- because I know the majority of my audience won't. We can give kids the news without all the gore and still provide them with current, breaking news. I believe it is our responsibility to provide thought-provoking news for the young and inquisitive minds of the next generation.
The experience has allowed me to dig deep and utilize the abilities that were taught under the surface at school. I have learned to break the news down to the bare grit and to really tell it how it is; without the complicated analysis that sometimes comes when writing for the 'adult news world.'
The beauty behind filtering and delivering the news for children is that you give them what they need to know, and that's it. By only having four or five sentences to tell a story, you are forced as a writer, to get the message across. It is a delicate balance between explaining ideas the way they need to be explained for children, and just giving the facts that will interest them.
Because, let's be real here, what kid is going to want to read about Disney's quarterly earnings? But give them a little kid-friendly information about the top grossing Disney film and they will eat it up.
This journalistic experience has been very liberating for me. It may very well be the only time in my career I get to write fun, but current stories, for all the little minds out there. As I am writing the stories, and am hopefully teaching children all over the world about current events, I am learning and growing myself as a writer and person.
I can tell you this now: I would have probably never been writing about an optical illusion in Sweden, a mini-home in Arkansas, or 'dancing' planets anywhere else!