Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: The Week Junior has had a milestone couple of months, recently releasing their 250th issue and increasing circulation during lockdown by 22% year on year. But when the magazine first launched back in 2015, people were really sceptical about its chances of success. Why is a print magazine for children doing so well five years later?

Anna Bassi: When we were planning the launch, I think there were lots of naysayers. Everybody says ‘It’s not digital, kids don’t read magazines anymore, they don’t care about the news, and everything they do is on a screen.’ And I think that while that was true to some degree, I think when it comes to reading, there is a big difference between reading on screen and reading in print.

There are two things here. One is that there isn’t another children’s magazine like this. I mean, there are a lot of children’s magazines, and a lot of them are doing very well. But I think this was something different because one, it was for a slightly older audience than the vast majority of children’s magazines.

Two, it’s not driven by a brand, an entertainment brand. So there’s no risk of people going off it because that brand has fallen out of favour.

And three, it hasn’t relied on a cover mount, which is what a lot of children’s magazines are sold on the basis of something that’s stuck on the front cover. So what that meant was that we had to create a magazine that actually could stand alone by virtue of the quality of its content, so it wasn’t relying on an entertainment brand, and it wasn’t relying on a piece of plastic.

What that meant was that we’ve really focused on creating a magazine that is really accessible, and it’s been designed to be read. It hasn’t been designed to look amazing, although it does look pretty good. But it’s been designed to be read, and it’s been designed for children to read, and it’s been written for children.

So I think what we’ve managed to do is provide a genuinely engaging and enjoyable experience, which is pitched perfectly for its readership who don’t really care whether they’re reading it on a screen or reading it on paper, it’s for them.

And then the other thing is, that although it’s sold on newsstands, it is primarily a subscription product. So that means it comes through the post every week to a child. And there is actually just something really special about that.

And I think that it’s a habit that children have found very easy to get into, and something that they really look forward to. They enjoy reading it. Their parents see them enjoying reading it, and their parents will tell other parents about it, in the same way as the kids will tell their friends about it as well.

So I think there’s been a lot of sort of, word of mouth has played a big part in our success as well. But what it really comes back to, quite honestly, I think is creating something which is absolutely 100% for its readers.

You say about the print magazine, but you also made a digital version available because the postal service kind of went completely to hell in Coronavirus. So what’s the response been like, I suppose six months later to that, given that the whole tagline of the print magazine is almost like a sort of antidote to screen time?

As you say, we released it because we were really worried that our supply chains would break down. So primarily, this was to provide a backup to the print magazine. And so we’ve had a reasonable level of engagement with it. I think we’ve got about 3,000 people looking at it every month. But I don’t know that many of them are using it as a standalone.

So I think the print magazine is still first and foremost. And I’m happy about that. It’s nice to think that if a child was to be lucky enough to go away on holiday, under the current circumstances, they could still get their Week Junior while they’re away. But actually, I think that the print magazine is still the number one product for us.

I know you said that you were aimed at slightly older children, is the hope that it’s filling that gap between the almost sort of comic-like, really young kids magazines and the main The Week magazine, or is there still a bit of a gap? Is the plan to graduate them from one to the other?

I think definitely, that was part of the original plan for The Week Junior. And certainly readers at the upper end of our readership, they are 13 or 14 years old, by which time they are more than able and ready to read The Week.

I don’t know if there is a direct graduation from one to the other. I think the difficulty with children, when once you get to those early teenage years is that there is a lot more competing for their time and energy. So although in theory they could progress from The Week Junior to The Week, it may not happen quite as smoothly or as quickly as we’d expect. Because at that point, they suddenly have a lot more homework, they’re beginning to think about GCSEs, and actually, they’re spending a lot more time on screen.

So finding a way to give them news in the way that they would like it, given that they’re another level more mature than our than our current readership, is actually quite a tricky challenge I think, and I think in some ways, The Week does exist online, and perhaps there’s an opportunity to make more of that as a kind of source of information for those teenagers who aren’t quite ready for the print magazine.

I suppose you’ll probably have a thing where if the parents are subscribers as well, they might just end up reading their parents’ copy.

Well, exactly. And vice versa, hopefully is where we get loads of parents reading The Week Junior. A lot more than we expected. Parents, grandparents, great grandparents, everybody likes to have a little read of it if they get chance to.

Okay, I hope that’s not as a sort of supervision!

Well, no, I think it might be to begin with, but actually, we get a lot of feedback from parents to say, ‘Oh, they’ve explained Brexit far more clearly than any of the newspapers that we read. And I actually prefer reading The Week Junior to any other news source’.Because I think, partly because it’s really clearly explained, and partly because there is a sort of focus on more positive news as well.

So it’s not all doom and crisis and hysteria, we do place great value and put a lot of time into finding stories that demonstrate positivity and kindness and so on. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

I think maybe we should all have a copy for the Brexit information then! Yeah, I’ve got quite a few questions about how you approach topics. I suppose generally, it’s been a pretty tough couple of years, but this year, especially when it comes to news topics, it’s been pretty grim. So what’s the editorial line when it comes to things like Black Lives Matter protests, Brexit – I’ll deal with coronavirus separately – but parents themselves might have particularly strong views on that. How do you approach that as a magazine for children?

Very, very carefully. Very carefully. And of course, people come at it with all sorts of opinions across the spectrum. So our line is really, really clear when it comes to things like, well anything, whether it’s Brexit or Black Lives Matter, or indeed Coronavirus. What we do is stop, take a step back, think about what children are going to need to know to make sense of this news that they are going to hear about anyway.

There are some stories perhaps that we wouldn’t report, but when it comes to those big stories, though, they’re all over the place, and they’re going to be exposed to them, and they’re going to hear something about it. So our position is always to start by explaining exactly what’s going on, and explaining why it’s going on.

So we don’t shy away from anything that’s difficult or potentially upsetting. But we are careful in terms of how we tell that. We stick to the facts, we provide the context, so we can’t assume that our readers will always know the historical context to an event or the events leading up to it. So we always have to try and go back to the beginning and tell them what they need to know.

And the other thing that, I suppose when it comes to thinking about strong views and bias, we don’t take a political position in The Week Junior. We don’t have a political agenda. We don’t tell readers what they should think about things, we tell them what’s going on. And then we’ll share a range of opinions with them in a similar way to The Week magazine does to adults.

And we’re always very, very careful to make sure that it’s clear that, this is a fact, and this is an opinion, and this is just one opinion, and there are lots of opinions. There are lots of ways of doing it.

But fundamentally, what do children actually need to know, and how can we tell this in the most sensitive and most objective way possible? And I think with difficult news stories, so the Black Lives Matter protests and obviously, George Floyd’s brutal death, that was a story we couldn’t not report on in The Week Junior, even though it was extremely upsetting for everybody to read. And even more so for any child who may well have experienced racism in their own life, perhaps. But we had to explain what was going on.

And I think, where we will always diverge from mainstream adult new sources is that we’re very focused on finding a thread in there somewhere that will provide hope or optimism in the end. So even in these very dark stories, there will always be a story to tell about people who helped or people who are now working to prevent something similar happening again, or who are actively forcing through positive change as a consequence of something difficult.

So there’s always an element in there that will engender hope and optimism, and I hope that that means that children then are provided with a really clear picture of what is going on in the world, but they’re not left feeling full of despair, which would be just absolutely the worst thing that we could possibly achieve with an issue of The Week Junior.

That’s what the rest of us have to deal with with grownup news! Are there things you do, so if a kid has got a particularly tough topic or they come across something that particularly affects them, are there things you put in place there like ways that they can follow up on that or parents can talk to them? Like almost support mechanisms within the work?

Yeah, we do. I mean, there’s a few different things again, that we do. Historically whenever there has been a news report in The Week Junior about something that we know will be upsetting for readers, for example, the Black Lives Matter protest, or a terrorist attack or something else that, these things can be quite difficult to explain to children, there are a few things we do.

So within the story itself, up towards the end of each of these stories, we will include some advice for kids, reminding them that if they’re upset about what they’ve read to talk to a trusted adult about it. We very often include the URL for ChildLine, which provides a lot of good practical advice there for dealing with any sort of mental health issues and anxiety that might have been caused by what’s going on around the world.

We’ve produced our own materials as well, which are available online, so we’ll post a link through to those as well. And that would just be some simple advice for child, for example not just talking to an adult, but maybe if you don’t feel like talking about it, you could draw a picture, or you could express how you feel in a different way, and to not worry, and to try and kind of provide some perspective for them.

And at the same time for parents, we will very often pre-empt the issue by posting something on our Facebook page, for example, that will alert parents to a story that’s coming up in that week’s issue, and then provide them also with some advice on how to kind of respond to any questions that their children might have.

So, again a very simple line there would be, don’t avoid the questions and don’t brush them away, because if they want to talk about it, it’s really important that you do talk about it, and that you’re honest with them. Hopefully the story we’ve written will answer a lot of those questions, but your child might respond in a variety of different ways. And it’s really important that you reassure them and comfort them. So yeah, we do try and pre-empt all of those things.

And we’ve not had, I mean, I’m trying to think if we’ve ever really had a complaint about a story. I mean, very occasionally, we might have a complaint from a parent to say that their child was particularly upset by a story, but those are really few and far between, and they are only ever the stories that you would expect them to be. And very often children at the younger end of the spectrum. But all of those things, obviously, we do take seriously, and we’ll look back and see what we might have been able to do better and how that might have been avoided.

But I think with some subjects, upset is unavoidable. It’s just about how you then bring that back round to reassuring and focusing on the positivity and positive outcomes really.

I’m particularly curious at the moment, because kids have been back at school for a couple of weeks now. And parents and kids generally have not got a clue what is going on. There’s so many different opinions about how safe it is for them to be back. How have you approached the last couple of weeks of this?

Well, again, I mean, it’s been interesting, because I suppose, it’s important to remember that for a lot of children, going back to school was actually quite exciting. And I know for all you might imagine children just had an amazing time over over the summer, and sort of prior to that, not having to go to school, I think what it made a lot of children realise was they actually really like going to school. They like seeing their friends, and they like seeing their teachers, and the structure of the day is really important.

I think it’s been a mixed bag of an experience, some kids haven’t had such a great time, they have found it really difficult, and some kids have been very lucky and sort of been able to fill their time.

So we’ve really essentially focused in the build up to going back to school on trying to prepare children for what they might expect. So this is what a school day might look like, this is the kind of things that might be a bit different about being in school when you go back. One way systems and social distancing and washing your hands and all the rest of it.

So we did that as a way of trying to take some of the anxiety out of the situation. I mean, obviously, over the past couple of weeks with cases rising again, it’s something we’re having to think about a bit more carefully in terms of how we report it to our readers, and I suppose, fortunately for us, it still seems that children are mostly less seriously affected by COVID-19 than adults, although of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re not.

So we’re reporting on what is going on and what’s changing, but at the same time, reminding our readers that there’s some really simple things they can do to protect themselves and to stop the virus from spreading.

It’s still very much about focusing on the practical and the positive rather than focusing too heavily on rising numbers. And when the pandemic began back in March, that was the same approach then. It became clear quite quickly that we couldn’t continue to keep reporting on rising cases and the number of people who were dying, because that really was going to be something that would completely overwhelm the child.

So we just focused on who’s helping, what are people doing to help, community initiatives, talking about the NHS, writing about some of the things that were, the rainbows in windows and the COVID snakes that were appearing in parks all around the country. So really, really trying to focus on community and kindness.

Not pretending that this thing isn’t happening, but just focusing on anything but the worst of it really.

I gather lockdown was quite good for The Week Junior’s subscription numbers. Why do you think that was?

Well, it’s a funny thing, I suppose that I didn’t anticipate that at all. But it seems obvious in retrospect, that parents were looking for something to keep their children occupied and engaged.

So I think it became, for all those kids who were suddenly not at school anymore, and a lot of them, perhaps not even having any sort of structured timetable of work to do, The Week Junior was something I think a lot of parents felt that children would enjoy it. They would be reading, which is always going to be a good thing, and they can be learning in a way that they actually enjoy as well.

So I think it’s just, it directly benefited from the need for something to fill those hours and to fill that gap. Fortunately, a lot of them seem to have stayed on with us. So it’s been really fantastic.

Scrambling for anything to fill three hours of the day?!

Well, exactly. We thought about that a lot as well in terms of our editorial, because we had to change our plans quite dramatically. We plan a lot of content around entertainment and events. And, you know, there’s things like the Olympics, for example, the whole schedule of editorial around the Olympics. And of course, we couldn’t do that.

So we started thinking about, what else can we give kids that would fill those hours? So all those amazing virtual tools that suddenly became available, and online gaming, and the different ways they could connect with their families.

We did a series of workouts as well, they weren’t quite as popular as Joe Wicks, I don’t think, but we had a series of page workouts that could be done at home in a tiny space without any special equipment.

And anything that we could do that would help children fill their time and take the pressure off parents a little bit, we felt that, that was the least we could do, really.

And I know Dennis made the decision to send their staff remote, I mean it ended up being pretty much at the same time as Boris Johnson, but it was quite an early one. Did that give your team a bit more chance to get into the swing of what remote working would actually be like in managing to collaborate together before everything went completely chaotic?

Well, only just really, because I think we began working remotely on the Monday and then the lockdown was announced on the Friday. So we had a few days run at it.

But we were actually midway through an issue at that point. We go to press on Wednesday. So we’d met in the office on the Monday and had our usual editorial meeting in which we kind of figure out what the news lineup is going to be and the cover. And then everybody just raced home and we just had to carry on, there wasn’t really much time to figure out anything special, we just had to get that issue out.

I think what put us in quite a good position was that we had already been set up to work remotely. A lot of people already worked from home a day or two a week on my team. So we all knew there wouldn’t be major technical problems, although people’s internet capabilities varied quite dramatically! And we did have a few hairy moments.

I think what it did though, is in a funny way – I’m sure a lot of people found this as well – there was a real surge of energy at the beginning. A real kind of surge of kind of like, we’ve got a problem, and we’re going to solve it, and there’s a challenge and we’ve got to get this right. Tied up with that the changes to our editorial plans as well, and the challenge of reporting on a pandemic to such a young audience. And I think that really was good. I think that really brought the team together.

And it resulted in some really fantastic work as well. I honestly think that some of the covers that we did, over the first few months of lockdown are among the best that we’ve done. In a funny way, I think it made us more collaborative, that we were far apart. We had to make the extra effort to work together.

I think it’s been hard in some ways, it is always nicer to be with people and to have those opportunities to have creative conversations and problem solve in the moment and talk about stories and talk about design and so on. But I don’t think the product has suffered massively for me, I think if anything, it is better than it was six months ago.

I think that’s a concern going into winter now is that as the months go on, and there’s still no end to this in sight.

I mean, we were hoping to go back in starting next week for a day or two a week. But we can’t do that now. It is difficult. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, isn’t it. And I think we’ll just have to find out way through.

It would be nice to think that at some point within the next few months, we’ll actually have a chance to get together again as a full team. But that does feel like it’s a long way away at the moment to have 14 people in a room.

And the podcast must be about a year old now. How’s that going?

That’s going really well, actually. We started that just over a year ago. And we work with Fun Kids on that. So it’s published by them, and we have one of their presenters Bex as the presenter of our podcast. And every week, we have three people on there from the team, just talking about some of the week’s most interesting stories, and having a bit of a debate about things.

And we’re up to about 45,000 downloads a month now, which is good. I mean, again, that grew quite dramatically during lockdown. And it’s levelled out a little bit now. But I think we’ve found our groove with it now.

Some of us were quite nervous about doing it to begin with, you don’t go into magazine journalism necessarily to be a broadcaster or a presenter, but I think people have sort of found their feet, and they are having some fun with it now. We’re really proud of it actually, it’s going well, we’re enjoying it.


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