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Bear Essential News for Kids marks 35 years of serving schoolchildren

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PHOENIX – Could there be a real life Spider-Man? Journalist Wyatt Arrington went to the Arizona Science Center to find out.

“Have you ever wondered how Spider-Man could swing from building to building on a single web? What would it be like if a man could really make spider webs?” he wrote.

As a “young reporter” for Bear Essential News for Kids, Wyatt, a fourth-grader at Towne Meadows Elementary in Gilbert, shared how spider webs are made as well as how Arizona State University researchers are developing ways to mass-produce spider silk.

Bear Essential News for Kids, a Tucson-based education newspaper aimed at elementary and junior high school students and their families, has been published monthly for 35 years. Eighty percent of its distribution is directly to about 550 schools in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas and into Pinal County.

Carrying articles by kids as well as by adults covering issues in terms kids can understand, it produces editions for Tucson and Phoenix, with city-specific advertising and events calendars.

Co-Publisher Nancy Holmes said the newspaper succeeds because it offers something for everyone who reads it.

“It’s from the littlest kids who just want to find the hidden objects on the front cover right on up through the grandparents who will pick it up at the ice cream store and everybody in between,” she said in a telephone interview.

Its longevity is due, in part, to remaining true to its mission and continuing to provide a printed product to schools, Holmes said.

“The mission of the paper is really to educate, entertain and enrich Arizona kids and their families with a free educational resource, a free newspaper,” she said. “We haven’t wavered on that.”

Bear Essential News is offered as a free educational resource to schools and families. It is supported by advertising revenue, sponsorships and grants.

When Stephen Gin became editor of Bear Essential News, he figured out the paper could garner revenue by soliciting corporate sponsorships of certain editorial sections. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office sponsors an anti-bullying page.

The newspaper also features a Young Reporter program allowing students in third through eighth grades to submit articles. The goals: improving children’s writing skills, bolstering their self-esteem and strengthening their communication skills.

“The whole idea behind it was to give kids a platform to express themselves, to give them a voice,” Gin said.

Jennifer Dow, a fourth-grade teacher at Towne Meadows Elementary, uses Bear Essential News in her classroom and works as a Young Reporter adviser. She urges her students to join the Young Reporter program as a way to write about topics that matter to them.

“Often children are not heard,” she said. “I felt it was very important that they know that what they have to say matters.”

Tim McGuire, Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Bear Essential News has value because it focuses on a specific market.

“Clearly, the future is in niches. Certainly kids are an important niche,” he said. “They are combining a business with doing good – training young journalists, getting kids involved, helping literacy.”

McGuire said Bear Essential News shouldn’t struggle with the shift to digital media the way large newspaper companies have because it isn’t focused on reaching a mass audience and has a strong website already.

“If your niche is tight enough, then print can still work,” he said.

Gin said Bear Essential News has aligned its content with the Common Core State Standards in education, which require classes to include informational and nonfiction materials. Its website lists which grade level standards are met by the main feature and other key pieces of content.

“A big push of these ELA Common Core Standards is a question of rigor,” he said. “They want to go that step further. That means being a little more in-depth in our coverage.”

Holmes said she expects Bear Essential News to continue to thrive not just because the Common Core is making teachers see the newspaper anew but because kids are excited to read it.

“I really feel like we are a local treasure in Arizona,” she said.