My maternal grandfather loved newspapers. When I visited the farm, he would have snippets ready to read aloud – items that had caught his eye or columns that made him laugh. Maybe that’s when the newsprint leaked into my veins. Pa Ern also indulged in the Readers Digest word quizzes and actively strove to improve the household vocabulary.
Fast forward several decades and I’m spending a day with Yr 8 students, explaining how a newspaper is put together. I cover where news stories come from, who crafts them and how they end up on the page. In her preface to these sessions their teacher says that many students have no real understanding of what a newspaper is. They don’t read newspapers and are clueless when it comes to locating traditional elements such as obituaries or editorials. The few families that still subscribe to papers often receive them electronically with the effect that they tend to be seen and consumed solely by adults. Given that I started out in newsrooms before we had Internet or email access and mobile phones were a misnomer, I feel like a complete fossil…
I’ve also been working tutoring a VCE English student. In Year 12 a substantial portion of the English mark is derived from ‘language analysis’ tasks. Students need to read a linked trio of media items (for example an opinion piece, a letter to the editor and a cartoon) and ascertain how language and imagery manipulates their thinking on an issue. Let me condemn myself to the age of the dinosaurs forever; if your principal source of ‘news’ is Facebook and your curiosity about current affairs is limited to who is snogging on Big Brother, you can take it as read that language analysis is going to be arduous.
Lastly, my wife and I have a business where we help children hone their literacy and numeracy skills. After their work is complete, students wait for their parents in a foyer area, surrounded by books. Many of them ignore our library or, if coaxed, pick up a book and flick through it without actually reading. I find that the only way to engage them in a story is to read it to them. I wonder if this happens in their homes.
And so to the graphic that kicked off this post, an Alan Kohler special from the 7pm ABC News recently. If we want young people engaged with the world and able to prosecute their opinions and causes, we need to turn this tragic chart around. Books and newspapers need to be back in front of our kids, crammed with stories that make them gasp, laugh and cry. Maybe we need to switch screens off for an hour a day, just to give tree books a chance.