It took only a few days after San Francisco closed its schools in mid-March for Chris Colin to brainstorm an idea to occupy both his time and kids across the city. A father of two and a working journalist, he noticed how his children were looking for things to do beyond watching him eat his morning cereal.
His Bernal Heights community was filled with parents like him wondering how to occupy their kids’ spare hours, so he sent a few emails to his neighbours to find out if their kids would be interested in jotting down their thoughts about how the pandemic has affected them.
The submissions rolled in almost immediately.
So began the journey of Six Feet of Separation, a U.S. first in being a digital newspaper born during COVID-19 that’s by children for children. This wasn’t Owl or National Geographic Kids; instead of an adult masthead, children would be the main contributors and readers (along with their parents), and Colin would serve as the volunteer editor, publisher, layout designer and marketing director.
“Writing is a distant cousin of therapy,” he says. “Just putting some thoughts down on paper can be a great way to process how you think about major things, such as this pandemic.”
He wanted to bring that same approach to his young contributors, who had a lot to say about the pandemic’s affect on their lives. As he told a blog network recently: “If they could have a little bit of agency at this time, if they could see their voices out there, that would be a good thing. Kids have so little control in life, in general. I mean, they can’t even reach the peanut butter on their own.”
Available online via the interactive magazine maker Flipsnack, Six Feet of Separation has published six issues, each with around 25 contributions ranging from a nine-year-old’s take on being stuck at home to comics about chickens to the state of the San Francisco transit system during the lockdown. More than 100 writers and illustrators have been published in the outlet, hailing from five countries beyond the U.S.
At first, Colin didn’t reject many submissions. “I had a ‘say yes’ attitude in the beginning, ignoring grammar errors, ignoring if the content wasn’t focused on the pandemic.” Then in later issues, he had a more discerning eye for what worked for Six Feet of Separation, and would ask some children to hone their pitches or stories after that first email.
He says that what he learned was similar to what parents learn when they want to extract information about their child’s day. “It doesn’t work to ask, ‘How was your day?’ Gradually I began to find writing prompts and story ideas that were loose enough to be flexible, but not so open-ended as to cause paralysis.”
He goes on to say, “I wanted them to feel confident and ambitious, and ease them into writing for the newspaper, and I wanted to also let them know they didn’t have to mimic the style seen in newspaper writing,” he says.
Delilah Kaden, a 14-year-old San Franciscan, has written several pieces for Six Feet of Separation, and says it was valuable to do some extracurricular writing while school was shut down. “With Six Feet, it was nice not to have any constraints of what I could write about. And I’d really like to see this magazine reach a lot more teens in the future.”
The news outlet relies on word-of-mouth buzz and Colin’s press appearances to boost traffic, while funding challenges have now been eased somewhat: AT&T awarded Six Feet of Separation a grant, some of which will go towards a partnership with the non-profit youth writing network 826 National.
“They have relationships with students around the country, so we’re working with them to help us accomplish our mission,” Colin says.
The business model is volunteer-based right now, and the kid contributors aren’t paid, but Colin’s vision for long-term sustainability will likely include a mix of funding from periodic grants and “the generosity of readers and parents and/or a deep-pocketed, civically minded organization or individual coming along at the right time.”
He doesn’t want Six Feet of Separation to be the sole trailblazer. His goal is for other communities around the world to get inspired by the success of his newspaper. Hopefully, that encourages other parents and kids to share their creativity and opinions with a publication open to their ideas.
While he doesn’t have firm plans yet, Colin is also going to use some of those grant funds “to ensure kids who don’t have access to computers and smartphones can get those phones, so they can contribute to Six Feet of Separation as well.”
He envisions the newspaper remaining relevant for readers even after the pandemic’s current wave. “I think kids and their families will be feeling the aftershocks of COVID-19 for a long time. I hope our outlet can be there to help all of them process it all.”
In the news
- Congratulations to the 24 news projects getting coaching from the Google News Initiative Startups Lab Boot Camp.
- Here’s why one former Montreal Gazette employee decided to leave his job for crowdfunded journalism.
- Artificial intelligence is coming for our hot takes.
- Is there a perception gap when it comes to local news?
- Here’s a very interesting deep-dive on how one outlet is selling premium tier ad-free subscriptions.
Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!
And one more thing…
We’re eagerly following The Tyee’s experiments in getting its reporting out to residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.