Kids Draw the Darndest News: City Room’s Andy Newman on The New York Times’ Latest Feature

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9-year-old Leah from Brooklyn draws the news. (NYTimes.com)

“We are looking for the kids who draw these things not to just depict something, but to offer some kind of social criticism through the visual storytelling techniques that they use.”

That might sound like a pretty tall order for the under-12 set that Bureau Chief of The New York Times‘ City Room blog Andy Newman had in mind when he helped create the site’s latest feature, Kids Draw the News. But despite starting out under heavy criticism from a vocal number of commenters (as well as a local Fox affiliate) for glorifying violence, Mr. Newman has faith in the comprehension skills of what he calls “the next generation of New York Times readers.”

When contacted by The Observer, Mr. Newman defended the idea behind Kids Draw the News, a relatively new feature that put up its first call for reader’s submissions in April. According to the staff reporter on the Metro beat, it was not entirely conceived under the premise of “How do we get cool content for free?”

“Though obviously that is one of the things we like about it,” he joked.

“There’s actual civic good done by getting kids to engage in journalism and stuff that’s happening in the world, and learning a little bit beyond what’s on TV, or what video games they are playing,” Mr. Newman said. “So it’s a way to broaden their interests a little bit, while thinking ‘What would have an immediate appeal to kids?'”

The answer was simple. “People punching each other and throwing wine at each other happened to be a good way to start,” Mr. Newman said, referring to KDTN’s first and second feature, about the “Epic Brawl” in the Tap Room of the New York Athletic Club.

The reporter admitted that the staff was chastened by the criticism that the choice of subject matter originally garnered. “It can’t be all senseless violence,” he said of the group consensus. “It has to be a balanced diet of other cool stuff, like animals and shipwrecks.”

The only two criteria a story has to pass in order to be conceived as viable for the drawing contest is 1) Does this have a visual component? and 2) Is it the kind of things kids would be interested in?

“Most of us who sit around thinking about these things are parents who have kids– I know what my daughter’s friends would be interested in–so we’re able to say ‘This will work,’ or ‘This won’t work,'” Mr. Newman told The Observer, though he later said the perfect pitch to KDTN was hard to define. “Things involving animals are cool,” he mused. “Anything involving physical comedy, if not actual senseless violence.”

Meanwhile, the City Room staff hadn’t come across any submissions that were inappropriate. (Update: Mr. Newman wrote in to the Observer with one correction: “Colleagues have reminded me that we did nix one inappropriate–if true-to-the-news–drawing: it depicted a guy urinating on a slot machine.)
The only issues they had with posting pictures was the quantity, as was the case in two instances where an entire school class sent in pictures. The slideshows on NYTimes.com aren’t designated to go past a certain number, and if you put “50 things” in a slideshow, it can mess up the way the site looks.

“That’s an unfortunate part of it, when we have to choose not to put someone’s stuff up after they’ve already gone through with the effort,” Mr. Newman told OTR.

As for the recent beer garden story, which was chosen partly because of the “shitstorm in the comments,” Mr. Newman doesn’t believe the concept was inappropriate, since kids were naturally a part of the story, and The New York Times “had already heard from the adults.”

“Kids see drunken adults either in real life or depicted on TV.” Mr. Newman continued, before offering this advice for anyone offended by the content of a story on KDTN. “If you think it’s this horrible thing, just don’t even tell them about it.”