After nearly a century, Weekly Reader is absent from classroom

McClatchyOctober 3, 2012 

— The election of presidents, the invention of television, the exploration of space.

For nearly a century, the Weekly Reader explained it all to generations of elementary school readers, from the one-room schoolhouse to the tech-savvy classroom.

But last month, for the first time in 84 years, it disappeared, at least in the way that decades of loyal readers came to know it.

Scholastic, the children’s book and periodicals publisher, bought the venerable news weekly last year and folded some of its most popular features into its own longtime classroom offering, Scholastic News.

But Weekly Reader’s name will survive in co-branding with Scholastic – it’s been given a place of prominence on the cover of the magazine’s print edition – and in memory.

“When I told people I worked for Weekly Reader, people would sigh and say, ‘Oh, I love Weekly Reader,’” said Ira Wolfman, its senior vice president from 2004 to 2012. “It’s an American icon.”

The magazine was the brainchild of Eleanor M. Johnson, a Maryland farm girl who started out as a first-grade teacher in Oklahoma. She found a backer for her idea and the first edition, illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings and called My Weekly Reader, appeared on Sept. 21, 1928.

The cover story was about that year’s presidential election between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, and carried the headline: “Two Poor Boys Who Made Good Are Now Running for the Highest Office in the World!”

It was a hit. Circulation that first year reached 100,000. At its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Weekly Reader had 13 million followers.

And enough staying power to qualify as a piece of Americana.

In 1988, two-thirds of all adults at the time remembered getting Weekly Reader in school, according to an anniversary book that year, “60 Years of News for Kids.”

It opened a window onto the world for preschoolers to sixth-graders. In 1934, it wrote about laws to help child workers; in 1944, about what television would be like; in 1963, about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The magazine’s quadrennial presidential poll, begun in 1956, became one of its most prominent features, and with just one miscall: in 1992, when readers picked President George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton.

“I loved it as a kid,” said Tammy Fuller, a master teacher at Wilburn Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C.

When she taught kindergarten, she liked how Weekly Reader connected her class to the life beyond the classroom.

“It was incredible like that, but in a safe way,” she said. “There wasn’t anything in there they weren’t emotionally ready to handle.”

Neal Goff, president of Weekly Reader Publishing Group from 2005 to 2010, said the staff gave a lot of thought to finding the right voice.

“If you were an editor or designer, it was not something you did to get rich, but it was really satisfying work,” said Goff, now an education and technology consultant.

He said the magazine was profitable, and its innovative digital material was in demand, “but it needed a corporate parent with patience to invest.”

The previous owner, Readers Digest Association, filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in 2009 and subsequently sold the magazine to Scholastic.

Wolfman, now president of POE Communications, led Weekly Reader’s digital innovations, including online editions, quiz show apps and email news bulletins aimed at teachers.

They also produced one-minute videos to help make the words children were reading come to life.

“There was a wonderful feeling,” Wolfman said, “that you’re helping kids understand the world.”

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