Before Facebook: the Weekly Reader

Published 7:42 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2016

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    Someone asked recently — not for the first time — what prompted me to go into journalism.

    I’ve always credited a couple of teachers with pushing me to write, and that, as they say, is my story and I’m sticking to it.

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    But there was another factor. I was exposed to news growing up as were most people in our generation. No matter how tight the times, there was always a daily newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, delivered to our farm. And the Sunday paper was a special treasure each week.

    (It wasn’t all serious news, of course. The comics offered the continuing sagas of Archie, Dagwood, Prince Valiant and Pogo.)


    But beyond that, we had something during the school week that today’s children don’t have, and I hope they have a responsible alternative. We had the Weekly Reader.

    The Weekly Reader introduced many of us to the world beyond Smithfield. The Reader, which was the largest children’s newspaper published during much of the 20th century, covered the major news of the period on a level designed to interest children, and was published on different levels to keep pace with children’s development.

    The Weekly Reader excelled in introducing children to science. It was there, for the most part, that we followed the space race, beginning in 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik, scared the collective pants off Americans, and thus paved the way for America’s determination to win this Cold War race.

    Not that the Weekly Reader was a terribly objective news organ. It reflected America’s strong anti-communist feeling and instilled that feeling in students across the land. America was thus guaranteed a generation of youngsters who hated the Red Menace and who would grow into adulthood with that attitude.

    That said, the Weekly Reader was probably far less biased than much of what passes for adult news on cable television channels and on the internet today. By comparison, we received a pretty objective view of things.

    It was probably to science, though, that the Weekly Reader was most valuable. We followed not only the developments in space exploration, but also the discovery of a polio vaccine. And we understood the value of that discovery. Graphic photos in Weekly Reader portrayed children who had contracted polio confined to “iron lungs.” That was enough to make us eager to take our sugar cube of polio vaccine.

Overall, the Weekly Reader made us aware of the world around us and for many of us, whetted an appetite for more. Coupled with teachers who didn’t think developing writing skills was a waste of time, the Reader certainly help put me to thinking about news gathering for a living.