For more than a decade now, media companies have been mourning the loss of their agenda-setting function in a maelstrom of new media voices howling at younger readers.

So the notion of the unsophisticated broadsheet being used to teach civics in the age of mobile devices seems outdated.

Yet as my team and I sat with teachers tasked with character and citizenship education, we realised their dialogues with students invariably began with the news.

Not just any news, but that which they had read in print editions: the story about the boy who attempted suicide because he couldn’t take the perfect selfie, or the tragedy of the girl who committed suicide after being attacked by cyber bullies. 

If all else failed, the teachers said, any Kim Kardashian/Kanye West story would be worth at least a 20-minute chat. 

So we hatched a simple plan: 

  1. Install a two-page spread in the newspaper’s weekly teens section, IN, dedicated to discussions about civics and ethics. We called it “Personal Assets.”

  2. On four commemorative occasions, turn the entire 20-page magazine into a themed special edition pegged to the character education curriculum, and get a buy-in from the education ministry for them to be distributed to all secondary schools nationwide (teens aged 12 to 17).

  3. Offer teachers a bag of tricks called “48 Values From The News: The Straits Times Guide To Building Character.” This was 96 pages of ready-to-go classroom activities, with a tip of the hat to Singapore’s 48th year of independence.

We managed to win over the Ministry of Education, getting its support for a pilot campaign from December 2012 to September 2013, beginning with the launch of the book, then the distribution of the special editions to schools.

But what surprised us was that it wasn’t just the specialised content that got them, but print media’s most ordinary traits. 

Despite being old-fashioned, the broadsheet is an economical and portable resource, whose manhandling by students – or its loss – no one would mind. E-learning or online educational resources, by comparison, tended to rely on static content that dated quickly, or depend on comparatively more expensive mobile devices that would call attention to the line between the haves and have-nots.

Whatever else happened, the newspaper’s every-man leanings offered common ground for discussions on touchier subjects. 

Following the success of the campaign, parents added a new dimension to the project. They wanted to purchase the 48 Values handbook for use at home, in an attempt to connect with their children. This opened up a secondary market for the product. In the second print run of the book, we included a section on how to adapt the book’s content for home use. 

In the year since the project launched, we have had feedback about the project’s ease of use, its authenticity, and timeliness. The Ministry, in fact, extended its contract for a second year, while the programme itself notched three international awards.

In a year, we distributed more than 800,000 copies of The Straits Times with its youth magazine IN, and sold out two print runs of the 48 Values handbook. For the newspaper, the project’s value goes beyond financial gain: We now have an association with a generation we might have too quickly labeled “lost.”