The newspaper industry is constantly bewailing its need for a new economic model, as the Internet upends the old one. Maybe it could take a page from the Club Penguin Times.
The Club Penguin Times, after all, is more widely read than New York's Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, or The Dallas Morning News. And it's not even 3 years old.
But this weekly "newspaper" isn't tossed onto driveways or sold at newsstands.
Rather, it's an online publication distributed to the estimated 6.7 million monthly users of Club Penguin, the Disney-created, snow-covered virtual world visited by more than 12 million kids, who adopt a colorful penguin persona and waddle around, playing games and meeting new friends.
Although no one would suggest the Club Penguin Times provides Pulitzer Prize-worthy coverage, it nonetheless attracts 30,000 daily submissions from children, who pose questions to Dear Abby-inspired "Aunt Arctic," compose verse for the poetry corner, tell a joke or review a party or event.
Kids from 6 to 14 generate much of the editorial content, which is augmented by staff features like the most recent story about decorating on a shoestring - "a great igloo needn't break the bank." A staff of three full-time workers plus one part-timer sifts through the submissions, searching for those with the broadest appeal and selecting the questions most frequently asked of the advice columnist.
"We try to figure out: How can we answer the most questions by choosing a handful?" said Lane Merrifield, the co-founder of Club Penguin and head of virtual worlds development for the Disney Interactive Media Group.
As the main source of information about events within Disney's icy virtual world, it boasts the kind of reader penetration mainstream newspapers would envy: At least two-thirds of the players turn to the Club Penguin Times each week to find out what's happening, Merrifield estimates. Since it won't accept advertising, he notes, the Club Penguin Times doesn't keep strict circulation figures. Nor does it permit news from the outside world - say, the recent political conventions or reports from Afghanistan - to intrude on Club Penguin's fantasy.
Merrifield said he was looking for ways to incorporate learning - what he called educational "fiber" - in the game, and publishing a "newspaper" seemed an obvious way to encourage reading by offering information users care about.
"We know there's a value in reading, but also a value in kids keeping up with the news, keeping up with what's going on in our world," Merrifield said. "The paper is one of the best sources for that."
Yasmin B. Kafai, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Club Penguin Times doesn't have a monopoly in faux news dissemination. The Whyville Times, the paper of record for the virtual world for teens and pre-teens, provides a mixture of standard newspaper features, such as TV reviews, along with reader-submitted essays.
Such digital forums can promote literacy, Kafai said, because they encourage kids to do it on their own, without prodding from teachers or parents.
"The more we can get kids engaged in reading and writing outside of (the) school context, it is actually a tool to help them," Kafai said.
Whether the Club Penguin Times will spark a lifelong love of newspapers remains to be seen.
"It's too premature to say that," said Sandy Woodcock, director of the Newspaper in Education program, which promotes newspapers as an educational resource. Nonetheless, she described Disney's melding of social networking and news dissemination "interesting," and an approach that merits study.
"If the Disney project has a news component and not just a social component, that might be an opportunity for young people to be exposed to information that can help them develop those skill sets - like civic engagement - that can carry them through the rest of their lives."