Bear Essential News for Kids doesn't plan to replace textbooks, Mother Goose or Saturday morning TV.
But the monthly newspaper, which features local news alongside ads for hamburgers, tacos and Disneyland, hopes to become an Orange County success story by tapping a traditionally hard-to-reach audience: children.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Sharon Wong, 36, who left a career as a Tucson schoolteacher in 1979 to start a local paper for children ages 6-12.
Bear Essential expanded to the Phoenix market in 1981. And this fall, two editions of 50,000 copies each began circulating in Orange County schools, bringing the paper's total circulation to 320,000. Wong plans to start publishing Los Angeles editions next year and later spread to the rest of the country.
But what Wong created as an educational tool has become a prize for advertisers in search of children--indirect consumers who wield great influence over the life styles and spending habits of their families.
Although children provide access to their parents' pocketbooks, advertisers often find that it's tough to get their attention.
"They're fidgety," said Linda DeCarvalho, sales director for Golf N' Stuff, which operates five family recreation centers in Southern California and Arizona.
Bear Essential, however, captures children in the classroom, where stories about Disneyland and ads featuring tooth-coloring contests are often more enticing than arithmetic and grammar.
"I thought it would be successful, but I only had my thoughts to go on," said Wong, who shares ownership and the publisher's title with her husband, Anson Wong, 35. He started as the paper's artist, hiring on full time in 1983 when he left a Tucson ad agency.
The paper, which employs 22 people in three cities, moved its headquarters to Irvine, where Sharon spends most of her time. Anson oversees operations in Tucson and Phoenix, making two trips a month to Orange County.
Bear Essential now publishes six editions--one in Tucson, three in Phoenix and two in Orange County, where kids attending schools in coastal communities receive a different mix of articles and ads from students in other areas of the county.
Although they are Tucson natives, the Wongs traveled often to Orange County to visit family members. They became convinced that this was ripe territory for expansion when they learned about the abundance of "affluent children" here.
In the county's public schools alone, 143,000 students were registered in grades 1-6 last year, according to the Orange County Department of Education.
When the Wongs pitched their paper as a free classroom tool in January, officials at some school districts quickly approved classroom use of Bear Essential. With little competition and a lot of eager readers, advertisers were quick to sign up.
Jack in the Box, Baskin Robbins and Golf N' Stuff are among the advertisers in Orange County's first issue. Full-page ads go for up to $1,317 in one edition, and $6,847 for all six editions.
The Wongs said the ads work--whether they are instructions on safe kite flying from a utility company or coupons for a discount hamburger from a restaurant.
When Jack in the Box tested a "Kids Meal" in Phoenix last year, it chose Bear Essential and the city's two daily newspapers as advertising vehicles. Bear Essential's ad brought in 6,783 coupon redemptions, more than three times as many as comparable ads in the dailies, said Barbara Gorla, president of Santa Ana-based National Media Mail, an ad buyer for Jack in the Box.
Before Bear Essential came along, Jack in the Box had few options for reaching children directly, Gorla said.
"It's difficult getting kids, and then it's difficult getting to parents through kids," DeCarvalho said.
Sharon Wong said she encourages advertisers to use educational puzzles and games in their ads. She stands behind the paper's news content, which fills about half the paper's pages. Ads occupy the other half.
And the editorial content isn't just Mother Goose stories and games, "it's news," she said.
The paper's articles, which typically are about three or four paragraphs long, have included reports on the Iranian arms investigation and the relative obscurity of Democratic presidential candidates. The Orange County editions included a story about the Irvine Little League team that competed for the international title.
In addition, a special cub reporter program lets students write news stories, which have included interviews with corporate executives. Schools in 18 Orange County districts have been invited to pick two outstanding students to participate in the program, which will teach the pupils how to prepare reports for both print and broadcast.
But the paper sometimes forgets that it is circulating in California. In the September issue, a story about Disneyland under the title "State News" featured a map of Arizona.