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"John News" Expands its Audience and Scope

The age-old question, “What did you do during your summer break?” brings a surprising answer from a second grade student at Ephesus Elementary School (EES). Adding to a project he started in May, seven-year old John Wortman created more than a dozen John News videos over the summer, on subjects from flamingos to climate change, and he’s only just hitting his stride. The newscasts are posted each Friday on a YouTube channel, and his audience now includes viewers in Indonesia and Canada.

John has long been a fan of science videos on YouTube. So when he and his father, Thomas Wortman, tackled the realities of remote learning last spring, it didn’t take long for John to decide he wanted to try his hand at informational videos, and in early May, John News was born. Most episodes are filmed on his back porch, and he often wears an I heart John News tee shirt. The earliest episodes were relatively short, two to three minutes long, and John used a printed script for direction. Now they are usually five to six minutes, and he shares the news like a pro.

As John likes to point out, the level of sophistication and polish has come a long way in four months. The Wortman team uses a word processing app to create the newscasts, with an iPad teleprompter below the iPhone camera. But John needs no teleprompter as he opens each episode these days. He’s developed a signature, elongated greeting, “Welcome to John Neeeewwwws!” and it’s invariably accompanied by his big grin.

In the beginning, John’s episodes were part newscast, with regular coronavirus updates and weather reports, and part video journal, including brief accounts of how his schoolwork was going (fractions and bridge building), and how he’d spent the previous week, riding his bike or going on a picnic with his mother. He almost always gave a nod to his father’s instructional support. “Dad is still doing a good job with homeschooling.”

John News from EES Over the summer, the length and variety of episodes have evolved, and it’s clear John is aware of his broader audience, beyond EES. John and his father have arrived at two essential questions as John plans each episode: Is it going to be interesting, and Why will it be interesting? John’s strong interest in science is evident in many episodes; he has included interviews with Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger about climate change, a staff person at an animal rescue organization in Minnesota, but also with his uncle, a former school superintendent, and the Durham artist who created the popular magnet and bumper sticker design, “Y’all Means Everyone.”

EES Assistant Principal, Stacie Boyer, said, “John News has become quite popular and we are overjoyed that he has been able to have such a positive impact on our community during this crazy time. John News has been a positive light for our community by highlighting the positives of quarantine with a child-like flair and innocence. For me personally, it really reminds me how resilient kids are and how much they can impact those around them.”

Boyer said of the Friday episodes, “It’s such a highlight each week. It shows our fellow Roadrunners that we can use technology in super creative ways to reach one another and connect. It also demonstrates how even through social distancing, we can reach one another and have discussions about meaningful topics.”

The newscasts include serious information, whether in the summer updates on increasing numbers of Covid infections or an interview with the North Carolina State Health Director. But John’s characteristic humor pops up often, from the jokes he tells his interview subjects to the asides about family life. “My mom gave me a little haircut over the weekend. It looks like she did it with a lawnmower,” he said in his June 5 episode. When he interviewed Hemminger, he told his topic-appropriate joke, “What happens when evil worms take over the world? You get global worming!”

In the August 21 Back to School episode, John showed off his new CHCCS issued Chromebook and interviewed the EES School Nurse, Carolyn Hall and Principal Eric Taylor. Taylor offered advice for his Roadrunners and all students participating in remote learning by stressing the importance of establishing a good healthy routine on school days. John also interviewed Jeff Nash, Executive Director for Community Outreach, for the July 21 episode to learn more about state and national decisions on school closings.

“John News has been an upbeat and creative way to connect our community; it's a great example of how technology can be used to inspire and build up,” said Ashley Sherman, EES School Counselor. “I am so appreciative of all the hard work and thoughtfulness John and his family put into each newscast!”

The Wortmans have produced I (Heart) John News tee shirts, which have become a hot local commodity. Proceeds from the sales go to the non-profit TABLE. John and his father can receive feedback and messages at