"I read the newspaper."
Translation:Ich lese die Zeitung.
Yes, if you interpret the English sentence as past tense, which is possible, you could translate it as "Ich las die Zeitung" or even as "Ich habe die Zeitung gelesen". In German, the past tense (las) and the present perfect (habe ... gelesen) are basically interchangeable, the difference being mainly just a matter of style.
PS: I haven't seen the actual exercise - do you just see the English sentence or is it read out to you? If the latter, there should be a difference in sound between "I read" (present tense) and "I read" (past tense).
I was under the assumption that it can randomly choose the exercise (English to German or vice versa, text vs spoken)... In this case, it was English text to German, so yes, it can be understood as past tense. Also, this sentence randomly appeared for me at the end of Body 2 (as 1/9 exercises in the lesson)...
We are talking about grammatical gender here. They have very little to nothing to do with the meaning of the noun. E.g. all nouns which last syllable is -ung, -heit, -keit and -schaft are feminine. That leads to the situation that the word "Mannschaft" (team) is feminine although it only consists of the word for man and the ending.
In my opinion calling the different articles masculine, feminine and neuter raises more problems than it solves (and that is the case for French, Spanish, etc. as well), but is the established way to classify it.
Just think of it as 3 different kinds nouns the r-nouns, the e-nouns and the s-nouns. Correspondingly they have the definite articles der , die and das . Later that will help you when you have to inflect adjectives.
Like "ein schöner Mann", "eine schöne Frau", "ein schönes Kind"
This explains it much better than I ever could: