There is a debate in Israel about foreigners owning Israeli newspapers, because Sheldon Adelson is printing a free Likud rag that’s destablized their news industry. Instead of getting into that debate, I’m gonna pull a Dick Cheney and shoot the guy standing next to me: the American Jewish press.
I was on an AJPA conference call in early 2009 along with Mobius, Shamirpower, Zeek’s Jo Ellen, the 23-year-old New Voices staff and a bunch of adult, Jewish newspaper editors and publishers. The point was to ask us why young people don’t read Jewish papers. For context, I ran New Voices magazine a few years ago, worked as press officer of Hazon, now co-publish Jewschool, and maintain an interest in this field. So I had a few things to say.
I (and we) said to these alter kakers three main things:

  1. Meet us where we are — on social media and the web.
  2. But even if you do, shitty content is still shitty content. You have boring, uninteresting, irrelevant things to say to our demographic.
  3. If you want young people to read, then have young people write! And not about your boring crap, but stuff that isn’t relevant to your existing readers.

There was much protest.
Let’s chronicle what I might mean by relevant content:

  • 50% of us under 30 have a non-Jewish parent. Articles and op-eds about “intermarriage solutions” are a great way to lose my loyalty. A lot more interesting would be articles on dealing with racist assholes in the Jewish world who hand-wring about the former topic.
  • Hold Israeli politicians to the same standards you hold American politicians. If a Prime Minister says there were zero human rights abuses in Gaza, ask a few thoughtful questions about how, why, where, etc., and take a few opposing views. Run some statistics. Find a few whistle-blowers. Do that “watchdog” thing. Trust me, to somebody who can call up 5 differing opinions of that war with citations in 3 seconds, the knee-jerk agreement makes the Jewish press seem amateur.
  • Cover the fringe. That’s where all the so-called interesting stuff happens. No, check that: cover the thoughtful fringe. Just because a celebrity or wacko is Jewish does not make it relevant. If it’s somebody who has defined Jewishness as off-the-derech and can talk lucidly about how it’s fusing “Jew” and “fill in the blank” — bingo!
  • Do investigative journalism into the stupidity of the Organized Jewish Community. It’s old. It’s weird. It was set up in a different era — and now it’s just bizarre. (Did you know each of the major Jewish denominations can veto any policy proposal at the chief Jewish lobbying institution? Weird!)
  • Don’t talk just about Jews. Talk about non-Jews. Tell me about the world in way that resonates with Jewish themes I heard growing up. Tell me about other people’s quest for homelands, preventing genocide elsewhere, struggling to make other religions meaningful for young folks, and where in the world can I get a decent eco-kosher, fair-wage vegan dinner?

Those are just examples.
Now I get that Jewish newspapers can’t accomplish lots of that. Especially because most of them are not newspapers, they’re newsletters for the very Jewish “powers that be” that Jewish media should watchdog. Most are services provided by the local federation, barely able to sustain a couple staff. The big, more independent ones — NY Jewish Week, LA Jewish Journal, the Forward — are fighting tooth and nail over a tiny market: less than 2% of Americans are Jews. Slice it more and there’s just not enough.
Sorry to say, but the editors and publishers on the AJPA phone found little sympathy among us younger folks. The New Jersey Jewish News doesn’t deserve to exist, as far as I’m concerned. If it goes under and Jersey Jews must instead read the NJ-themed page of the NY Jewish Week or a “local news” feed from the Forward, well, so be it. A couple might persevere, but not all of them. With luck, somebody with spare time will write a blog. Maybe they’ll recruit a couple more authors. Maybe they’ll offer a little advertising. Poof! A local news site is born. Jewschool Junior.
Like I said, there was much protest.
And leave it to Mobius to douse their panic with a little gasoline and a match, when he popped this article, “Thinking the Unthinkable” by Clay Shirky, out to the conference call participants afterwards. It’s summary? Shirky analyzes all the proposed and failed business models for newspapers today and says, “None of it will work.” What with free web publishing these days, it’s a dire situation. You can’t compete with free. The printing press destroyed the manuscript business, produced Bibles and erotic novels en masse, and so on.
And all the world was better for it.