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RReaching Readers Where They Spend their Time: In Cyberspace

December 9, 2010 By:
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My great-grandmother had been married less than a week when she noticed a picture of her husband in the Yiddish edition of the daily Forward.

It was a wanted notice. According to family lore, Bubbe's husband had left a wife and three kids in New York. He could either go home or go to jail. He chose jail.

Bubbe, then 15, found herself alone and pregnant in Minneapolis. Over the next few years, she turned, again, to her Jewish newspapers -- this time for the personal ads.

Eventually, she found the right man: a widower in Duluth, Minn., who needed a wife to help raise his young son. They exchanged references, got married and had my grandmother.

While the Jewish press didn't play such a pivotal role for my grandparents or even my parents, it was still a part of their lives. To this day, my mom sends me clippings from our hometown Jewish monthly in Madison, Wis., in case I'd like to know that a fifth-grade Sunday-school classmate I can't remember just had a baby.

For me, though, Jewish newspapers never captured much of my attention until three months ago, when I took a job as a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent. I don't think I'm alone. In today's information age, my generation doesn't need a Jewish paper to know what's going on around the world; we can subscribe to breaking news alerts on our iPads and smartphones. When it comes to finding love, we can search for singles -- with specified qualifications, no less -- on JDate.com.

With so many innovative gadgets and competing news outlets vying for readers' time, I was taken aback when I started at the Exponent and began receiving unsolicited e-mails from extended family members, friends of friends and acquaintances commenting on my articles. Some of them lived clear across the country. Few of them had ever said a word to me about anything I wrote during my 21/2 years at the Courier-Post in South Jersey, or 31/2 years at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.

Now, suddenly, they were paying attention for one simple reason: They were already invested in Jewish life, and therefore curious to know what I was writing at a Jewish publication. It didn't matter if the news I reported had no direct impact on them. It related to Jewish community and values, and that meant enough to read my stories.

A Collective Project
Clearly, this deep connection people have to the things they are most passionate about -- whether it's their Jewish identity or a hobby like knitting -- is what has kept niche publications alive, at least the ones that have survived so far. The question is: How do you maintain that connection with kids and young adults, who seem to have less and less time to spare even for the things they care about?

Some of them might make more time for news outlets, including Jewish media, as they get older. But even if there are a few "news converts," will it be enough to keep media operations in business? Based on current downsizing, it doesn't seem likely. It's an alarming trend that I have a vested interest in reversing. Not only is it my livelihood, but I truly believe our communities will suffer without professional journalists to act as public-interest watchdogs and conduits of information.

There are so many stories out there -- relevant to my life -- that I never knew about until someone called my attention to them. The Exponent is a case in point: I didn't realize it existed when I moved to Philadelphia in 2008 because nobody I met at Jewish social events ever mentioned it.

So how do journalists compel today's overstimulated, overscheduled society to discover how meaningful the news can be? They go where people are already spending much of their time: computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. That's what the vast majority of news outlets, and businesses in general, are trying today, anyway.

If you haven't noticed already, the Exponent has jumped into that experiment, too, though we're admittedly behind. We have an electronic newsletter, but are still working to redesign our website. In the meantime, we recently revived our Facebook page and began sending out news updates on Twitter.

It's a collective project, but I'll be making an extra effort to reach out through cyberspace. I'll be posting stories not just on our Facebook page, but on other virtual forums where I think there might be interest, like "Where Jew At Philly." And I'll be scouring sites run by college students and social groups for story ideas that appeal to younger readers. I want the Exponent to be more than a historical, well-respected publication; I want it to be the place where Philadelphia-area Jews of all ages go to read something surprising, learn something new or find out about something to do.

I know it will take more than social networking tools to accomplish this goal. Who knows -- Facebook and Twitter might soon be replaced by another hot new gizmo or program. But it's what we have now, and it's worth a try.

I hope you'll find it worthwhile, too. At least check it out -- follow us on Twitter@JewishExponent, or follow my Exponent account: @dhirschexponent. And join our Facebook page (facebook. com/jewishexponent) to comment on stories, share ideas and post photos from events.

Even better, suggest our Facebook and Twitter feeds to your friends. It won't cost anything, and I promise you'll find something intriguing.  

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