Newspaper Editors To Generation Y: Drop Dead

Wait a minute... isn't today National Buy A Newspaper Day? Why would an industry on life support tell a generation of potentially new customers to drop dead? I'm no Ben Stein, but even I know that's bad for business.

"It makes no sense, but newspapers aren't targeting Generation Y," Chris Freiberg told Huffington Post. "They aren't really trying to understand the lifestyle of young people today, or how integral websites like Facebook and MySpace are to their daily lives. I believe the younger generation would learn to love newspapers, if newspapers would talk directly to them."

What a bunch of malarkey. How old is Freiberg...85? Probably just another old geezer who habitually thumbs the morning newspaper along with his breakfast of oatmeal and whipped prunes. At least that's what I thought before I phoned Freiberg.

Whoops, scrape the egg off my face. Freiberg is just 24 years old, and a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska. He so fervently believes in newspapers, the Indiana University grad declared National Buy A Newspaper Day on Facebook.

"For one day, Monday, Feb. 2, please make it a point to pick up your local newspaper," implored Freiberg. "Reading it online doesn't count."

Over 5,000 New Facebook Friends Promise They'll Try To Read A Newspaper Today

"If this is what the newspaper industry has come down to, fer chrissakes, then the end is near," blogger John Tomasic told me in an email.

Sadly, Tomasic is right. Five thousand new readers won't save the newspaper business. Still, I'm charmed by Freiberg's Don Quixote-like quest. And so is former Forbes staffer Peter Kafka, who told me, "I don't think the problems facing the newspaper industry are going to be solved by this Facebook event. But I do admire Freiberg's passion and energy." These days Kafka is senior editor at All Things Digital.

Here's a sampling of what the Facebook crowd said about newspapers:

Can I engage with a newspaper? Can I filter it to send me only what I find useful? Can I easily add my reviews and discuss articles with fellow readers? Times are a changing. Newspapers should change, too.
-- Nick Wolf

With everyone trying to "go green" these days, why should we encourage newspapers? Besides, my local paper posts their news stories online -- free, environmentally friendly, and convenient.
-- Rosemarie Hudak

Buy a newspaper every day. Buy a couple! Get some different perspectives, and maybe we'll all be better informed.
-- Mark Rosen

I worked as a graphic artist for a newspaper for 13 years. Then they sent my job (and 90 others) to India. Maybe newspapers should reach out to India for new subscribers.
-- Lana Hornyak

Blogging in Singapore, Daryl Tay posted this Emperor-has-no-clothes explanation of why there is nothing newspapers can do to make him turn back to print:

News finds me. I don't mean it's offered to me on a platter, but if it's a particularly relevant piece of news, someone is going to blog about it, send me an email with the URL, or just tell me about it on MSN.

Touche, Mr. Tay. But doesn't the best online journalism still depend on old media outlets? What happens if we lose all those print reporters, the ones who file history's first draft? For the answer, I turned to Tim Luckhurst, who blogs for the Guardian:

If George Steer had worked for a website he would not have had the budget to travel to Guernica. William Howard Russell would not have witnessed the Charge of the Light Brigade. Woodward and Bernstein would not have investigated the Watergate scandal. It is simply not possible to cover the costs of significant scoops from what online publishers currently pay. If you believe journalism's core purpose is to hold power to see that truth prevails...then this is a grave crisis.

My D.C. neighbor Andrew Sullivan, who writes the popular blog "The Daily Dish" at The Atlantic, was more optimistic about the future of newspapers:

For all the intense gloom surrounding the newspaper and magazine business, this is actually a golden era for journalism. The blogosphere has enabled writers to write out loud in ways never seen or understood before. And in some ways, blogging's gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding.

There is, after all, something simply irreplaceable about reading a piece of writing at length on paper, in a chair or on a couch or in bed. The message dictates the medium. And each medium has its place -- as long as one is not mistaken for the other.

Save The Whales, Save The Newspapers?

The only way to save this endangered industry is to offer newspapers solely online, right? Wrong. That is still not a viable business model, according to Peter Kafka. "An online newspaper with 2.6 million unique views could attract enough advertising to keep a handful of writers afloat only if it had a specific niche like, say, technology news. But a generalized news site for a local audience? No one's figured out how to do it yet, and a recession probably isn't the time to solve that riddle."

Meanwhile, the U.S. will continue to say goodbye to its newspapers, one by one, because there will be no industry bailout. I tip my fedora to Chris Freiberg, who "felt the need to do something."

On second thought, maybe there's one more event worth trying: America's newspaper and wire-service reporters could all leave for a month's vacation at the same time -- kinda like a strike. If all the traditional reporters suddenly disappeared for four weeks, what would the rest of us do -- the bloggers and pundits and other media types who write "on top" of the news? Seriously, what would Huffington Post put on its homepage for a month? Just askin'...

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