The uncertain future of Jewish news media

June 8, 2020
Via Flickr

When, just before the Passover holiday, Britain’s Jewish Chronicle—the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper—announced it was closing, the news seemed to encapsulate the fate of news organizations around the world. Already struggling with sinking revenues and shrinking readership, the Chronicle had succumbed to the human and financial wreckage caused by the global pandemic.

What followed the announcement—in which the newer local Jewish News was also shuttered—was instead more complicated. A rescue plan was scuttled when a major donor backed out. Then a rival consortium swooped in and bid enough to capture the prize, but the identity of the new bidders was kept secret, raising questions about the newspaper’s independence going forward.

The near-death experience of the mainstay of British Jewish journalism echoes trends happening throughout the industry, as layoffs, closures, furloughs, pay cuts, and other drastic measures follow in the wake of the coronavirus recession.

But the current threat to Jewish journalism also shows the particular challenges facing a niche media serving readers who are confronting growing anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe, as well as their own religious and political divisions. As the economic consequences of the coronavirus cause respected community newspapers like the New York Jewish Week to reduce staff, and national newspapers like the Canadian Jewish News to close entirely, will Jews, an already polarized minority, lose a rich history of journalism and what’s left of their communal common ground? 

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“Jewish news organizations have tried a lot of things over the years, but none have cemented and paved the way to the future,” Alan D. Abbey, now a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of a major 2013 study on Jewish media, says. Within that ecosystem are all types of business models: community-subsidized nonprofits, independent nonprofits, independent for-profits, and outlets largely funded by a single philanthropist. With the notable exception of newspapers serving devoutly religious ultra-Orthodox Jews, protected from broader market forces by their own insularity, Jewish media face an uncertain future made even more challenging by the pandemic-induced downturn. 

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“Every Jewish newspaper has been struggling to maintain its aging audience and find a new audience among younger people,” Abbey said in a phone call from his home in Jerusalem. “Even before this happened, they were struggling. The question is why. Are there still enough people who want to read about Jews through a Jewish lens?”

The long history of Jewish journalism in the English-speaking world points to a certain amount of resilience and adaptability. The Jewish Chronicle dates to 1841; it has survived world wars, the Holocaust, four kings, two queens, the advent of television and the internet. 

The earliest American Jewish newspaper began publishing in 1843 in Philadelphia; over time, cities across this country developed their own Jewish press. There were journals for housewives and farmers and children. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a fleet of Yiddish broadsheets blanketed Eastern European immigrant communities from coast to coast. 

Jewish media grew alongside its population, serving as a traditional source of news, a community sounding board, an advocate for its struggling readers, and an empathetic guide on how to live in a strange, new, and at times hostile land. The Yiddish press, in particular, was highly partisan; the call letters for the radio station owned by the Forverts were WEVD, for Eugene V. Debs, the perennially unsuccessful socialist candidate for president.

The rapid assimilation of Jews into American society after World War II brought Jews into mainstream newsrooms and Jewish stories into the daily report. The Yiddish press withered, while community newspapers became dependent on advertising and subsidies from their local Jewish federations—social service agencies that distributed significant funds and thus wielded significant power. 

Those revenue sources were already shrinking before the global pandemic destroyed advertising and cut off the financial spigot from events and merchandise. No longer do Jews need a community newspaper to learn about births, marriages, and deaths; to discover a new recipe; to read a thought-provoking column. Social media provides that, and more. 

So far, notwithstanding some highly publicized closings and near closings, the number of Jewish media outlets in the US has remained stable but shaky. “I have heard some publishers have already executed layoffs, furloughs, and salary adjustments,” Craig Burke, chief executive officer of Mid-Atlantic Media, told me in an email. Burke’s company owns Jewish newspapers in Washington, DC, and Maryland; he hastened to add that such measures aren’t planned for his newsrooms—“as of yet.”

Burke also is president of the American Jewish Press Association, which organizes annual conferences, provides workshops, and gives out numerous awards. (Some winners like to call them “the Jewish Pulitzers.”) Over the past ten years, AJPA’s membership—drawn largely from local and regional outlets—has ranged from 110 to 120 news organizations. Now it’s 109. Burke doesn’t keep track of the number of layoffs or other cost-cutting measures at member newsrooms, though he acknowledged that advertising revenues are taking “a big hit.” AJPA’s annual conference, previously slated to take place in Atlanta, will now be held virtually, at the end of June. 

Some digital-only or digital-mostly outlets have been buoyed by readers and donors with whom they are aligned politically and religiously. On the left, Jewish Currents recently received an infusion of money and is bulking up its small, scrappy staff. On the right, Dovid Efune, editor in chief of the Algemeiner, said that his bottom line is helped by the many small donors who support his politically conservative, unabashedly pro-Israel website. Both these outlets are not for profit; have limited, if any, advertising; and occupy a particular corner of the political spectrum.

But they also have limited reach and impact. It is the mainstays of Jewish journalism, which seek to provide the elusive “common ground” upon which cohesive communities rely, that are struggling. 

“There are plenty of people who want to support the advocacy,” Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the acknowledged maven of Jewish media, said during an April 22 webinar, hosted by The Forward, about the fate of Jewish journalism. “But tragically we have not taught a new generation of donors to appreciate the value of truth-centered journalism, journalism as watchdog…the place where multiple perspectives are published.” (I myself am part of the industry contraction: I was The Forward’s editor in chief for more than a decade before l was let go last year in a sweeping staff reduction accompanied by the demise of its print edition. I now work at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which also publishes CJR.) 

The discussion took place just a few weeks after Michele Chabin was told that she was losing her job as Israel correspondent for the New York Jewish Week, the largest and best regarded of the regional Jewish newspapers. She worked there for nearly twenty years—mostly full time, lately part time—until her position was eliminated because of financial pressures.

For her, the loss is both personal and communal. Jewish media, she told me in an email, plays a vital role in informing and connecting local Jewish communities, in a language and depth well beyond that of other news outlets. 

“The second vital role played by Jewish media is investigative journalism,” she added. “The New York Jewish Week has broken countless stories, and has led the way in investigating sexual abuse in the Jewish community. More than a decade ago I broke the story that the Israeli chief rabbinate was no longer automatically accepting the authority of Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora.” This meant that converts to Judaism could not be assured that their conversion would be accepted if they wanted to marry in Israel, for instance. “Non-Jewish media would never tackle a vitally important ‘inside’ story like this,” she said. “It wouldn’t know how.”

It is this spirit of independence—often at odds with expectations of communal loyalty—that some devoted readers of the Jewish Chronicle in Britain fear might be lost in the frantic rescue of the paper. 

Before the pandemic took hold, the Chronicle’s owner, the Kessler Foundation, had contemplated a merger with the Jewish News, a free, locally oriented paper begun twenty-three years ago to “celebrate the community,” in the words of Richard Ferrer, its editor in chief. The News is owned by businessman Leo Noe. The combined circulation of both papers’ print editions totaled only about forty thousand, but their influence was far wider; both papers spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, for instance.

As advertising and events revenue went into a free fall following the pandemic, the news organizations announced instead that they would close and seek liquidation, allowing the owners to shed liabilities and obligations to their staff. Stunned Brits lamented what they suddenly were about to lose. “More than any other institution, the JC is the place where we meet,” wrote Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, one of many influential journalists who regularly contributed to the Chronicle. “For years, it called itself ‘the organ of British Jewry.’ It is indeed a vital organ, if not our beating heart. We are not a community without it.”

The obituaries were premature. The Kessler Foundation and Noe were set to reconstitute a merged, smaller news outlet when Noe, at the eleventh hour, decided to continue funding the Jewish News. Then Kessler was outbid by a private consortium of political insiders, broadcasters, and bankers led by Sir Robbie Gibb, former head of communications at 10 Downing Street. They offered a higher price and promised to pay all creditors, including staff, and to invest in the Chronicle’s future.

But some of that funding is coming from anonymous philanthropists. In a statement, the new owners said that the unnamed donors were “entitled to their privacy.” Ferrer said this was why Noe, concerned about the lack of transparency, pulled out of the merger. The Chronicle’s chairman also railed about the secretive funding, telling the Financial Times that the bid was “a shameful attempt to hijack the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper.” 

And so the uncertainty over the quality, if not the actual future, of the Jewish Chronicle continues, as it does with Jewish journalism more broadly. In Britain, as in the United States, the underlying question is whether there are enough Jews willing to read and support independent news. “If there is not robust Jewish journalism, I’m not sure you will have a robust Jewish community,” Sarna warned. That link is being tested as never before.

Jane Eisner is director of academic affairs at the Columbia School of Journalism. She was editor-in-chief of The Forward from 2008 until 2019.