Journalism for the Curious Jew
by Matt Russo
“Covering Jewish life has felt expansive, kaleidoscopic, and unendingly interesting. I don’t need to publish stories that other places can publish. I want to publish stories that really feel like us,” says Alana Newhouse, the 33-year-old editor in chief of Tablet, an online magazine launched by Nextbook in June 2009. Nextbook hired Newhouse to revamp its online literary journal in September 2008. She, in turn, infused Nextbook with additional journalistic elements, which ultimately led to the creation of Tablet’s website.
Tablet publishes articles about Jewish culture, history, politics, and religion. That coverage is supplemented by the Scroll, a blog about the most buzz-worthy news in Jewish life, and summaries of books published by Nextbook. Scattered throughout are podcasts, video clips, and multimedia that play a significant role in Tablet’s journalistic voice.
What makes Tablet different from other magazines is that it’s not retrofitted to a printed publication.
It takes advantage of a diverse array of digital tools to tell its stories. Marjorie Ingall, a columnist who writes about parenting and family issues, utilizes audio slide shows, personal essays, book reviews, and multimedia design for her pieces. Newhouse says Tablet enables readers to follow a columnist through many dimensions, making the stories even more comprehensive. “It’s not so much we’re creating something that’s entirely new in any one tiny specific way,” Newhouse says regarding journalism’s past and present, and Tablet‘s use of multiple media. “But we feel that the sum is greater than all of its parts.”
Those parts are impressive, including the work of writers from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times. Tablet has clearly benefited from launching in the middle of the worst recession and media slump in recent history. “I’ve been able to attract talent that I may not have been able to attract in another era,” Newhouse says about her New York-based co-workers. “I think I have a staff that any editor in this city or any other would give their right arm to have.”
Newhouse brought some of her staff from the Forward, where she worked for five years. The legacy of the Forward, published since 1897, has an undeniable impression on Newhouse’s vision for Tablet. “I have a nostalgia for a time when newspapers competed for readers,” Newhouse says. “That enabled a kind of pioneering, exciting, adventurous, risk-taking journalism about Jewish life that I’d love to see re-emerge.” She concedes that it has begun to, but in smaller doses than she would like to see. Gabriel Sanders, Tablet’s deputy editor, says “it is actually freeing being involved with something from day one.” As a writer at the the Forward, Sanders was sometimes “a custodian of legacy that wasn’t necessarily your own. You became someone who was entrusted to defend some of the Yiddishism that it stood for. Here we have a brand that has no baggage.”
Tablet consistently straddles its desire to create a forward-thinking, technology-laden publication that also celebrates Jewish life, past and present, with serious journalism. Its name represents this tension, evoking not only the Ten Commandments and ancient civilizations but also the unofficial name for Apple’s iPad. Which seems fitting, since Newhouse says Tablet strives to be “new, ambitious, and different, but also connected to the past, authoritative and informed.”
Newhouse says that Tablet initially did not have a target audience. But today she says the magazine attracts “curious” Jews. “The point is that Tablet is for a particular kind of reader who has an interest in engaging with Jewish identity and culture, perhaps the way they are not currently living it. So if they are currently living with it by practicing religious ritual, they might want to engage with art if they haven’t before. If they are constantly engaged with Jewish culture, they might want to read an article about religion and religious practice.”
Newhouse says that Tablet must keep pace with a Jewish community that is constantly changing. “I wanted to create an enduring publication and one that was malleable, but we should only survive if we can answer the needs and interests of readers.”
Matt Russo is a recent graduate of Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary. A New York City resident, he spends his free time working on Teach For America’s recruitment team, anticipating how Lost is going to end, and figuring out his next musical endeavor.
This post is from the PresenTense Digital issue; reprinted with permission.