Why do we have Jewish newspapers? For the same reason as ethnic publishing developed in many communities: there was a demand for it, and money to be made by providing it. No one yet knows what will replace the old model, but whatever that turns out to be, it too will need to provide a needed service of economic value.
As general-interest newspapers have ruefully recognized, there are now other and faster ways to post and scan classified ads, find obituaries, check the calendar of entertainment and cultural options, or read news from abroad, including Israel. The pressing question for all newspapers is, what is their unique value proposition for the future?
Many editors of Jewish newspapers contend that their strongest product is the local content they originate. Yet their papers have traditionally exerted their greatest appeal not through original stories but through their editing – the aggregation of disparate elements in a package that attracts enough readers for enough different reasons to be viable. If editing is truly the key, the most successful Jewish media outlets of the future may be the ones that aggregate links, feeds, widgets, digests, video, podcasts, interactivity, and original reporting in a way that resonates with the needs of a targeted community. Locally generated content may not prove to be as important as the overall mix.
And if it does turn out that local content is highly valued after all, what will that be? Many Jewish papers currently specialize in stories like “Grant Awarded to Local Hospital,” “Area Rabbi Urges Tolerance,” “Limmud Caps Successful Weekend,” or “High School Youths Build Sukkah, Forge Bonds.” Will readers care enough about stories like these to pay for them? That has not yet been put to the test, but it will be.
An even bigger threat to the status quo comes from the Internet’s ability to collapse time and space and save a lot of money in the process. A couple of years ago, the operator of a website called Pasadena Now decided to cover Southern California using reporters based in Bangalore and Mumbai. While that may be an extreme example, it would certainly be possible to cover the Jewish news of many American cities from remote locations and to operate websites for those cities from anywhere. Inexpensive stringers could provide in-person coverage for the infrequent stories that require it. One big news center could continuously update dozens of locally targeted Jewish news sites. Sentimental reasons aside, there is little practical reason to have a fully staffed news company in dozens of Jewish communities in order to meet the demand for Jewish media content.
Traditional journalists often deplore the growing presence of nonprofessional writers in the media. Many are concerned about quality control; some worry that freelancers and nonjournalists will take away work from paid professionals. Bloggers are in fact cheaper (often free), and the ones that write with insight and verve can attract a large following. More substantively, bloggers often know their subjects at least as well as journalists who cover the same subject. The one-time virtues of the journalist – the ability to learn a new beat quickly, and to pound out a multi-sourced story on deadline – matter much less in a world where so much writing is so abundantly and easily available.
Taken together, these trends point to a world where Jewish journalism may look a lot like it now does online, but where the back-office operation is radically different. As local papers become financially unsustainable, they can merge into regional or national media hubs. Those hubs could run multiple websites that provide as much local coverage as is currently available but at a vastly lower cost. Their success might depend mostly on editing, not full-time reporters.
By tracking the click-throughs on individual stories and fine-tuning the content in response, they may actually produce content that is more responsive to the needs of readers than local papers do now. That’s effectively what Staples did when it replaced mom-and-pop stationery stores: it lowered costs through regional and national coordination, vastly widened the selection, became more responsive to consumers, and made a lot more money per location. News is not a commodity, but the economics are not so different.
Not all of these things will actually come to pass, but they are examples of how much the ground rules can change as the media evolve. Whatever the particulars, there is no escaping the urgent need to adapt business methods while preserving the core mission of Jewish journalism. One way to approach that will be the subject of the next installment in this series (here’s the previous installment, Jewish Media Now).
Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard MBA with decades of experience as a media executive and consultant, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He lives in Jerusalem.