Bricks, Clicks and the Jewish Media

A few short weeks ago, just short of celebrating the 25th anniversary of their opening, the struggling Blockbuster video chain filed for bankruptcy. This long-expected move came about for many reasons. And their experience shows the significant challenges in adding an online strategy to traditional bricks-and-mortar stores.

Similar challenges exist with how established print media outlets are dealing with their online presence.

In today’s modern world most people would prefer to receive their news from online sites rather than newspapers. One is able to access more relevant information for free. And, there is less likelihood of receiving outdated information due to frequent updating of many news sites. Even television and radio have lost out to the web in terms of reporting breaking news. Therefore it is no surprise the Internet continues to capture an ever growing portion of readers, through both their websites and the various social media and social information networks.

However, the online media world continues to struggle with defining, and executing, a profitable business model. By and large, they have discovered, their print strategies cannot just be duplicated online. And, it remains to be seen how paid sites by publications including The New York Times and The Boston Globe will fare when they are launched in 2011.

The North American Jewish media world is not immune to these same issues. And with the added challenge of most publications dependent to some extent on financial support from the shrinking North American Jewish Federations system, the questions are many, the answers few.

Unlike in print media where the independent Audit Bureau of Circulations provides audited-circulation information, in the online universe we are dependent on self-reported site visits – the accuracy of most equivalent to the promises made by politicians seeking votes. Using these numbers, however, apparently the Los Angeles Jewish Journal is the most visited North American based traditional Jewish media website, with the Forward, The New York Jewish Week and the JTA all lagging behind. All except JTA publish weekly print editions – and through syndication JTA serves as a content provider to the other three. A review of their online presence shows that while all update their sites somewhat regularly throughout the week, their content is clearly built around a weekly publication model. While both the Jewish Journal and JTA email out daily newsletters, the Forward publishes one newsletter a week and The New York Jewish Week recently added a weekend edition to their long-published weekly newsletter. All except JTA still place emphasis on special printed supplements, i.e. the High Holidays, Passover and weddings, but have yet to find a profitable way to translate them to the online world. They, along with most other North American traditional Jewish media outlets, appear unsophisticated in how to use the Internet and most important how to build strong relationships with their target audience. In addition, continually shrinking budgets have reduced the publication schedules of some, and the content level of most, in the Jewish media world.

One of the challenges of online media today is the need to rethink the nature and purpose of their organizations and how to strengthen relationships with their respective audiences. And all four of these publications are negligent in going back to their readers to understand their satisfaction levels, how they interact with their websites and what they would actually like to see. While most Jewish world traditional media websites contain blogs, they are all uniformly weak in fostering engagement among readers. Sure, they have Twitter accounts and some are on Facebook, but none are pro-active in fostering genuine engagement. More important, not one significant traditional Jewish media publication has made any effort to survey their website visitors and understand what these visitors are seeking. Instead, from their offices on high, they sit and stratergize among themselves, and then wonder why they do not gain traction. Do they really think this is how to engage the next generation of readers?

And speaking of the next generation, not one of these “players” are making the cut with either the all important younger demographic or the more marginal, yet influential, voices in our community.

In a just released study, The Reality of the Virtual: Looking for Jewish Leadership Online, author Ari Kelman speaks extensively of the increasing importance of the virtual sector, their building of relationships and how working largely outside the establishment, new vibrant spaces are being created:

One of the most obvious and well-documented facts about the Internet is that it provides massive broadcast outlets for people who would otherwise not have access to them. In the network online, those examples include FrumSatire, Jewcy, Tablet, and MyJewishLearning, all of which vie with the traditional Jewish news outlets for traffic, stories and attention. And the presence of these alternative outlets is changing the shape of the community.

There’s no longer a newspaper of Jewish record [emphasis added]. Instead we have a host of bloggers, journalists, editors, writers, curators who are all helping shape the broader Jewish communal conversation. It’s not that traditional news outlets have given way to alternatives; they have not. But the chorus of voices speaking to and speaking for the larger community has expanded as a result of these changes in communication.

Our Jewish community needs a vibrant Jewish media – to report the news, and to evaluate the trends taking place. While we are not a homogeneous community, we are one with our own unique take on society – one that can understand and interpret and most important, relate to our own needs. At the same time, all but national publications, need to recognize, and provide, some level of local content. The only publication that appears to have a viable mix is the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle. What’s more interesting, is the U.K. has a Jewish population of under 300,000 yet the Chronicle‘s website draws more traffic than even the Jewish Journal.

The rules are changing every day and the media struggles to keep up. The establishment Jewish media is even further behind. Unless they wish to follow Blockbuster into bankruptcy, and possibly oblivion, they need to change their ways. Time is running out.

A version of this article appears in the current issue of The Jerusalem Report.