Jewish Media: One Scenario

Jewish media organizations have been largely immune to broader business trends towards consolidation in order to realize economies of scale. Those pressures to rationalize their businesses, together with the obsolescence of print and the decline in communal affiliation among Jews, are bound to result in radical changes in the structure of Jewish media in America in the next several years. Fortunately, however, the situation is not yet critical. As local papers gradually become unsustainable, the community has a window of opportunity to preserve the vital channel of communication that Jewish media represent.

Media are already part of the communal agenda. Local Federations have been involved with local newspapers for a long time, and the National Federation/Agency Alliance is a major funder of JTA on the national level. In fact, as the Alliance’s budget has gotten smaller in recent years it has nonetheless maintained its level of support for JTA, a clear sign that Jewish media are valued on the national level.

There may not be unanimity on the reasons, but they include the need for Jewish news, information, and perspectives to be dependably available through an infrastructure with a public-service mission. Blogs and newsletters may have valuable information and perspectives, but they are not always dependable nor necessarily dedicated to the public interest. Successfully rebuilding the infrastructure requires a viable financial and operational model coupled with a broad public purpose.

As the cost of running a Jewish media outlet outstrips the revenue, newspapers/websites will need to attract contributions as well as bolster earned income. Creating a membership structure, as the Forward and the Los Angeles Jewish Journal are doing, would follow public radio’s very successful model of maintaining a two-way relationship with their core consumer. Income can also be earned through iPhone apps, iPad subscriptions, and perhaps Internet pay-walls. It is hard to imagine how advertising revenue will bring in much money, but that mechanism will still be available too (as it is in public radio, through “underwriting”).

Expenses will also need to be cut. A number of Jewish newspapers recognize this and are talking about sharing back-office costs, but that modest step will probably be too little too late. Ultimately the duplication in management and overhead will need to be eliminated too. That’s why numerous cable television systems eventually merged into a few giant national companies, as have most of the cable-TV programming channels. Something similar will almost certainly happen with Jewish media outlets.

Who will be the future giants of Jewish media? As the New York-based standard-bearer of international Jewish journalism, JTA would be the most logical candidate. But it is too small to play that role alone, its future revenue from client newspapers will seriously decline, and its strong suit is journalism, not business. If JTA joined forces with leading outlets like the Forward, The Jewish Week and the L.A. Jewish Journal , however – and if together they accepted a mandate to preserve local, regional, and national coverage – that would assure continuity amid a fundamental restructuring of local media outlets.

It may take a lot of persuasion to convince various stakeholders of that. Communities facing the loss of their local news outlets, and there will be many of them, may fight the idea of having their Jewish newspaper replaced by a website edited a thousand miles away. They may even resist the notion that a local news bureau—but not a local publisher, circulation director, advertising manager, production director, or business manager – is all they really need. On the national level the Federation/Agency Alliance may also need to be persuaded that the new model deserves their continued support. And it is complicated and demanding to sustain collaborations, especially among talented, independent-minded professionals.

For all these reasons and more, succeeding in the new media environment will be more challenging than ever. Timing will be crucial: papers will need to keep their print editions for as long as they remain an important revenue source, but then scale them back as demand declines. With more diverse revenue sources, some of which will involve a closer relationship with readers, management will need to find a delicate balance between what readers like and journalistic integrity; between communal needs and financial viability; between new options afforded by technology, and the traditions and values that are the underpinning of American Jewish life.

Fortunately there is a great deal to build on. Economic trends aside, we live in a golden age of Jewish journalism. At the Forward, Jane Eisner’s editorial imagination and immensely talented writers like Josh Nathan-Kazis and Gal Beckerman set an extremely high standard. Dan Friedman’s arts section may be the best of its kind anywhere. The L. A. Jewish Journal consistently shows how to cover its home community without provincialism and without shrinking from controversy while exploiting new media more ambitiously than anyone. The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt is a model of the sober, engaged editor for whom journalism is a calling that demands a personal commitment to the greater good. Meanwhile Web-only publications like Tablet Magazine and Jewish Ideas Daily have quickly become indispensable sources of first-rate, thought-provoking writing on an expectedly wide range of Jewish topics.

It may be tempting simply to allow market trends to play out and hope for the best. Left unaddressed, however, sheer economics will almost certainly lead to a slow-motion disaster for all but a few Jewish media outlets in America. A collective strategy with broadly accepted journalistic goals and competitive technology, executed with great tact and diplomacy, is essential in order to avert it. So is a shared belief that a media universe without a strong Jewish editorial perspective is unthinkable.

Special thanks to Lisa Hostein, Mark Pearlman, Steve Maas, Marc Klein, Sam Norich, Ami Eden, Gary Rosenblatt and Stephan Kline for their thoughtful insights.

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.

Our mini-series on Where Goes the North American Jewish Media continues with the post, Bricks, Clicks and the Jewish Media.