JTA and Jewish Newspapers

Two weeks ago the news service JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) announced that its publisher, Mark Joffe, was stepping down suddenly after 17 years in that position, and that his successor had already been named. The board chair acknowledged only Joffe’s “vision and his many years of loyal service,” not any of his accomplishments, and there was no transition period. To an outside observer this gives the unmistakable appearance of an abrupt break rather than a planned, orderly progression.

A report this week in The Jerusalem Post does little to alter that impression. Early comments by incoming publisher Ami Eden, JTA’s editor-in-chief since 2007, suggest that he is making a fresh start, with definite new ideas about content and collaboration. He observed to the Post, for example, that American Jewish media need to be “different from Haaretz, JPost, Ynet” by concentrating more on stories from the United States.

The Post also reported that the one of Eden’s “top priorities” would be greater cooperation with other Jewish media outlets, and that ideas for collaboration would materialize in 12 to 18 months. “Why should we not try to create a unified Web presence having one big Web site with a team that’s constantly keeping it fresh?” proposed Eden. “We clearly could be pooling our technological resources and sharing the Web traffic. If we’re all investing in the same Web traffic, it becomes a great idea.”

That’s partly true. It’s a great idea if there’s enough income from the unified site to meet the combined revenue needs of the partners. With three partners, for instance, they won’t come out ahead unless their joint site produces at least three times the income – presumably resulting from three times the traffic – that they averaged separately. And that’s a big ‘if,’ especially when the largest news-gathering organizations in the world are still trying to figure out how to make money online.

According to the Post there have already been talks between the Forward and JTA, as well as past discussions with the New York Jewish Week and Haaretz. Conspicuously absent from this list, however, are all the other newspapers that subscribe to JTA’s news service. Yet if the intention is to offer greater depth in covering Jewish news from an American perspective, those papers could be the most important partners because they are closest to Jewish communities across the continent.

JTA has referred to itself as a “Jewish Associated Press,” but that is really a misnomer. The Associated Press is a cooperative owned by its member newspapers that facilitates the exchange of news stories among them. By contrast JTA, like Reuters, is an independently owned service that sells news to its subscribers for a fee. As the media marketplace continues to move away from print, JTA could be much more viable if it were organized along the lines of the AP.

JTA claims its survival is crucial by asserting that “if JTA ended tomorrow, local papers would no longer have any national or world information to publish and disseminate to their readers.” Yet the newspapers are equally essential to JTA, which receives a million dollars a year in subscription fees from them. What’s more, JTA has been saying that it has “a role to help local Jewish newspapers convert more to on-line service.” In short, they need each other.

There’s a parallel with National Public Radio, which like JTA is a nonprofit enterprise. NPR stations across the country need high-quality programming they can’t produce themselves; the NPR network needs the individual stations as broadcast outlets for its programs. Like the AP, NPR is owned by its member outlets—and it may well be the most successful radio operation in America.

The “one big Website” that Eden envisions could similarly be a shared platform operated by a member-owned JTA that preserves the identities of participating local papers while enabling central coordination of content. JTA editors could select stories from member papers that are of national interest and include those in a National News feed on the platform. That would free local editors to focus on local news and lower JTA’s domestic news-gathering costs at the same time. Centralizing site maintenance and advertising sales, while enabling local ad sales and local content control, would reduce costs locally. It also would vastly simplify JTA’s national marketing to readers as well as to advertisers. And owning a stake in the shared platform can be a powerful incentive for newspapers to participate in it.

Despite all these advantages, it is no simple matter to accomplish this kind of change. Such a major restructuring requires a complex planning process that actively involves the newspapers, JTA’s leadership, and stakeholders such as the National Federation/Agency Alliance. It also depends upon the willingness of the current JTA board to allow member newspapers to have a share in the agency’s governance. With JTA making a fresh start, however, there’s no better time to think about it than now. And the outcome would be well worth the effort.

Bob Goldfarb, a media executive and consultant for 30 years, earned his MBA at Harvard Business School. A regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, Bob is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and lives in Jerusalem.