New Media, Old Solutions

The recent study of the “Jewish Web” by 4WallMedia sees that Israeli online news sources are much more popular than American-based Jewish sites, and concludes that the “takeaway point is that the American Jewish media needs (sic) to coordinate and combine their assets online.” That’s a nonsequitur, given the data reported in the study.

The most popular Jewish-oriented site, the Jerusalem Post’s, draws over 1.4 million total unique visitors per month; all U.S. news sites combined attract only 800,000. Significantly, is not an integrated consortium of information sources; it’s a standalone company with compelling editorial content., with nearly 700,000 unique monthly visitors – almost as many as all the American sites – is also a single-source site. In other words, what’s worked best in attracting traffic, by a huge margin, has resulted from individual companies’ initiatives. Yet these researchers see the answer in the centralization of existing entities whose content has failed individually and collectively to attract a viable number of regular readers.

If the content being offered by American sites isn’t attracting enough interest now, why should it draw any more attention as part of a newly branded megasite? Readers value content above all, yet the report looks to social networking, search results, and other secondary ways of boosting site visits. The elephant in the room is the fact that the existing sites haven’t offered enough value to Web users in the material they post.

Possible reasons: news drives the most traffic, yet news-oriented American sites are sometimes days behind their Israeli competitors in reporting international stories of Jewish interest. And the U.S. sites tend to favor their own reporting or other original material over comprehensive coverage. This may make sense for reasons of branding or budgeting, but the result is that these sites are less frequented by Web users.

The 4WallMedia report puts its faith in combining resources and centralizing coordination, but that’s actually not necessary to assemble a heavily trafficked U.S.-based Jewish news site. An aggregator that links to all the U.S. and foreign sources of Jewish news and updates its content constantly would accomplish the same thing. The authors implicitly recognize that when they cite the Huffington Post as a model. By similarly establishing a distinctive voice, linking to the wealth of Jewish journalism around the world, and recruiting dozens of popular bloggers, a new Jewish-information site could rise to the top. What’s more, it wouldn’t cost that much.

Such a site is likeliest to succeed if it’s independent, like and Like them it may also end up being for-profit, not communally funded. And it could be powered by the new generation of innovators, not the established organs of Jewish journalism.

The prejudice in favor of centralization is a persistent trope in Jewish communal life. The authors of the report avowedly share that predisposition; they begin with a D’var Torah about Jewish unity(!). Perhaps their target readers feel the same way: hardly a day passes without someone in Jewish life calling for a merger between organizations in one sector or another. But that is a bias, not a solution.

You might say the 4WallMedia report has it exactly backwards. The key to attracting and keeping readers is content, not structural change. Remaining competitive depends on nimble and responsive management, which is more characteristic of independent companies than bureaucratic cooperatives. Putting journalistic innovators together with an established Jewish media brand, backed by a visionary venture philanthropist, would make a dream team, and the result could be the biggest Jewish website of them all. Is anyone listening?

Bob Goldfarb has conducted research studies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. Now the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, Bob lives in Jerusalem and is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.