Prospects for Jewish Media

by Bob Goldfarb

This month a Boston-based entrepreneur is launching a new “nonprofit news wire that will provide features, art, monthly special sections, and Israel coverage; assistance in advertising, sales, and circulation; and national advertising placements.” The man behind the new venture, Russel Pergament, has 30 years of experience as a newspaper publisher, first with the TAB newspapers in greater Boston and later with the urban dailies MetroBoston and AM New York. The service’s debut High Holiday section (for insertion in local newspapers) features top-name contributors like Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rep. Barney Frank, cooking maven Mollie Katzen, and comic Jackie Mason. The company has also announced an exclusive agreement for coverage of Israel from the country’s largest-circulation daily, Israel Hayom.

This can’t be good news for JTA, the long-established “Global News Service of the Jewish People.” JTA has had to cut expenses in recent years, and its finances will be further squeezed as subsidies from the Federation system decline. Meanwhile JTA has not had time to develop a large revenue stream from its online readers, nor has it yet had much success in persuading foundations or major donors to support a Jewish news service. Competition is the last thing it needs.

Editor and publisher Ami Eden has been looking to technology for cost savings and new revenue. A year ago he suggested to The Jerusalem Post a “unified Web presence” for U.S. Jewish media outlets. Six months later the Federation-Agency Alliance reported that “JTA is spearheading cooperation among Jewish media to create a joint digital platform that will provide top-flight media tools, spark groundbreaking editorial collaboration and open the door to national advertising revenues.” A plan was expected by the end of last April, but it has still not been submitted to the Alliance by JTA. JTA continues to explore the concept but it is not clear that the planned collaboration will actually happen, even though the Alliance staff wrote that “much of [JTA’s] future success is tied up with its initiative to create a common web platform for the purveyors of Jewish news.”

JTA knows that it needs to do something, but it has little risk capital and can’t afford to make a mistake in technology or in a new business model. The agency is maintaining its primary commitment to serving its clients, their readers, and their communities, even as it recognizes the need to expand its web content and gear more of it to younger readers. It has just added a Friday newsletter called JTA Weekender, including a feature called The Friday Five. Not to be confused with several other blogs with the same title, this one is a weekly list of people who are making a significant impact in the Jewish world. Its new celebrity blog, “Six Degrees No Bacon” has had stories in recent days about Charlie Sheen, Adam Levine of the L.A. band Maroon 5, Gene Simmons, and Daniel Radcliffe. And earlier this year its newly digitized archive went online, with a related blog.

Other Jewish media outlets are expanding too. The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles will extend its electronic footprint by launching an iPad app later this month, and its parent company has announced a new president, David Suissa. The paper’s star columnist and a well-known figure in L.A. Jewish life, Suissa has also been an advertising executive and branding consultant for many years. He plans on growth: he wants to “reinvent the paper as the most comprehensive, far-reaching and efficient Jewish voice in Los Angeles and, digitally, in the world.”

That, too, presents a challenge to JTA, albeit less directly. With these competitive pressures, the likelihood of declining revenue, and the uncertainties of media generally, JTA could need to pool resources or even merge with another news organization in order to continue to fulfill its mission successfully. There already have been a number of conversations with potential partners.

One potential obstacle to concluding such a strategic alliance, however, may be a clash of corporate cultures. The JTA board strenuously affirms being “passionately unbiased” as a core value, in contrast to what they see in some other Jewish media. Given that principle, would they risk the agency’s long-term viability rather than join forces with a partner they see as biased? They may have to face that conundrum sooner than they’d like.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and a long-time media executive, writes regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy and blogs for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

eJP note: This article drew upon numerous interviewers by the writer with leading figures in Jewish media, including JTA.