The Chutzpah to Change: Embracing the Future at a Jewish Cultural Touchstone

By Rachel Fishman Feddersen

Part 1: The Situation

Media leadership can be a tough gig. Gratifying, sure. Interesting, always. Occasionally, if you have a great team and you work really hard, you get a sign that things are going your way.

That has happened twice with my publication, the Forward (originally named The Jewish Daily Forward), in the past few weeks. First, we learned that we had received 15 American Jewish Press Association awards. Then, we found out we had been awarded $500,000 from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

For a 122-year-old, nonprofit Jewish publication that was originally published in Yiddish, these two things are a very big deal.

Part 2: The Challenge

The Jewish Daily Forward was founded in 1897 for a huge wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Our journalism was instrumental in introducing these new Americans to the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of this new world. The Forward became a major player in the labor rights movement, in alerting America to the Holocaust, in furthering Yiddish literature, and in covering the American Jewish world in a vibrant, vital way.

We remain vital today, reaching two million readers a month, one third of whom are under 35. We win awards; our writers speak around the country; and the Forward continues to break news. We ask questions of authority and present opinions from a wide variety of perspectives. Yet, we have been as challenged financially as any other media company in America today. That is to say: very.

Luckily, in the face of these challenges, the Forward can tap into a tradition of innovation and change that has characterized our readership from the beginning.

Innovating today means implementing bold decisions and building on successes. Most importantly, it means learning from mistakes, pivoting quickly and becoming stronger and smarter than we have ever been.

In the past three years, we have changed how we publish – from weekly to monthly, to no paper product at all. We have also altered our subscription structure, which now features a digital pay meter, and updated how we fund our business, which evolved from an advertising-supported model to a reader-supported one.

These changes have gotten us to a healthier financial place, where we can now talk with real confidence about our future and how we will continue to grow.

Part 3: Our Transition

When a 122-year old paper moves on from print, it can engender a lot of interest. This happened when we announced our last print issue, which went out in April 2019. While we love paper and appreciate its emotional impact (our archivist is actively engaged in cataloging our photos from the past century), we knew that, to reach the next generation and stay relevant, we needed to continue our reinvention as a digital-first brand.

We have reshaped our staff to fit the 2019 model of a nonprofit media organization, and brought on new organizational leaders in finance, fundraising, and digital production. We reach out to communities across the country to increase our connection and deepen our reporting.

Now, we have received a tremendous endorsement in the form of a gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

This will allow us to strengthen our infrastructure and support our fearless, independent journalism. We are excited to:

  • Upgrade our website and its capacity to attract audiences, enlist subscribers, and encourage financial support.
  • Implement a new suite of analytics tools and use deeper data to inform editorial and business decisions.
  • Build a collaborative organizational culture, activated by both staff and board.

We have ambitious goals, including:

  • Continuing to increase readership, specifically among younger audiences.
  • Creating and formalizing local partnerships to support the depth and breadth of our content and support network.
  • And, very significantly, increasing sustainability by generating more reader engagement, a more activated stakeholder base, and broader institutional support.

There is much more work to be done. Always! Yet, we are thrilled to have come this far, to set off in a new direction, and to recommit to our mission of independent journalism, all of which is buoyed by the faith of new funding and incoming new leadership. Especially now, the Forward matters to both journalism and the Jewish people.

Rachel Fishman Feddersen is CEO and Publisher of The Forward.