The Future of Jewish Journalism (Or Anything Else)

by Esther D. Kustanowitz

“I think it’s clear that most American Jewish newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money online,” [new JTA Executive Editor Ami Eden] said. “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? We clearly could be pulling our technological resources and sharing the Web traffic. If we’re all investing in the same Web traffic, it becomes a great idea.” – JPost

In an interview in the JPost, new JTA Executive Editor Ami Eden spoke briefly of his plans for the future of JTA, which include “greater cooperation with other Jewish media outlets” and creating a “unified web presence” for the American Jewish newspapers.

We could jump to conclusions about this plan being overly ambitious or accuse JTA of playing the role of arbiter for what’s best for American Jewish journalism. But any such discussion is premature; Eden declined to share details, leaving unaddressed the challenges in implementing an innovative solution.

Let’s take the discussion one step further, as Haviv Rettig Gur, formerly of the JPost and currently the spokesman of the Jewish Agency for Israel) did in framing the piece when he posted it on Facebook:

Come to think of it, how is this different from the discussions in the JPost, or the debates going on in the Jewish Agency? We’re all trying to figure out what the Jews need, and how to give it to them.

So here are two questions: In the Jewish journalism context, who are “the Jews”? And who speaks for “the Jews” and what we need?

These questions are key in identifying a path for JTA’s relationship to local Jewish publications. But beyond that – keep Haviv’s framing in mind – these questions guide discussion about the future of Jewish journalism, and of practically anything else. Plus, it raises a third question: how do we treat innovation – as a threat, a savior, or as an organic sign of progress?

JTA has a long history, and played a vital role in the development of today’s Jewish media scene. But independent of any founding mission, what is JTA’s goal today? Does today’s journalism reality necessitate a reassessment of JTA’s role? If the goal is to strengthen Jewish media, does “media” include writers, photographers and other content providers or just the distribution numbers community papers and outlets? What if the strengthening of one weakens the other? As a freelance writer, I believe that journalism in general needs to figure out lots of things, including what the value of content is and how to ensure that content providers are paid fairly. And if this is true of mainstream magazines and newspapers, then it’s certainly true of Jewish news outlets, which work with smaller audiences and smaller budgets than their mainstream cousins, and which may be even more resistant to proposals of change.

And is centralization something that local papers are clamoring for? It’s one thing to investigate content partnerships with more independently-voiced publications like the Forward or international Jewish publications like Ha’aretz, but it’s another to tell all the local Jewish pubs, “We’re the JTA, we’ve been around for 93 years, and here’s the way it’s going to be from now on.”

My impression is that even community publications that rely heavily on JTA for national and international content still want to maintain their trusted local voices – but wouldn’t mind some additional exposure for their community stories. After all, thanks to globalization, we feel more connected to stories from Jewish communities around the world. I’m sure this is also part of the JTA’s percolation of ideas – how to create a “unified web portal” that incorporates a broader definition of Jewish community that doesn’t negate – and in fact, perhaps promotes – local stories. (I’m picturing a constantly updating newsfeed box that highlights stories from local Jewish newspapers as they happen, providing a space and a greater audience for those stories and their writers. As did Bob Goldfarb, in an earlier piece on this blog.)

Some better-funded or more abundantly staffed papers – like New York’s Jewish Week and L.A.’s Jewish Journal – have spent significant time, money and staff-power to establish themselves as portals, incorporating JTA reports into a Jewish news presence that features more locally relevant content, and rich, regularly-updated blogs. Will a “unified Web presence” threaten them, excite them, or just generate indifference? And what is the role of “start-up” media – ranging from blogs to vlogs to online TV channels and podcasts – in this new world order?

When it comes to the business of journalism, generally speaking, even non-niche, non-Jewish publications haven’t managed to hack the emerging system. How can newspapers make a profit (or, in a less-than-stellar economy, break even) when so much content is available for free? And in this era of free, what’s worth paying for? (This question also significantly applies to Judaism as an institutional system; when so much content and value is available for free, what can institutions provide that members will pay for?)

What journalism needs now, field-wide, is a game plan that is reactive to the actual (and not just the perceived) needs of the community, which uses technological tools, and which leverages the power of increasingly worldly and opinionated content professionals while paying content providers fairly for their work and talent.

Perhaps this kind of leveraging of worldly writers is the kind of collaboration and partnership to which Eden alludes; perhaps this media hub concept even owes a debt of inspiration to the Federation fundraising model, in which collectively leveraged funds go further than individual funds.

Over the next 12-18 months, Eden’s ideas will keep on “percolating,” as the JPost article put it – which is great, but Jewish newspapers aren’t waiting for JTA to save the day. They’re taking steps that they hope will help their papers survive these difficult times.

But three things should be part of the percolations:

  1. Increasingly, people are getting their news via Facebook and Twitter (and whatever site next emerges from the social web). This fact may not thrill news outlets, but any newspaper/media source contemplating a new direction for the future should incorporate effective social media usage into that plan.
  2. Journalism in general (and perhaps Jewish organizational life, too) will have to become and remain flexible, responsive, exciting and relevant in order to keep veteran readers and court new ones. New views, diverse voices, deep commentary, even controversy serve to keep discussions going and keep bringing people back to your sites and work to cement your reputations as purveyors of value.
  3. JTA should be an active participant in online conversation about Jewish journalism’s future. Take part in the discussion emanating from Eden’s announcement, glean ideas from these people and the blogs they read (including the Knight Digital Media Center blog, Journalism 2.0 and Journerdism), and involve the passionate critics as important stakeholders, and partners in the future of Jewish journalism. (Or anything else.)

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer and consultant based in Los Angeles. She was also co-producer of the 2010 ROI Summit for Jewish Innovators. A version of this piece originally appeared on Esther’s blog,