The Future of Jewish Journalism

by Larry Levin

As the publisher/CEO of a metropolitan Jewish newspaper, it was interesting to read Gil Shefler’s August 1 article “Change at JTA helm signals challenges faced by US Jewish media” in The Jerusalem Post and Jason Miller’s blog in The Jewish Week online about the future of Jewish journalism as seen by the JTA. From my vantage point, the ideas discussed have very little relevance to the publishing world in which I live, and to the future success of our news organization.

A key concept in both articles is that Jewish publications, faced with declining audiences and an inability to make money from the internet, should turn to a collaborative web model. In the Jewish Week article, this is followed by a suggestion that the JTA convene a group of Jewish publications to work on such a model. And there’s an implication that Jewish news organizations as a group are not adequately focusing on the future.

Many who read that last part might be surprised to learn that the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA)’s June annual conference in Scottsdale focused heavily on the electronic world-social networking, revenue building, and what it means to give readers different ways to receive news. If anything, the sessions were light on print and heavy on the Web and electronic media. So knowledge about the Web – and even the technical know-how to implement that knowledge – is hardly the issue.

But to start with a question about whether AJPA or JTA (or anyone, for that matter) should take the lead in developing a so-called collaborative Web model is to begin in the wrong place. A far more useful exercise is to address these two points: Does each Jewish news organization have effective strategic and business plans to deliver content of value to its readers, raise sufficient revenue and efficiently allocate resources? And would a broad-based collaborative model help or hinder efforts in this regard?

The reason this must be the starting point is that each Jewish news outlet is different. Some are in large cities, some small; some are for-profit and others, like us, are nonprofit. Some are owned by local Federations, some are wholly independent. Revenue-generation models are diverse as well – ours is a mix of ads and other business operations, philanthropy, Federation and subscriptions. (To see the full breadth of opportunities rolled into one organization, check out The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, which is truly cutting edge on pursuing a 21st-century platform mix).

In the case of our newspaper, The St. Louis Jewish Light, we have made a substantial effort and commitment of resources to diversify the ways we get news to readers. Our goal is to reach them in whichever venue they prefer – magazines, newspapers, web, social networking, mobile apps. When many of them read from iPads, I suspect we’ll meet them there as well.

We strive to utilize each content platform to its maximum effect. Our quarterly magazines have lengthy feature articles; our newspaper has certain content available in its pages only; we have “Web-only” features, and plan to ultimately have unique material behind a subscriber wall on the web. And our new but growing social-networking efforts are starting to bear fruit.

As a JTA subscriber, we pay a monthly fee for the right to publish its excellent national, international and Israel news in our newspaper and on our website. However, we don’t really know whether the ideas posited about collaboration would improve our business model, for several reasons:

  1. We do local news for our market better than anyone else can. Our offering of local Jewish content is unique; no one else does it. We connect Jews from all walks and movements within our community in a way that others cannot.
  2. JTA covers news that is remote from our market, but so do others. We thank the JTA, and its stable of quality writers, and believe in supporting their efforts. But if push came to shove, we could find other content relating to national, international and Israel news.
  3. We can get remote news from sister publications. We have reciprocal deals with other Jewish publications that allow us to publish their stories and them to publish ours. This approach works very well, and it’s not clear how a so-called collaborative model would improve on that.
  4. We’ve already devoted ample resources to the Web. We have a brand new, vastly improved website that we know will only become better. The investment in time and resources now enables us to provide unique local information, blogs and opinion daily, and to better utilize the material we receive from the JTA and others. We have programs in place to entice our print advertisers to come to the Web. To deflect attention from this endeavor could compromise our efforts to serve our local community, which is our primary goal.

A collaboration, to be successful, must work for all involved. If its goal is to aid one party but leave the others in no better, or in worse shape, there’s no reason for it.

So what is the benefit of such a collaboration as is suggested in the Post and Week stories? The only conceivable area we can surmise is revenue. The theory would be that by consolidating our web resources we could offer content to advertisers at a broader exposure level, and thereby derive pecuniary benefit. This is, to say the least, a stretch. Would I cede content or control of my Web site for speculative revenue from a collaborative endeavor? There would have to be an awfully potent set of projections to convince me.

Moreover, who’s really interested in all the local news in St. Louis? Sure, other news organizations ask to pluck stories from us when they’re pertinent to their local audience (and us from them), but how many of those a year will really matter to others? Perhaps when we have special sections, like our recent series on hate crimes, that appeal to a wider audience. But do Clevelanders want to know what’s going on with the St. Louis JCRC? I’m not convinced, nor am I convinced that national advertisers will either.

I’m all for change and evolution. In my two years at The Jewish Light, we’ve added new technology, a new website, an additional magazine, and a redesign of our newspaper. We’ve hired a new editor and rearranged staff resources to fit their skills and interests. We’ve won three Rockower awards from the AJPA and one from the National Newspaper Association. We’re spending less and getting more out of it, due to a variety of savings on personnel, printing and other costs. The reader response has been exceptionally positive. And with our combination of revenue sources, we’re holding our own through very difficult economic times.

To simply say that my business will be better because the JTA or someone else envisions that a one-size-fits-all collaboration seems naive. Analyzing it from our perspective, it’s hard to see where the benefits outweigh the potential costs. Maybe it’s because I live in the “show me” state of Missouri, but until and unless the advantages are clearly spelled out, I’m likely to stand pat.

Larry Levin is the publisher/CEO of The St. Louis Jewish Light.