Toward Real Journalism in America’s Jewish Communities
By Marshall Weiss
and Alan D. Abbey
It’s time to open a conversation about how North American Jewish Federations can and should play a role in bringing about more vibrant, open Jewish journalism in their backyards. We believe that Federations with the courage to move the needle of their owned, sponsored, or supported newspapers in the direction of real journalism will benefit not only their local Jewish communities, but the Federation enterprise in particular.
Other than in the largest of North American Jewish communities, Jewish publications cannot survive on an advertising and subscription model. These days, it’s challenging enough even in the large markets. Going back over the past century, this is why Federations entered the newspaper business: if they hadn’t, local community Jewish journalism wouldn’t exist.
Much quality journalism comes out of Federation-owned media. However, the professionally trained journalists that staff these Jewish media outlets are often thwarted when it comes to reporting on news of real importance in their communities that Federation leadership may perceive as negative.
These frustrations have led to a steady exodus of talented editors and reporters from the field of local Jewish journalism. With Federation annual campaigns steadily going southward, the pressure on Federation-owned or funded publications to promote Federation efforts at the expense of independent news coverage has increased and is bound to intensify.
But it is a widely accepted principle that journalism is a public trust, no matter who owns the news outlet. Even where Federations are the owners or provide significant subsidies, they are still entrusted to ensure real journalism for their communities.
Real journalism empowers readers with information they need to repair a broken world. It holds a mirror up to a community, so it can see itself as it is, and provides a forum to discuss what a better community would look like and how to bring it about. It is real Jewish journalism that is tasked with balancing the tension we find between the two commandments in Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people; you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.”
The real problem with presenting promotional content in the guise of news is that the well-educated, well-read, news junkies of the North American Jewish community can tell the difference between the real thing and fluff. As a result, they are abandoning their local Jewish papers. In that sense, it is self-defeating for Federations to treat their newspapers as house organs, because media that lack independence and credibility won’t survive.
How can we find a way for Federation-owned or operated papers to regain credibility and independence, given the conflict of interest inherent in the Federation journalism model?
The American Jewish Press Association and Shalom Hartman Institute have teamed up to create the AJPA-Hartman Institute Jewish Ethics Project to study how Jewish values can enhance journalism and to provide North American Jewish media with the resources, tools, and training to craft codes of ethics that imbue such values.
For those Jewish journalism entities owned by or receiving support from Federations, we also want to facilitate the next step: establish a dialogue between local Federations and local Jewish journalism leadership, with the aim of helping Federations better understand and appreciate the need for real journalism in our communities.
The process, we hope, will culminate in local Federations formally signing on to their medium’s code of Jewish journalistic ethics. This would create buffer zones, so that at the very least, Federations will think twice about violating this code, and their journalistic partners will have the independence to bring it to their attention. At the very best, this code, along with the entrance of well-trained Jewish journalists into the field, will ensure that Jewish journalism in the hands of Federations will improve.
We must learn from one another, must learn to talk in a way that the other can hear, and must be willing to accept the other’s perspective, even in cases of dispute.
The only way this can work is with ongoing dialogue among Jewish journalists, Federation professionals, and lay leaders. Federations strong enough to support honest journalism in their communities will garner the respect of their constituents and engage them in playing an active role in shaping the priorities and future of the Jewish community.
David Suissa, President of Tribe Media, which publishes the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, put forward the idea at the last American Jewish Press Association Conference that Jewish media are – or at least should be – the most important contributor to Jewish continuity, for only they can provide the much-needed neutral, fair, and public forum for airing the key issues and challenges facing Jewish life in North America and Israel.
When a Jewish journalist wants to write an article that a Federation leader worries may cause problems with funders, the journalist isn’t trying to tear down the community. Truly strengthening the American Jewish community is the ultimate goal of the Jewish journalism, as it is for Federations.
Let’s start talking.
Marshall Weiss is Editor and Publisher of the Dayton Jewish Observer and President of the American Jewish Press Association.
Alan D. Abbey is Director of Media Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Press Association.