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The Economics of Jewish Journalism in North America / העתונות היהודית בארצות הברית: היבטים כלכליים

ניל רובין, טלי גלבוע-נאור and Neil Rubin
Kesher / קשר
No. 29, גיליון מיוחד: כלכלה ועתונות יהודית‎ (מאי 2001), pp. 89-97
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23917435
Page Count: 9
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The Economics of Jewish Journalism in North America / העתונות היהודית בארצות הברית: היבטים כלכליים
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Abstract

The article is based primarily on the author's survey of 14 Anglo-Jewish newspapers in communities of various sizes, as well as on his personal experience as an editor in this field. The community newspapers examined are located in Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Palm Beach, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle. The Jewish press in the United States emerged in the mid-18th century. By 1765, most of the colonies had one or more Jewish newspapers, generally four-page weeklies, with the last two pages devoted to advertisements. While these publications were created to provide a written bulletin board for the community, economics would soon be a driving characteristic of their existence. Those that could not pay for themselves by means of advertising and circulation, languished and eventually disappeared. A century later, between 1850 and 1860, the American Jewish population jumped from 50,000 to 150,000, and Jewish immigrant papers proliferated. Their financial success rose and fell with the cohesiveness of the community, and, by the second half of the 20th century, with the entrenchment of Jewish federations, Jewish community centers and other community-wide institutions. Notably, most of the Jewish papers in print today had their roots in this period. Some were regional, such as the Southern Israelite, originally based in August, Ga., and today in Atlanta. Today, Jewish journalism in North America is a profession in its own right. Editors and reporters are often sought by professional employment recruiters. The American Jewish Press Association hosts professional conferences addressed by such public figures as Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Prof. Alan Dershowitz; maintains a website; and, with other minority publication groups, lobbies Congress about issues of concern through the Coalition of Religious Press Associations. Many Jewish publications sell over several million dollars a year in advertising. Almost all are weeklies. Today, they no longer need to "Americanize" new immigrants. Rather, the goal is to maintain a broad sense of community, and to be honest purveyors of the news. The vast majority are in English, but specialty publications exist in Russian, Hebrew and Persian, and the Forward has a Yiddish as well as a Russian weekly edition. They are staffed by trained journalists, not the passionate community activists that once formed the core of the Jewish press. They compete with secular publications both in terms of content and advertising. At times, the economic competition between them is fierce, especially in large Jewish communities such as in New York and south Florida. The World Wide Web has brought a new sense of timeliness to the gathering of Jewish news. Virtually every Anglo-Jewish newspaper has, or is developing, a website, often updating local stories throughout the week and providing daily updates via the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Moreover, since the advent of the Web, publishing has gotten substantially cheaper. This has opened new opportunities. For example, the Baltimore Jewish Times web page sells advertising and essentially pays for itself. Some impressive operations, such as jewishfamily.com, exist solely on the web. That company publishes a host of Web-only publications, such as FamiliaJudia.com, Jbooks.com, JVibe.com, GenerationJ.com, InterFaithFamily.com, SocialAction.com, Shma.com and JewishSports.com. However, mass publishing — Jewish or otherwise — is not inexpensive. Distribution costs can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more. More money is spent on marketing than ever before. In the past decade, numerous papers have opened a marketing/circulation department. This effort can pay off. The more successful publications can gross over $10 million a year. As such, they need quality staff who earn good salaries. A handful of top people on advertising staffs can earn over $100,000 a year. The existential dilemma of the Anglo-Jewish press, however, is always close to the surface: the task of spreading good news about the community's social service, religious and other initiatives, while also upholding the traditional role of journalism as watchdog. This is a complex challenge when newspapers are owned by the establishment itself (the Jewish Federation); when major advertisers have to be approached with great sensitivity; and when the journalist is a community journalist to the extreme. The Jewish journalist must be accessible. He/She becomes a communal leader. There is not one editor of a quality Jewish newspaper who has not had a serious clash with a Jewish Federation director. Jewish newspapers fall into two categories: privately owned or Federation owned. Some of the privately owned papers are family owned. In the past decade, wealthy Jewish communal leaders have entered the Jewish journalism fray with force. In particular, the Forward (New York) and the Jerusalem Report are underwritten, respectively, by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. While the latter is seen as an "Israel publication," it makes substantial efforts to market itself in North America, and aggressively seeks advertisement there. Both publications lose money. Yet, they are quality periodicals whose resources enable them to attain a certain buzz in the Jewish world, along with some of the profession's top staff. The result is that they are among the most prestigious and widely read Jewish publications. Numerous Jewish newspapers are owned and operated by Jewish Federations, the large philanthropic central agencies that are the linchpins of every American Jewish community of size. Some of these papers produce excellent articles, particularly on social needs. The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, the MetroWest Jewish News and the JUF News (Chicago) are prime examples. However, these newspapers will rarely if ever conduct a serious investigation of their federations, agencies or major donors. With this, there is a strong positive side to Federation ownership. The editor of Chicago's JUF News, a monthly owned and operated by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, reports that the paper reaches about 50,000 homes, or more than 50% of the metropolitan market. The editor notes that while there may be some stories that his staff will not write, they refuse to exaggerate or print false material. Besides newspapers, well-established monthly and bi-monthly journals also make their mark. Some are house organs that produce serious journalism in articles not directly related to their organization but of interest to the broad Jewish community. They include the B'nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly and Hadassah Magazine, which are profitable as well. Newer, independent magazines, such as Moment, are answerable to their publisher alone. There are also a plethora of smaller academic, intellectual or spiritual journals, including Sh'ma (an American Jewish thought magazine), Lillith (Jewish feminism), Tikkun (liberal) and Commentary (a conservative publication which, although published by the American Jewish Committee, is editorially independent). While these magazines often have circulation figures lower than community weeklies, they make an economic impact in both advertising and editorial content because of their national circulation area. They often keep operating expenses relatively low by using freelance writers. Advertising revenue is a central factor in the economics of the Anglo-Jewish press. If the publication is independently owned, it sinks or swims on its own. If Federation-owned, it has a solid base but will try to sell ads to expand its news section. Some editors and publishers estimate that between 80% and 90% of their funds come from advertisements. In recent years, numerous publications have started spin-off publications, usually in slick, glossy format, appearing six or seven times a year. These range from being primarily Jewish totally secular in content. These separate publications play an important and often overlooked role in the larger newspapers by enabling sales staff to make substantial additional money. This means that Jewish publications can attract quality sales staff in a field where that commodity is quite rare. A strong Anglo-Jewish weekly makes a difference in the health of the community. With all their inherent tensions, American Jewish newspapers remain an informal meeting place for every Jew at least once a week. There, through articles, letters and columns, they share ideas, register complaints and simply learn about one another's life. The economics of how all this comes into being is as complex as the Jewish people in America themselves.

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