Change at JTA signals challenges faced by US Jewish media

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
August 1, 2010 01:59

Many American Jewish outlets suffering financial woes.




AMI EDEN

Eden 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The longtime publisher of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Mark Joffe announced on July 25 that he was leaving the helm of the New York-based news wire after a remarkable 17-year spell.

But there was more to the announcement than the press release revealed.

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The change in leadership was the culmination of a tough two-year period for the news organization, whose financial woes are shared by many of the roughly 250 Jewish media outlets in America, which reach a combined audience of some 2.5 million people, according to the optimistic numbers provided by the American Jewish Press Association.

Over the past two decades, US Jewish media and print journalism in general have been in steady decline due to dwindling readership and loss of ad revenue to the Web.

When the recession hit two years ago it dealt a devastating blow to an already weakened industry.

Under pressure from JTA’s board to balance his budget, Joffe had to let go of several staff members, find news ways of raising money and cope with growing disgruntlement among employees, a source familiar with the issue who spoke on condition of anonymity said.

The budget was balanced but relations inside the organization were frayed. When the time came Joffe – who is credited with bringing the 93-yearold news wire into the digital era by creating its Web site in 1997 and digitizing its archives – was ready to go. The only thing left to work out was his pension package.

Ami Eden, JTA’s editor-in-chief who replaced Joffe, spoke to The Jerusalem Post last week about his organization’s future and that of Jewish media in the US in general.

Eden, a 37-year-old modern Orthodox family man  who worked at The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and The Forward before joining JTA in 2007, said the staff cuts in recent years were probably inevitable, but that media outlets could learn important lessons from their budgetary challenges.

“Two, three years ago media outlets weren't taking a hard look in the mirror when they invested their budget. Then you have a major budget problem, and we realized what we were doing with five people we could have done with two,” Eden said. “The lesson is every year when you budget, you have to be asking, ‘Are you using two people who could be doing one? The shame of it is that had media outlets been taking a hard look earlier, we could have shifted personnel to work on new projects. Instead, because of the economy the cuts simply went to reducing a deficit. Hopefully now we can get back to the point of figuring out how to deploy our people to make things better." Looking ahead, he declared one of his “top priorities” would be greater cooperation with other Jewish media outlets.

Ideas for collaborations were “percolating,” Eden said, and would materialize between “12 and 18 months.”

“I think it’s clear that most American Jewish newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money online,” he 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.”

Eden declined to go into further detail.

However, Samuel Norich, the publisher of the Forward, New York City’s storied Jewish weekly, confirmed that he has “reached out” to Eden regarding an online partnership.

“We would be an attractive partner for another Jewish media partner to build a site,” he told the Post. “As it is, the market is divided among many players and there are many synergies between JTA and Forward.”

But forming partnerships is easier said than done. At various points in the past two years JTA had been in talks with the Forward, New York Jewish Week and Haaretz over potential partnerships, a source said. But nothing materialized.

“I think two years ago people were uninterested [in cooperating],” Eden said.

“Now people are eager.”

What’s different? Perhaps it’s the recognition that the journalistic playing field has irreversibly changed. Much of the readership – mostly older people with stronger ties to the community than younger generations tend to have – is gone or shrinking. Meanwhile, although online advertising has shown promise it has failed to fill the void left by the loss of print ad revenue. Some say that in this changing and uncertain market, Jewish media face a hard choice: Join forces or face ruin.

Either way, it is certainly in the best interest of the US Jewish establishment to have a vibrant and healthy media picking up news that otherwise wouldn’t fit in with local or national media.

“JDC [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] work spans 70 countries outside of America, so a well-informed Jewish audience here at home is vital for us,” said Steve Schwager, the head of JDC. “Under Joffe, JTA excelled in reporting Jewish news from Siberia to Addis Ababa, from Argentina to Australia. We hope that level of professional excellence will continue.”

Haviv Rettig Gur, the Jewish Agency’s new spokesman, knows both sides of the Jewish media-establishment divide well, and spoke of their symbiotic relationship.

“The Jewish world is immense and its institutions are worth billions of dollars,” he said. “That industry needs a media to break open what is hidden and debate use of money and discuss priorities, and it has to be robust. How you sell that to the community is another issue.”

Eden believes that to draw more readers, Jewish media in the US have to focus on more Stateside coverage rather than the Mideast and find new niche areas, citing as an example the popular Fundermentalist philanthropy blog by JTA’s Jacob Berkman.

“I think there are readers out there who care a lot about the Mideast and AIPAC,” Eden said. “These people are online checking out Israel all the time. If we have just a little bit of information on Israel it’s meaningless to them. Yes, we have to do Middle East issues really well. But at the same time is that all we are? Forget it. We’re going to move different from Haaretz, JPost, Ynet.

We have to find different new niche areas and home in on them.”

(The writer was an intern at JTA for six months.)


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