North American Jewish press battered, not beaten

How Jewish newspapers can survive in today's harsh reality.

By ZACK COLMAN
August 10, 2009 21:51
North American Jewish press battered, not beaten

jewish daily forward 248 88. (photo credit: )

 
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If the newspaper industry is undergoing economic natural selection, then Jewish newspapers might be the most fit for survival. Operating in the niche market of one of the most highly educated demographics, Jewish news products could be poised to stay in print form the longest, said Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. While he said there was a lot of depressing news surrounding the Jewish press, it was not suffering like other sectors of journalism. "I do think it's a very tough time, but it's a time where if you can figure out the model you will survive," he said. "You're reaching the most incredible, literate, active, involved demographic, that really needs a way to communicate." Another factor aiding Jewish newspapers was that Jews tended to form large communities, giving such newspapers a solid and stable readership, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. The Jewish Journal's print version is available for free, with its Web site being the driving force of its readership, receiving some 300,000 unique visitors per month. But Eshman and others said Internet advertisement revenue alone couldn't be relied upon because the rates were significantly lower than print. Heeb, the New York-based magazine that started in 2001, charges $1,960 per month for a banner advertisement on its Web site. A one-time placement in its print form, however, yields a minimum $900 for a 1/6 page advertisement, while a 1⁄2 page advertisement - the fifth largest of its seven sizes - brings in $2,000. Jane Eisner, editor at Forward, said that although the paper had had to make unprecedented cuts - such as laying off staff, closing its west coast bureau, executive pay cuts and forced four-day work-weeks - the Jewish press hadn't yet felt "the panic and desperation" of the mainstream media. "One of the reasons that I did come back was because I felt this idea of us being a niche publication was going to be the future," said Eisner, who was out of journalism for several years before taking her post at Forward. "We know we're not the first read for our readers, but we know that we offer them something that nobody else has." Mark Joffe, executive editor and publisher for the Jewish Telegraph Agency, painted a bleaker picture. His organization services more than 90 client Jewish newspapers, and some have either folded, switched from a weekly to a monthly format or have changed ownership. He said the industry presented a mixed picture, as some newspapers have struggled while others have persevered. Joffe said one of the most telling signs of the industry's health was the American Jewish Press Association's annual convention in June. Attendance was down more than 50 percent compared to the previous year, which Joffe said was an indictment on the Jewish press' financial constraints. Many Jewish newspapers and other religious press depend on advertisement from nonprofit organizations, such as local Jewish federations. These groups have been hit hard by the economic recession and are pulling their advertisements, creating a gap in revenue for many papers. Adding to the pocketbook pain, people have had to do away with luxuries in the recession, and that has meant shedding subscriptions to specialized content such as religious press, said Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religious News Service and president of the Religious News Writers Association. Some publications are looking for donations to help get through the economic slump. Forward just changed to a 501c3 nonprofit organization, which allows them to receive donations that Eisner hopes will lead to a grassroots financial movement. Heeb sponsors more than 50 events every year, many with celebrity appearances, to garner some of its financial support. Such trends can be reversed once the economic situation is solved. People will once again donate to nonprofit organizations, who will then be able to advertise, and people will resume purchasing religious publications, which will encourage other advertisers to reinvest. Despite this, Jewish newspapers have remained afloat because they offer an affluent and steady readership, Edmonds said. That fact, combined with cheaper rates than its competitors, has allowed the Jewish Journal to succeed in courting advertisers. "We were able to sell that to advertisers and say, 'Well, you can reach 700,000 people if you're advertising in The Los Angeles Times, but how many of those people can actually afford a cruise or a Porsche?'" he said. But that doesn't mean the model is fixed, Eckstrom said. He and many others said religious print would eventually move online, and Eckstrom added that actual content would suffer. Moving online presents problems for the Jewish press because it has an older readership that might be alienated by the transition, Edmonds said. That's why newspapers, such as Washington Jewish Week, are attempting to grab younger readers. Debra Rubin, Washington Jewish Week editor and former president of the American Jewish Press Association, attributed the paper's increased Web traffic to young readers drawn by its recent aggressive foray into social networking sites such as Facebook.com and Twitter.com. Rubin said she would hold off on putting a product solely online. "It's just too early to try," she said. "But we are not moving away from our print edition by any means. We're just trying to supplement our print edition." Still, some newspapers have had difficulty switching to the Internet. Michael Regenstreif, editor of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin in Canada, said the paper was "way behind on an Internet strategy." Working with a "bare bones staff," the Bulletin reaches 2,000 print readers twice a month from September through May and once a month during summer months. Appealing to younger readers might be accomplished through a cultural interpretation of Judaism, Eisner said. With many young US Jews identifying culturally rather than religiously with Judaism, the arts are increasingly important to drawing young readers to Web sites. It's a formula that has worked well for Heeb, which takes a pop culture spin on American Judaism. That format has led to a readership 80% of which are between the ages of 18 and 34. Regenstreif said his paper attempted to reach younger readers by covering the universities, using reader submissions from young people and directing columns toward a younger audience. Eisner said Forward's goal was to attract more readers in general, not younger ones specifically. Building off the success of its women's blog, "The Sisterhood," Forward is in the process of launching multiple micro Web sites to diversify its content and readership, with each division reaching a different demographic segment. The Jewish Journal, most of the readers of which are young, has monetized the Internet through advertising in e-mail blasts to subscribers and affiliate programs. While it is not a substitute for print display advertisements, Eshman said it shows it is possible to profit from the Web. Forward had many suitors for an online partnership, ultimately choosing Zeek.net, a Jewish literary journal. The joint venture will introduce more readers to each Web site and provide a more diverse and attractive audience for advertisers, Eisner said. Natural selection or not, Jewish newspapers will have to evolve, and Joffe said that evolution will have to take place on the Internet. "The challenge is these papers need to take it to the Web," he said. "Jewish newspapers will only be as successful [in] as much as they can adapt online."

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