S. Africa’s last Jewish newspaper makes last stand

If new sources of revenue are not found, paper's existence may indeed be in jeopardy.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
February 5, 2012 11:58
3 minute read.
Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa 390. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

 
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Every weekend when the Jewish Report is delivered to synagogues across South Africa an unusual routine occurs.

Instead of allowing members of the community to pick up copies of the country’s only Jewish newspaper freely, some religious leaders hide them until services are over.

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“They don’t put it out so that people don’t read it at shul,” said Avrom Krengel, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation on Wednesday. “If they did some wouldn’t pay attention [to the services].”

The interest with which South African Jews read the weekly newspaper is a testament to its importance, but soon synagogue disciplinarians might not have to work so hard. Last week the Jewish Report published an editorial denying widespread talk that its closure was imminent.

“The Jewish Report is not closing down,” it declared. “We are aware of rumors going around about the paper’s impending demise. They are not true.”

In an e-mail sent to The Jerusalem Post this week, the Jewish Report’s Editor Geoff Sifrin was adamant his publication would not close but admitted it faced serious challenges.

The decrease in advertising revenues that have affected newspapers around the world, large and small, have made it increasingly hard to balance his budget, he said.



“Companies simply do not spend as much as they used to on advertising, or spend it differently,” he wrote.

“What the Jewish Report offers them is a niche market – if they want to reach the Jewish market, we can offer it. But the readership is not big enough to attract the big advertisers, who will rather advertise in the mass-circulation general press.”

As a result the paper has had to reduce the number of its pages and carry fewer articles.

If new sources of revenue are not found its existence may indeed be in jeopardy.

The Jewish Report was founded 13 years ago to fill the void left by defunct publications such as the Zionist Record and the South Africa Jewish Times.

Each weekend, 11,500 free copies are distributed to synagogues, community centers and homes in Johannesburg, Cape Town and elsewhere.

Michael Jankelowitz, a former spokesman for the Jewish Agency and a native of South Africa, recalled on Thursday how his late mother, Salome, would wait with anticipation for the paper to come out.

“At the Sandringham Gardens old age home [in Johannesburg] everyone looked forward to when the Jewish Report was brought,” he said. “They read the paper from back to front and I know how much joy it brought to them. South Africa [Jewry] today is an aging community and the paper let people know what was going on.”

Krengel also spoke about the importance of the paper to the community.

“It’s a forum for discussion and it would be a great loss if it closed,” he said. “Geoff has had a knack of putting together an interesting paper to read.”

While the Jewish Report shares some of its woes with print journalism in general, others are more specific. The newspaper’s readership, for instance, has been slowly shrinking for decades. During the 1970s there were about 120,000 Jews in South Africa.

Nowadays there are about 70,000. Some members of the community known for its strong support of Zionism have made aliya. Others have gone to the US, Australia and New Zealand in search of better economic opportunities.

The rise in violent crime in South Africa has reinforced both trends.

Sifrin said many community members who might have supported the paper financially now live abroad. At the same time, they might represent the paper’s biggest untapped market, he said.

“One of the important functions of our website is to connect us to the thousands of expat South African Jews in other countries,” he wrote.

“Through this they can still be part of the SA Jewish community.”

The embattled editor continues to seek financial solutions to help keep the paper afloat – including asking community members for donations.

“We regard it as important to stand on our own feet financially, because it is important for us to be editorially independent,” he wrote. “But there are times when donations might be necessary in extreme situations, like now.”

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