From top left: Screenshots of The Canadian Jewish Record, The Canadian Jewish News, and TheJ.ca.
INSIDE STORY – COMMUNITY JEWISH MEDIA, AS WE UNDERSTAND IT TODAY, COULD DIE
Leaders say a ‘news desert’ threatens the health of their communities as Diaspora Jewish journalism dwindles alongside an advertising drought
By Robert Sarner, May 26, 2020
TORONTO — Newspapers around the world are fighting for survival, but last week Canada’s Jewish community welcomed the near-simultaneous birth of two publications when The Canadian Jewish Record (CJR) https://canadianjewishrecord.ca/ and TheJ.ca https://thej.ca/ made their online debut only 20 minutes apart. They rose phoenix-like from the ashes of their predecessor, the Canadian Jewish News (CJN), which recently gave up the ghost after 60 years of weekly publishing.
In April, the CJN’s demise, in parallel with the near-death of the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News in Britain, sent shockwaves through the world of Jewish journalism. It was a stark reminder of its vulnerable state, especially since COVID-19 dealt a gut-punch to national and local economies. A month earlier, the New York Jewish Week issued an “urgent appeal” to readers, seeking financial support to stay afloat.
These are grim times for the entire newspaper industry and the current coronavirus crisis has only intensified pre-existing problems — triggered largely by the rise of the internet and social media — to which Jewish newspapers, a niche in the journalistic ecosystem, are not immune.
The pandemic’s financial fallout has pummeled the media industry, particularly newspapers, long bedeviled by plummeting subscription and advertising revenue and rising printing and distribution costs. Since mid-March, increasingly desperate publishers have carried out drastic cost-cutting measures – layoffs, pay cuts, and furloughs – or simply shuttered publications.
Ironically, this media malaise came at a time when journalists proved their importance, covering a complex, era-defining story and its life-threatening ramifications for an anxious, captive audience, confined to home.
In Canada, the prospect of a 400,000-strong Jewish community no longer having its own media channel for news and commentary spurred the CJR and TheJ.ca to fill the void created by the CJN’s disappearance.
Bernie Farber, a writer, commentator, human rights advocate and former CEO of the now defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, is the publisher and co-founder of the CJR. Fellow co-founder and editor is Ron Csillag, who until recently was a senior writer at the CJN for 20 years. Both are based in Toronto.
“Sometimes, with sad developments like the CJN’s closing, you need to lose something to fully understand what it is you lost,” Farber told The Times of Israel the morning the CJR was launched. “With there no longer being a Canadian Jewish news portal, Ron and I felt strongly, especially during this dark time, that Canadian Jews require a thread connecting coast to coast. In creating the Record, our goal is to make it as balanced, left, right and center, as possible.”
The first edition covered a wide range of subjects. They included the latest B’nai Brith audit on anti-Semitic incidents in Canada; a dispute between a Jewish provincial politician and a Toronto Islamic community center over a harshly anti-Israeli video filmed recently outside the center; the departure of Canada’s ambassador to Israel; Toronto’s Jewish cemeteries re-opening with coronavirus restrictions eased; and an interview with a local emergency doctor about COVID-19 and its possible impact on High Holiday services and Jewish day schools.
Like with most Jewish publications, there was also a plethora of op-ed pieces, several by former CJN columnists, touching on everything from Israel’s possible annexation of the West Bank to the politics behind the hit TV series “Fauda” and its alleged negative effects on viewers, especially Palestinians.
In contrast to the CJN, the CJR is published only online, and has neither an editorial office or paid staff. With no financial backing and no intention for now to seek advertising, the venture is operated totally by volunteers. Some observers wonder how long a volunteer-run, free-content operation can survive.
“It’s a grand experiment,” says Farber. “We will see. For now, we’d like to keep it going on a voluntary basis… We’ll see how the paper moves along and we’ll be re-evaluating literally on a daily basis… We’re going to have to come to grips with how to maintain financial sustainability.”
By comparison, TheJ.ca’s launch proved more harrowing for its team. Clearly, somebody didn’t want to make it easy. Hours before TheJ.ca was to go live, the site was hacked, delaying its debut by nearly two days.
“We were all set to flip the light switch, only to discover that somebody who was very professional and shrewd was just waiting and primed for this very moment to pull the Jenga pieces and watch it all fall apart,” says Managing Editor Dave Gordon, a veteran Toronto journalist. “Was it anti-Semitism or just someone who saw a new project about to be launched and thought it would be fun to kick a sandcastle down? Everybody on our team thinks the worst, that it was an anti-Semite rubbing his hands, going, ‘Oh, wouldn’t this be fun?’”
In its previous incarnation, TheJ.ca was a local site focusing on the Jewish community of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in western Canada where publisher Ron East and Editor-in-Chief Marty Gold live. After the CJN folded, they decided to expedite earlier plans to turn it into a new national news outlet.
“Our ultimate goal is to be a source of news for Canadian Jews from coast to coast and give a voice to the broader community,” says East, who was born in Jerusalem and grew up in northern Israel.
“We will stay true to our visions and beliefs which include being Zionistic in our approach, and pro-Israel in our beliefs and using [Natan] Sharanksy’s 3D test [demonization, delegitimization and double standards] to determine anti-Semitism,” says East.
Judging by the first edition, TheJ.ca will be visually punchier, more pronounced in its editorial slant (to the right) and embrace a more tabloid-like style than the CJR. The lead story, not exactly breaking news, was titled “Dan Aykroyd’s Love of Vodka and Israel” in which the Canadian actor and comedian spoke of his admiration of Israel, based in part on a trip he took there in 2008. Saying his line of vodka, Crystal Head, is popular in Israel, he added it’s a great kiddush beverage and “goes good with chopped liver, gefilte fish and all the Jewish food.”
Other pieces varied in focus: A controversy in Vancouver where local Jews forced the cancellation of an actress’s planned reading of the “Diary of Anne Frank” in video installments after accusing her of comparing COVID-19 isolation with the Frank family’s Holocaust experience; spotlighting a Conservative Party leadership candidate who favors moving Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; an interview with Israel’s new Public Security Minister, Amir Ohana; the death of American Jewish actor Jerry Stiller; and the apparently required column on the moral ambiguity of the new season of “Fauda.”
Like the CJR, all writers in TheJ.ca are unpaid. Likewise its editor, managing editor, and editorial assistant.
“They have the same editorial vision as I have, which includes being less Toronto or Montreal-centric than the CJN was,” says East, who moved to Winnipeg from the Golan Heights in 1992.
Having funded the project so far, East — who previously published several sports magazines and a local Hebrew-language newsletter for expatriate Israelis in Winnipeg — is upbeat about its business prospects.
“We’re not worried about the financial side of the business and already have advertisers lined up,” he says. “We’re fairly confident as the launch progresses and we continue to populate our site and make ourselves more known in the community, we’ll be able to generate the necessary income in a short period of time. We’re very excited about the future.”
Publishing, with a little help from friends?
When the CJN announced its closure in April, it marked the culmination of a shaky existence in recent years, for which COVID-19 proved the final nail in the coffin.
“For a long time, the CJN was impacted by the pressures facing the industry generally,” says Elizabeth Wolfe, president of the CJN since 2013. “Declines in advertising and subscriptions put pressure on its ability to operate. I was disappointed the community didn’t provide more support. It seems that institutions and individuals assumed others would provide us the necessary support. Many people took the CJN for granted.”
With a circulation of only 31,000 and uneven editorial content, the paper never fully rebounded financially after first suspending publication in 2013 for a few months.
Adam Minsky, President and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, says he is “deeply saddened” by CJN’s closure. “For generations, it played an iconic role in uniting and inspiring our community,” Minsky says. “It’s terrible those pages will no longer be on our Shabbat tables.”
The plight of Jewish newspapers and Jewish journalism touches a chord in many, as reflected in interviews conducted for this article with people in several countries. It also shows in the spate of recent news articles, heartfelt columns and editorials, and webinars devoted to the subject.
Alan Abbey, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, has long been interested in, and studied, Jewish newspapers.
“Jewish media should be an essential component of Jewish communities,” says Abbey, a former executive at the Jerusalem Post. “In many cases, they’re not. They’re becoming irrelevant for a complicated set of reasons, including assimilation, mainstream media coverage of Jewish issues, and a lack of independence, resources and skills.
“Community Jewish media, as we understand it today, could die, leaving a news desert in Jewish communities. But new technology also offers opportunities to create quality journalism for less money than required in the past,” Abbey says.
Craig Burke is the CEO of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes the Washington Jewish Week and the Baltimore Jewish Times and has a custom media division serving other Jewish publications. In recent years, his publications have put a heavier focus on engaging readers with strong digital content and on audience development via websites, email databases and social media.
“Until the pandemic, things were fine,” says Burke, who’s based in Washington. “Since mid-March, we’re experiencing decreases in advertising revenue.”
Burke is also the President of the American Jewish Press Association, whose 109 members include 50 Jewish publications, all of which face a difficult period ahead.
“Many Jewish publications and journalists will need to be much more savvy with digital media, which unfortunately hasn’t generated the revenue that print traditionally brought in. To survive, they have to find ways to invent new revenue streams. Fundraising and digital media revenue streams are key. Most important, they must evaluate their operational structure and find ways to be efficient,” says Burke.
Amid the crisis afflicting Jewish newspapers, there’s a growing recognition that Jewish journalism is essential to the life of a healthy community, even if it requires philanthropic help. Pre-coronavirus, some Jewish papers, such as the J in San Francisco, became a 501c3 federal non-profit to attract foundation grants and major donors who could benefit from a publication’s tax-exempt status.
Across the Atlantic Sea
In Britain, home to 265,000 Jews, the two main national circulation weeklies — the Jewish Chronicle, which began publishing in 1841, and the Jewish News — have a new lease on life, both in print and online, despite their concurrent near-death experience in April. This after a new consortium purchased the former and the latter’s owner committed himself to its continuation.
“I’m concerned for the viability of Jewish media,” says Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “The print sector in this country has suffered in the digital world and the Jewish media is not immune from this. When you add the demographics of an aging community, there are clearly commercial problems for Jewish media — and that’s even before one adds in the effects of the coronavirus crisis.”
From her vantage, without Jewish journalism, the community would be much weaker.
“The Jewish media, both online and in print, has a vital function in our community, in providing news, a platform for informed comment and analysis and a campaigning role,” she adds. “This was particularly important recently during the antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party.”
Across the English Channel in France, Jewish newspapers today have a far less important presence in the Jewish community of 450,000 people than in Britain, in part due to Jewish radio stations, most of which began in the 1980s after the government opened up the airwaves to private groups. In major cities, there’s at least one Jewish station, which has no equivalent in other Diaspora countries.
“French radio stations occupy a central place in the life of French Jews,” says veteran journalist, Bernard Abouaf, who heads the Paris-based Radio Shalom, which is financed totally by advertising. “It’s often an important part of their Jewish reality, like the Jewish day school for their children or their synagogue.”
The few Jewish newspapers still publishing in France — the most prominent of which is Actualité Juive — are suffering as the country’s entire print media is in crisis, made worse by the recent lockdown when copies couldn’t be distributed and ad revenue shrank. In contrast, French Jewish radio stations, also available on the internet, saw their ratings increase with their listeners homebound.
“French Jews have a huge need to express themselves and to be heard,” Abouaf adds. “They have the feeling that nobody outside the community listens to them when it comes to their concerns over anti-Semitism, media coverage of Israel or even the practice of their religion. They have the impression of being hit with information and news coverage that seem to them wrong. With Jewish radio, they can hear voices other than those they hear in the French media.”
According to former businessman Francis Kalifat, President of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), French Jewish newspapers were slower than their mainstream counterparts to adapt to the rise of the internet and social media and devise a new business model. The result was a decrease in readership and in the influence they once exerted in the community, which in turn reduced their ad revenue, sinking several publications while new online initiatives gained traction.
Six months ago, a committee formed to save Actualité Juive, which was founded in 1981 and had been on the ropes in recent years, publishing only 17,000 copies each week. A gala fundraising event attracted leaders in the community and achieved its goal of providing AJ with resources to transition to a more digital, online operation.
In recent years, Kalifat has convened members of the Jewish media (print, radio and internet) for a meeting in Paris during which publishers, editors and writers discuss their common challenges and concerns for the future of Jewish journalism in France.
“Jewish media with professional journalists remains essential for informing the community, putting into perspective events and ideas,” says Kalifat. “It brings a fairer, more accurate assessment of the situation in the Middle East, often correcting the more partisan coverage of events we see in other media.”
For its part, CRIF has become a publisher of sorts. They have a designated team that produces a daily online newsletter and are extremely active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
Dawn of a new (Jewish) media era in South Africa?
In South Africa, the current Jewish media landscape is a far cry from what it was a generation ago, due to both journalistic changes and a dwindling community due to aging and emigration. Whereas there were three Jewish weeklies 35 years ago when the country had more than 100,000 Jews, today there’s one, the South African Jewish Report (SAJR), serving a tightly-knit community half the size of what it used to be.
Although carrying news from other parts of the country, the SAJR largely serves Johannesburg’s Jewish community, which constitutes about two-thirds of South Africa’s 52,000 Jews. The other main Jewish population centers, in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, have their own monthly publications.
A major study last year of the country’s Jewry highlighted the SAJR’s strong market penetration. Nearly half (48 percent) read it frequently while another 31% read it occasionally. Since mid-March, like all businesses, the SAJR has had to adjust to the reality imposed by COVID-19.
“During the lockdown, we’ve tightened our belts and grown into a different space,” says Peta Krost Maunder, editor since 2017, who earlier in her career was a reporter in Israel at the Jerusalem Post. “We’re working on a skeleton staff and have cut back hugely on freelancers. We’ve reduced our weekly print run for now as people can’t access it in the normal places. We’re pointing people to our website and our online edition which has been receiving far greater traffic.”
Circumstances have compelled the SAJR to broaden its focus and audience through new channels.
“We’ve created a massive Zoom and YouTube platform that’s reaching not only our South African Jewish community, but Jews around the world and the rest of South Africa,” she adds. “We’ve tackled tough issues in panel discussions and had lighthearted fun evenings, sometimes drawing 17,000 people and raising much money for those in need, both in our community and in the greater South African community. I don’t believe there’s another media house in the world doing this, especially not three times a week.”
The role of Jewish media remains constant despite its evolution as it seeks to retain a solid readership in the face of constant competition for attention from other media.
“A Jewish community newspaper should be a broad tent that reflects, within reason, a full spectrum of views, whether on Israel, religion, politics or internal community affairs,” says Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, who’s based in Johannesburg.
“It should also be independent, without being answerable to any particular faction or interest group. That being said, adopting a strident ‘truth above all else, publish and be damned’ approach is inadvisable. I believe a good Jewish newspaper can help shape and maintain its community, perhaps even more today given the growing challenge outside Israel of communities trying to resist assimilation,” says Kahn.
Challenges Down Under
Opinions differ on whether Jewish media should function as a type of public square in which there’s fierce debate and strong reporting as opposed to serving more as a vehicle of advocacy and avoiding accountability journalism.
In many countries, there’s often been a tension between those favoring their Jewish newspaper not to ruffle feathers and those who prefer a purveyor of truth and independent reporting. In communities where the newspapers are beholden to the local Federation for funding and other services, the quality of journalism suffers.
“I don’t see our paper as being an advocate for the community since it’s not read by other communities,” says Robert Magid, publisher of the Australian Jewish News since purchasing it in 2007. “It has an advocacy role within the community, countering inaccurate information and promoting Israel… We have, when we felt appropriate, criticized actions of the Israeli government or Israeli organizations. Writers are invited to write about various themes and letter-writers often present a variety of opinions.”
Many of Australia’s 115,000 Jews, split mostly between Melbourne and Sydney, see the AJN as a connective tissue to their Jewish identity and sense of community. At one time, the paper was highly lucrative, in part due to a hot real estate market which generated considerable advertising revenue before a downturn in recent years. The market was just starting to come back when COVID-19 struck.
“The paper isn’t profitable at the moment,” says Magid. “We’ll probably have to reduce costs for it to remain viable. We have just appointed a new managing director who has ideas on how to expand the range of activities associated with the AJN. We are forever optimistic.”
Unite and conquer?
The AJN is the latest of seven Jewish newspapers around the world that have entered into a partnership agreement with The Times of Israel to share content. The initiative was launched in 2015 when the New Jersey Jewish Standard became the first partner. It expands the digital footprint of both sides to increase readership which translates into greater ad revenue.
“Local Jewish journalism is incredibly important,” says David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel. “The local Jewish paper is one of the core elements that help keep a community thriving and bind it together.
“In my case, growing up in London, the Friday afternoon or evening norm was sitting around and reading the local Jewish paper to know what’s going on in your community, who’s been born, who’s gotten engaged and who’s died and so on,” Horovitz says, “what in Britain they used to call ‘hatched, matched and dispatched.’ But you also read it for all the things that serious journalism does — holding people in authority to account, telling good stories, informing. These are crucial roles that good Jewish newspapers perform.”
Despite the obstacles, Horovitz is hopeful for Jewish media’s future.
“The challenge for Jewish newspapers is somehow continuing to provide an essential function and being economically able to do that. Jewish weeklies have a better chance of surviving in print as well as online because of the Shabbat element,” he says. “Many Jewish readers won’t use the internet or a computer on Shabbat.”
“Also, the Friday night meal and the family tradition of sitting down and finding out what’s been going on in your community during Shabbat give Jewish weeklies a better chance of faring well even in this very difficult era. If they can build a presence online, they can survive. It’s very difficult, and really important,” Horovitz says.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, has studied and written about Jewish newspapers and last year led a taskforce for the Boston Jewish Federation on the difficulties of the local Jewish press.
“We often forget how important Jewish journalism is in shaping and educating a Jewish community,” Sarna told a webinar organized by The Forward in April on the topic.
“In many ways, Jewish newspapers and Jewish journalism have defined, maintained and promoted community. They’re also the vehicle through which we preserve history,” said Sarna.
“In my mind, if you care about Jewish community, you’ve got to care about good Jewish journalism. In many ways, if there’s not robust Jewish journalism, I’m not sure you’ll have a robust community,” said Sarna.