Bloggers, Twitterers and Nonprofessionals! Oh, My!

By Rebecca Dube

Published April 08, 2009, issue of April 17, 2009.

A fundraising letter that was distributed by JTA and seemed to disparage bloggers and other online commentators has prompted quick backpedaling from JTA officials, demonstrating anew the perils of offending the Jewish blogosphere.

The kerfuffle began April 3 when fundraisers sent out an e-mail from JTA President Elisa Spungen Bildner, asking for donations to help support the venerable news service.

“Without a strong JTA,” Bildner’s letter warned in bold, underlined letters, “the storytelling will be left to bloggers, twitterers and non-professionals. Is this the best way for our future Jewish stories to be told and recorded?”

Bloggers, Twitterers and nonprofessionals answered this rhetorical question with a battle cry.

“I have no relationship with the JTA and unless a retraction is posted quickly, this email guarantees that I will never have one,” wrote Leah Jones of the Web site Leah in Chicago/Accidentally Jewish, one of dozens of bloggers who posted critical messages. “The JTA is one of the news services for the Jewish community and they have put a stake in the ground that a blogger has no right to tell the Jewish story.”

Unhappy bloggers linked to one another, amplifying their discontent. The JTA’s letter spread quickly via e-mail, Facebook and other social-networking sites.

Ironically, the first response from JTA came via Twitter, the micro-blogging Web site that allows users to share their thoughts with the world, 140 characters at a time.

A few hours after the blogtroversy began, JTA’s director of digital media, Daniel Sieradski, tweeted that he “agrees entirely that today’s JTA membership email was ill-advised and has made it known to the powers that be.”

Two days later, after a pause for the Sabbath, Sieradski followed up with a longer post on one of JTA’s blogs, bemoaning the fact that by creating a dichotomy where one does not necessarily exist, JTA had turned itself into “a straw man in the battle between old and new media.” Bildner soon followed suit with her own letter of apology, posted online. In it, she said she did not write or approve the wording of the letter that bore her name and signature.

“JTA’s point was not to insult new media practitioners but to stress the importance of supporting in-depth reporting, too,” Bildner’s written statement said. “On behalf of my staff, I apologize if we have unintentionally offended anyone.”

JTA publisher Mark Joffe said the fundraising letter was trying to express that traditional in-depth journalism still has value in a new media age, but that point was lost in the perceived slight against bloggers. JTA’s fundraising drive is currently on hold for Passover, and also to let the dust settle from the “hullabaloo,” Joffe said.

“We phrased something crudely, and we apologized,” Joffe said.

Some bloggers accepted the apology, but others remain unmollified.

“Neither one of the apologies addressed what upset me the most in the original letter, which was the storytelling comment,” Dan Brown, author of the eJewish Philanthropy blog, said in an interview with the Forward. “The implication in the fundraising letter is that only the JTA is capable of telling Jewish stories.… There are people who aren’t getting paid for blogging who have journalistic capabilities equal to or greater than people at the JTA.”

Brown said the JTA-blogger donnybrook is merely one small symptom of a much larger cultural shift being negotiated as the influence of new media grows and the power of traditional news media wanes.

“Despite the fact that JTA has incorporated blogs, I do think there is some tension between the blogging world and the JTA. I would expect the same tension occurs at The New York Times,” Brown said. “I don’t even remotely think this story has ended.”

JTA officials fervently hope that it has, or that at least they’ve laid this particular chapter to rest.

“It’s not a big deal. It was a stupid sentence about bloggers and Twitterers in a fundraising letter,” Sieradski said in a phone interview. “There’s so much more stuff of significance happening in the world.”

Still, he said, he and the JTA president apologized because the news organization did not want to antagonize the Jewish blogosphere.

“Jewish bloggers drive traffic to our Web site, and they are the people we’re trying to attract as a community,” he said. “If we offend them, even unintentionally, we want to correct that.”

But Sieradski said he thinks the online community overreacted on this one.

“Bloggers can be very sensitive,” Sieradski said. “They all get really hyper when someone criticizes them.”

Formerly a leading blogger known for his provocative commentary, Sieradski said he used to partake in the same sort of piling-on: “Now I’m learning what it feels like to get a taste of my own medicine.”

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com.



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