What Would Ab. Do?

By Jane Eisner

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
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What would the legendary newspaper editor do in journalism today, when the business model that served him — and all of us — so well for so long has been completely upended? When readership is fragmented, attention spans have shrunk, and anyone with a blog address and an opinion can call himself a journalist?

I won’t pretend to answer that question with historical authority. The wooden desk that Abraham Cahan used during the 50 years when he was the Jewish Daily Forward now sits, rightly, in the office of Boris Sandler, who edits the Forverts, the Yiddish weekly that is Cahan’s direct heir. Sandler and the other Yiddishists in our Manhattan offices speak Cahan’s language, literally and figuratively, as they heroically work to maintain journalism in the idiom of a singular Jewish and American culture.

But still, the question has haunted me ever since I became editor of the Forward two years ago. Cahan contributed mightily to the evolution of American journalism in the 20th century, Jewish and secular, and I would give anything to be able to ask him for advice about the challenges posed in today’s media landscape.

Even before the term “engaging readers” became fashionable, Cahan knew how to involve readers and create a publication that was both immediately relevant and aspirational — reflecting the back-breaking struggles of an uprooted, immigrant community while guiding its members to rise above and go beyond it.

Cahan’s Forward was an enviable mix of what today we’d call highbrow and pedestrian, strewn with sensational stories of gambling, prostitution, scandal and all manner of misdeeds on the Lower East Side and elsewhere, along with erudite essays and the original work of such literary titans as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel. Not to mention the publication of masterpieces, such as “Madame Bovary,” that were translated into Yiddish and published serially to expose immigrant readers to the classics. Cahan’s newspaper, historian Kenneth Libo observed, “served as a university in print.”

It’s as if “Real Housewives” and the History Channel combined forces daily. And spoke to the same audience.

If I could conjure up a conversation with Cahan, perhaps over a glass tea at the Garden Restaurant around the corner from the legendary Forward Building on East Broadway (now upscale co-op apartments), I’d ask him about this — how, in a highly segmented media environment, we could possibly re-create a 21st-century version of the broad reach of his newspaper.

I suspect that one key was his intimate knowledge of, and appreciation for, his readers. He lifted them up without talking them down. He explained baseball and thermometers to greenhorns trying desperately to fit into America. He taught them how to use a handkerchief, wear a hat, make canned peaches, employ proper manners on the street. “Their dire lives were marked by struggle and frequently by self-doubt and concerns that their families and neighbors saw them as failures,” historian Lawrence Epstein wrote of Cahan’s readers. “The Forward gave them pride in themselves. They were, in its pages, struggling as a community. Theirs was not a lonely crowd.”

This deep connection was also forged by the financial underpinnings of the newspaper. The Forward, then and now, was published by the Forward Association, and though dependent on advertising and circulation for revenue, the newspaper has never sought to draw individual or corporate profit from its work. When it needed funds, the labor movement contributed; when it was flush with money, it returned the favor.

Now, as bankrupt newspapers flirt with various models of not-for-profit journalism, it’s almost quaint to point out what Cahan knew all along: that a newspaper is a public trust. How to nurture that trust in this fractured and unforgiving economic environment is another question I wish I could ask our founder.

What did Ab. do? Tell the American Jewish story better than anyone else, with independence, verve, commitment, creativity and empathy, helping generations of immigrants become Americans. Our story today is how the descendants of those Americans define themselves as Jews. Though the narrative has shifted, the mission remains as essential as ever.

Jane Eisner is the editor of the Forward.


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