Los Angeles — During the past decade, as the Jewish world buzzed about a cultural renaissance, and Jewish themed T-shirts sold like brisket before Passover, a spate of new Jewish publications came into existence, aiming to feed the apparent hunger for Jewish culture. Now, the heady goals of those publications have been brought down to earth as many have gone out of business.
During the past two months, Jewish Living, the Jewish women’s lifestyle magazine that launched only a year ago to great fanfare, announced that it was closing, while the World Jewish Digest, a Chicago-based Jewish news monthly, informed some of its writers that the publication would stop printing, at least for the moment. Back in June, the Atlanta-based American Jewish Life magazine met its own demise. (Meanwhile, at the end of September, the New York Sun, a daily newspaper with a strong Jewish bent and a former Forward editor at the helm, closed its doors.)
These magazines all came about as a younger generation of Jews began to identify with their Judaism through culture — including music, literature, or art. Among the first signs of this trend was the irreverent pop culture magazine Heeb, which was founded in 2001 and continues to have a strong place on the Jewish cultural map. The success of Heeb and other youth-driven ventures such as JDub Records, an independent Jewish music label, led many to see a market for more explicitly Jewish publications.
“The reclamation of Jewish identity took many forms,” said Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a founder of Guilt & Pleasure, a quarterly journal of Jewish ideas. “From the startup of record labels, to a slew of unbelievable novels, to a cluster of new, differing voices in the form of magazines — young people were hungry to make meaning and reinforce Jewish identity and experience community on their own terms.”
People who know the publications that have failed say that they confronted the same difficult financial conditions facing many publications nowadays as advertising revenue moves on to the Internet. In addition, many of these Jewish ventures relied on deep-pocketed benefactors who have been hit hard during the recent economic downturn. But none of that blunts the disappointment of the failed high hopes that created these publications.
“It’s not the trajectory I would have hoped for,” said Daniel Zimerman, the founder of Jewish Living, referring to the closure of his magazine. “I think our readers are really devastated and disappointed,” he said, citing the nearly 5,000 e-mails he received from readers who lamented its demise.
To be sure, in spite of the recent closings of Jewish print publications, the news is not all bad for independent Jewish media. Along with the print publications that were created over the last decade were also a number of online Jewish publications such as Nextbook, a Jewish cultural review that is run by a former Forward editor, and Jewcy, a more irreverent Web site. Both sites have recently picked up steam online. And NY Blueprint, a Web-based Jewish event guide that also puts out a quarterly magazine, expanded in September to Los Angeles, where it launched LosAngelesblueprint.com.
Media analysts say that Web-based publications have been able to survive because of the far less costly financial structure of operating on the Internet. Jeff Bercovici, a media reporter at Portfolio magazine, said in an e-mail that Internet publications, as opposed to print publications, “don’t have huge fixed costs in the first place to get trapped under when revenues fall.”
“It’s also a question of where the readers are going,” he said. “It’s a lot easier right now to convince a potential backer that there’s a gap in the market for an online publication than for a print product.”
There are still older Jewish publications that operate with some subsidization, either from local Jewish federations or from private philanthropists and endowments. (The Forward derives revenues from circulation and advertising, in print and online, and is subsidized by an independent endowment.) Local Jewish newspapers, distributed by Jewish federations, seem to have set the model for what many people expect from a Jewish publication — namely, free distribution.
“Most people are used to receiving their Jewish newspapers by making donations to the federation,” said Steven I. Weiss, director of original programming and new media at the Jewish Channel, a new Jewish television network. “And if you don’t get a magazine by donating to federation, it’s unusual for the average Jewish consumer to subscribe to one.”
Weiss, a one-time Forward staffer, last year developed “Forward Forum,” a round-table discussion show with the newspaper’s reporters and editors that airs on the nascent channel.
All of the Jewish publications that have shut down in recent months have been funded by private investment. Jewish media observers noted that the effect of the downturn in the economy cannot be underestimated.
“Some of these publications have been very dependent on individual financial angels who aren’t looking to make their primary income as publishers, and are willing, as a form of tzedaka, to put a substantial amount of money into publications,” said Samuel Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University. “It’s often money they’ve made doing other things, as investors, or in real estate, and when the market tanks as it did over the last several months, that kind of discretionary income evaporates.”
Zimerman, who founded Jewish Living, said that his magazine — with a newsstand price of $4.95 and a circulation of 100,000 — faltered because its investors declined to continue funding it. According to Zimerman, the magazine had burned through nearly all of the $4 million he’d raised in initial capital from Canadian investors. Those investors, he said, were primarily in the real estate business.
Zimerman, a 42-year-old advertising creative director from Toronto, and his wife launched Jewish Living in November 2007, as a Jewish answer to O Magazine or Martha Stewart Living. They hoped that Jewish women of all stripes — from the Modern Orthodox to the intermarried — would flock to the bimonthly glossy to find everything from tips on Hanukkah entertaining to Passover Seder planning.
Jewish Living’s problems are not ones that are restricted to the Jewish media market. Bercovici noted that far more established magazines than Jewish Living — most recently, CondeNast’s CosmoGirl — have shut down due to the icy climate for print media.
In the case of American Jewish Life, which was launched seven years ago as Atlanta Jewish Life, the details of its closure are not clear. Benyamin Cohen, the editor of the magazine — which changed names when it changed ownership — declined to comment.
The publication had not been wanting for journalistic success. In 2005 it was designated the best magazine in Atlanta by the local alternative weekly; in 2006, it featured a cover story on the difficulties faced by Jewish soldiers in the U.S. military. A source familiar with the publication’s inner workings said that the punchy lifestyle magazine was in range of hitting its financial marks. According to the source, the magazine had an Atlanta subscription base of 10,000 with several thousand more around the country. The magazine stumbled, the source said, when it was unable to enact a national strategy of creating regional editions.
The World Jewish Digest, which had a regular roster of prominent Jewish writers, claimed that it had a national circulation of 250,000. Some contributors were told that because of the financial crisis, the publication was shutting down until February 2009. The associate publisher of World Jewish Digest, Jill Sevelow, also said in an e-mail to the Forward that the magazine would re-launch in the winter.
“It is currently anticipated that the print publication of the World Jewish Digest will be re-launched nationally in February, 2009,” Sevelow said.
In spite of the youth-driven Jewish cultural explosion that set the groundwork for many of these publications, by sheer numbers, the American Jewish population is still decidedly older. And for every energized, culture-hungry young Jew, there are just as many — if not more — who are unaffiliated.
“We face the same challenges that Jewish agencies face, which is an aging community where younger people are less engaged,” said Elana Kahn-Oren, the president of the American Jewish Press Association and editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, referring to Jewish publications. “We also face what other news media face, with younger readers going to new media, which is uncharted territory and not yet profitable. And then there’s the economy.”