A former colleague of mine from the Forward once mentioned that his mother, raised in New Jersey, is a lifelong reader of the New Jersey Jewish News, where I am now the editor-in-chief. Not only a reader, but a close one, who even noticed when I changed the little picture that accompanies the column I write. Oh — and she lives in Maryland.
“She moved there recently?” I asked.
“In 1962,” he said.
That’s the story I tell when people ask me about the difference between a local community newspaper and a national paper like the Forward. The Forward tackles global and cultural issues for an audience that skews toward Jewish newsmakers and opinion-shapers. It’s an elite audience, but not one that would necessarily notice, or care, that a columnist changed his picture.
Papers like mine — local in scope and distribution, often founded by the Jewish federations in the communities we serve — thrive on these kinds of community connections even as we foster them. In a world of fraying associations and intra-communal strife, we try to serve as a meeting place, bulletin board and town crier.
Today, however, Jewish community federations around the country are taking a hard look at the papers they either own or heavily subsidize through bulk subscriptions. With fundraising campaigns tanking, some federation boards are finding it hard to justify subventions for what the business pages are telling them is a dying business anyway. When members of the American Jewish Press Association meet in Chicago later this month for their annual convention, they’ll likely be talking about the papers that have been suspended (New Mexico Jewish Link), gutted (Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle) or are in immediate danger. And many will be wondering whether theirs will be next.
To be sure, some will hardly miss us. And I’ll admit that the local Jewish press often fails to tell stories more compelling than who had a baby, who got married and who died (“hatch, match and dispatch,” as it is known in the trade).
But if Jewish weeklies are allowed to fade, American Jewish life will have been diminished.
Jewish communities are as much a state of mind as they are a geographic fact. They are webs of public observance and personal practice, the religious and the secular, machers and the rest of us. Jewish weeklies serve a coalescing function, reminding readers what they share as residents of a community, and as members of a people.
Jewish newspapers tell the kinds of stories that other publications, outlets and news sites can’t or won’t tell. We report on the trends, people and institutions that may not make headlines outside our communities but have enormous significance within the “family.”
A good Jewish newspaper also encourages activism — it can rile people up to demand more of their leaders, do a good deed or defend the things they believe in. It shows them the ways their philanthropy can benefit the less fortunate. That was why federations went into the newspaper business in the first place.
A Jewish newspaper is a friendly, unthreatening and commitment-free way to reach Jews who are reluctant to enter “typical” institutional settings.
Finally, the Jewish press is one of the last settings to represent Jewish community in all its diversity. Within our pages, Orthodox must confront Reform, hawks must deal with doves, upstarts can learn from veterans. It’s a conversation that is happening almost nowhere else.
Is helping to sustain this kind of conversation the business of a Jewish philanthropic fund? Look at it this way: Some in journalism are looking to the nonprofit business model to save the profession. Champions of nonprofit newsrooms like ProPublica and local news sites like MinnPost.com say it is a compelling philanthropic interest to sustain the instruments of democracy and community identity. Federations can boast that they got there first.
When I left my previous position as managing editor of the Forward, I brought with me a framed quotation by Irving Howe: “The single greatest journalistic quality of the Forward was the sustained curiosity it brought to the life of its own people.”
It’s a quote that represents the aspirations of anyone in the ethnic press. If Jewish newspapers are allowed to wither, that curiosity will be gone, and American Jewry will have lost a sustained conversation on how we live, pray, eat, argue, suffer, celebrate and help one another become a Jewish community.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor-in-chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News.