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‘Just unsubscribed from this newsletter’ and other tales from my inbox

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The email arrived at 2:07 p.m. last Friday, seven minutes after my weekly column was blasted to more than 117,000 people. “Just unsubscribed from this newsletter,” it said.

Oof. Not the kind of “questions/feedback” I hope to hear.

It’s become a treasured part of my Friday afternoons, seeing your reactions to my musings and other things going on at the Forward — and writing back. I always respond to readers who email, and — when I see them — social-media posts raising questions or concerns about our coverage.

It feels like an integral part of the implied contract of practicing journalism: if someone has taken the time to not only read what we publish but write to us about it, they deserve a response.

It’s also an incredible opportunity to better understand how people experience our work — and explain the thinking behind it, part of the radical transparency that marks my style of leadership (and life). I’ve also found over three decades in this business that it almost always takes the sting out of even the harshest attacks, reminding critics that we are individual humans doing this work, not faceless institutions.

It turned out to be a banner week for reader responses, so I thought I’d share a few choice ones. But first, a visit to the wayback machine — pre-Twitter! — for a bit of backstory.

The year was 2003. I was the New York Times correspondent covering Howard Dean’s maverick campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Remember Howard Dean? Former governor of Vermont? Doctor pushing universal health care? And, yes, the Dean Scream — but this is before all that.

Dean’s was a movement campaign, filled with particularly passionate devotees, many of them political outsiders. This was the blog era, and some hardy band of Deaniacs started one devoted to deconstructing my every word, called “Wilgoren Watch” (this was before the husband and I combined our surnames, which is another story altogether). My inbox also got very full with their feedback — and those of other readers.

Campaign reporting is one of the most intense and important jobs in journalism — and also one of the most tedious, endless days dotted with a lot of downtime on buses and planes and drab hotel conference rooms. The Times and many other outlets had websites by then, of course, but we were not yet in a fully 24/7 news cycle. And so, after deadline or between events, as we flew from one early-primary state to another, I took to answering reader email.

(Later, in the months leading up to the general election, I also planned most of our wedding aboard John Kerry’s campaign plane, but that, too, is another story.)

I don’t recall the specifics of those emails about Howard Dean, but it’s where I first learned the importance of putting a face and voice behind the byline; of admitting mistakes when you make them — correcting factual errors immediately in published articles, but also just acknowledging that there might have been a better way to phrase something; and, most essentially, of listening to your audience.

Flash forward to 2012, when I became Jerusalem bureau chief of The Times, often described — at least in that pre-Trump era — as the most scrutinized job in journalism. Twitter was in full tweet by then, and there were advocacy groups on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict committed to tearing apart how the media covered it.

Some of this criticism was laced with death threats and personal attacks, but except for the obvious cut-and-paste letter-writing campaigns or the most profanity-filled diatribes about my looks, I continued to respond. It was a great privilege to get to report and write about this incredibly important topic for this huge international platform — and a great responsibility, which I believe included answering reader email.

At the Forward, this responsibility is even more central. We are, as we have been for nearly 125 years, a community news organization — the voice of, by, for and about American Jews. And our communities are more diverse, divided and distracted than ever. So readers have a lot of different takes on what we do, who we should be. They all deserve my attention — and my response.

Which brings us back to this week’s critics.

On Tuesday morning, it was leftist Jewish Twitter, questioning our original headline on an Opinion column published the day before about Sally Rooney’s refusal to have her latest novel translated into Hebrew.

Rooney, a celebrated millennial Irish writer, had just issued a statement clarifying that she had no problem with Hebrew as a language but would not allow translation by an Israeli publisher because she supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a way to advocate for Palestinian human rights and independence. Some sympathizers with BDS accused us of purposely focusing on Hebrew to make her seem antisemitic.

Not so. We published a news item about the statement, updated the OpEd headline and body to reflect the clarification, and attached an Editor’s Note to the top explaining that the original was based on the available information at the time.

I responded to the Tweets in the same vein — and noted that all the hubbub may ultimately be about a distinction without a difference. Rooney said in her statement that she is open to selling the Hebrew rights to her book if she could do so without violating the boycott movement’s principles, but it remains unclear if there is a non-Israeli publisher who could translate and find a market for it.

Back in my inbox, a note came Wednesday from David Nidetch, whose mother founded Weight Watchers and had been featured that morning in “On this day in history,” perhaps my favorite section of Benyamin Cohen’s brilliant daily briefing, “Forwarding the News.” (If you’re not getting it, sign up here.)

“I love that you acknowledged my mom’s birthday today,” David wrote. “She certainly has made a huge impact on the world and deserves to be recognized by correct information.” Correct being the key word: he went on to say we had misspelled her name, and also quibbled with whether she was the lone or co-founder of the weight-loss program that had changed so many bodies and lives (including my own).

The brief item had used Nidetch’s name four times, including one with a typo — Nidtech — that I didn’t catch.

I was instantly brought back to my very first newspaper internship, at the Middlesex News in suburban Boston in the summer of 1990. The editors had drilled into us the importance of getting every single name and age right, especially in obits, which sometimes listed numerous relatives as survivors. Those survivors would read those words at a vulnerable moment, they pointed out, often clipping and saving them for generations.

Plus, it was critical to our broader credibility: any reader who sees their own name or one they know spelled incorrectly would not be unreasonable to think: “If they can’t get these little things right, how can I trust them on the big things?”

I told David about the Middlesex News in my note back apologizing. He responded, as readers almost always do, with kindness: “Have a great day and thanks again.”

As for Mr. “Just unsubscribed from this newsletter,” he was upset about my abortion story. His was one of exactly two complaints I received about this column, amid a flood of generous, heartfelt emails praising my honesty and courage. But two is two. “As a Shabbat story,” he said, “I felt this was wholly inappropriate.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I wrote back. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how/where/when to tell this story, and ultimately tried to balance a concern for that reaction against the fact that I have built up a loyal readership of the newsletter. I tried to split the difference by only including the top of the column in the body of the newsletter, so those not interested could scroll down to the other elements without engaging the full story.”

I also noted that Shabbat was still hours away, and that the story was “about family and hard decisions and health and politics,” all of which “we talk about at our Shabbat tables.” And I told him I appreciated the feedback.

He was back in my inbox the next morning. “I did not expect, yet appreciated, the personal response you sent,” he said. “Fortunately, I reasoned that if you took the time to respond personally to my cryptic cancellation, I should certainly return the courtesy of reading your full piece. I am glad I did. It was excellently written, nuanced, human and dealt with some of the more difficult — and under-discussed— aspects of abortion.”

And, yes, he re-subscribed to this newsletter.

Shabbat Shalom! Send me your questions/feedback: rudoren@forward.com


Your Weekend Reads

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Your Turn

Sally Rooney Israel boycott and more abortion stories

Reader responses are not just for the inbox anymore. These days, they are a meaningful part of digital journalism. We regularly call out for and publish reactions to news events to showcase your diverse perspectives and experiences.

Last week, I invited readers in this space to share their (Jewish) stories of abortion and other choices. Because, as I noted in my column, we should not be afraid to talk about it. Yesterday, we published nine such stories — each, as Mr. Resubscribed might put it, nuanced and human.

We also fielded a flood of reaction to the Rooney story. It was too interesting to keep to ourselves, so we published these excerpts, another reminder of the divisions in our communities, especially when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

Thank you for your input and your readership. You can always share your thoughts with us via editorial@forward.com. And expect a response!



Inside the Forward: Gala time!

This is my last pitch in this newsletter for you to join us on Wednesday for a celebration of Jewish-American storytelling — and our most important fundraiser of the year. I know you’ve gotten a lot of email about this. I know Benyamin’s been flogging it in “Forwarding.” I know you know. But I have to say it one more time.

We’re a reader-supported nonprofit with an operating deficit. Independent journalism is a pillar of democracy and civil discourse. Independent Jewish journalism is a rare commodity critical to our communities.

If you like this newsletter, if you want the Forward to be here for your grandchildren as it was for your grandparents, please register and donate now.

And it’s not just a fundraiser — we’re putting on a great show for you, too. My exclusive interview with David Duchovny about his grandfather’s Yiddish writing. Original stories by Etgar Keret and Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The Ethiopian-Israeli rock star Gili Yalo and the Yiddish musician Daniel Kahn. Plus our auction, in which you can have my daughter, Shayna — frequent star of this very newsletter — design your kid’s Mitzvah logo.

Please join us. I promise I won’t ask again — until next year.

Author

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of the Forward in 2019. Before that, she spent more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, email rudoren@forward.com and sign up here to receive her weekly newsletter, “Looking Forward,” in your inbox.

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