Editorial | Coronavirus claims another victim: Jewish journalism
There is so much to mourn the loss of these days: our inability to be around communal tables for Seder tonight, our freedom to gather for brises and bnei mitzvah, our confidence in the future — and, most of all, every individual taken by the terrible Covid-19.
But save some grief for the Jewish Chronicle, which announced Wednesday that it was laying off its entire staff and “seeking liquidation,” in the British parlance; and the Canadian Jewish News, whose final edition is to publish on Thursday.
They are victims, too, of the novel coronavirus, which is stealing so much that we hold dear. The Chronicle, founded in 1841, is the world’s oldest Jewish news organization, a pillar of British Jewish life, respected across the Jewish and journalism landscapes. CJN was marking its 60th year as the national voice of the Canadian Jewish community.
Closer to home, New York’s Jewish Week sent out the latest in its series of fundraising pleas during this pandemic, saying it “had to lay off several staff members, furlough others and reduce hours for many.”
These tragic closures and widespread cutbacks across the news industry come as the need for independent, high-quality Jewish journalism has never been higher.
Readers are flocking to news sites in record numbers, relying on us for clear information on the virus; guides to how to live Jewishly while social distancing; personal reflections on every aspect of the crisis; even daily distractions (like this: Six Jewish backgrounds to download for your Zoom seder tonight). Readers are counting on us to hold our leaders — and ourselves — accountable: Jewish news organizations have aggressively pursued the story of how the outbreak hit Orthodox communities hard — and called foul when anti-Semites unfairly blamed those communities for violating social-distancing guidelines.
The brutally rapid-spreading coronavirus has only sped up and intensified the disruptions already afflicting Jewish and all local journalism. About half of all American journalism jobs had vaporized over the decade before this pandemic hit, and more than one in five local newspapers shuttered; two Jewish publications each in Chicago and South Florida closed, and many others shrunk to little more than glorified newsletters.
And while many foundations, philanthropists and companies have rushed to seed new life in the growing news deserts — like the American Journalism Project, ProPublica’s local journalism initiative, Report for America, and, just last week, Facebook’s $100 million fund to prop up organizations through the pandemic — Jewish journalism outlets are often deemed ineligible because they are religious.
Now, even strong Jewish newspapers are in dire straits because they rely not only on print distribution at public places that is not currently possible, but on advertising from local retailers who are closed for the duration.
Of course, they are struggling alongside other Jewish nonprofits making painful choices — the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto laid off 400 staff members last week, and my in-box is overflowing with desperate appeals from establishment organizations and startups alike.
The Forward empathizes with and understands those wrenching choices, from pre-pandemic life; our staff is half the size it was a few years ago, and we’re a reader-supported nonprofit still fighting for financial sustainability. The decision the company made a year ago to end print publication and lose beloved employees was so difficult, but it is what is allowing us now to meet this moment without laying anyone off or cutting anyone’s salary.
Instead, we are publishing nearly twice as much as we did each day before the outbreak, and expanding our national coverage. (Other digital publications, like Times of Israel and Jewish Insider, are also growing.)
Eventually, this pandemic will pass. When we go back to “normal,” though, we will not be the same, because we will know what we lost during this time — some freedoms, too many people, and also too many treasured institutions.
If there is a silver lining in this terrible time, it is the way we have been thrust into reassessing all aspects of our lives. Planning this very different Passover has helped us isolate the elements of the seder that are the most meaningful. Working remotely has made us focus more sharply on communication skills. Being with our children 24/7 has forced us to engage them in new ways. Having the stock market tumble has made us cut back on extras — but the clear need all around us has also inspired new commitments to Tikkun Olam, new priorities for our investment.
We are getting to the essence of everything, stripping away the extraneous. Journalism — Jewish journalism — is absolutely essential to our communities, to our democracy, now more than ever.
Jodi Rudoren is the editor-in-chief of the Forward.