To understand how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect Jewish media, just look at non-Jewish media. For years now, the forces that have wreaked havoc, forced change and inspired innovation in the general media have done exactly the same in the confines of Jewish media.
Tens of thousands of journalists had already been laid off. Free digital news and social media feeds had already battled paywalls for eyeballs and attention spans. Print advertising and subscriptions had already tanked.
And then comes COVID-19, which has swept the last dollars from the table. How can you advertise events when there are no events? How can there be money for ads when there’s not enough for staff? When you can barely pay for rent, why pay for news? And if you were used to picking up your paper for free in your local theatre or deli, what happens when those doors are locked?
These dilemmas have brought hundreds of newspaper companies to their knees, and continue to challenge every media outlet– including Jewish ones.
That’s a problem for Jewish media, verging on a disaster – but only if you care about the Jewish future.
“Absent a responsible Jewish press, the multiplicity of interests, views, and commitments that characterize vibrant Jewish communities will find no common outlet,” historian Jonathan Sarna wrote in The Forward. “Instead, groups of like-thinking Jews will retreat into their own narrow silos, impervious to all who disagree with them.”
Jewish papers have been around in some form in America [since the 17th century]((https://www.jpost.com/opinion/we-must-save-jewish-newspapers-from-shutting-down-624575). They do more than record Jewish life: They shape it, lead it, and create the single best way into it.
The last National Jewish Population Survey, in 2001, found that for the majority of Jews in the vaunted 35-44 age range, the primary non-religious activity they engaged in was reading a Jewish periodical. Of these younger Jews, 47% belonged to a synagogue, 15% contributed to their local Federation, but 68% read a Jewish newspaper or magazine – and that was decades before the Internet made Jewish news even more ubiquitous and accessible.
In short, there simply is no community without communication.
Where does salvation lie? As in the general media, there are a few pathways forward. There will be consolidation: The best quality, best funded news organizations will survive and overtake the rest, just as few national news organizations can compete with the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
At the same time, the low cost of blogs, web sites, podcasts and video will seed crops of new media outlets, fracturing audiences by ideology, increasing diversity at the risk of divisiveness. Jewish organizations will become their own media, relaying the news as they see it, lacking anything approaching objectivity, or accountability.
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Earned revenue will be harder to come by, so the non-profit media model will predominate. Even then, the high cost of journalism will favor outlets with very deep-pocketed backers, either individuals or groups. Whether those outlets cleave to the principles of independent journalism or become extensions of their backers’ ideologies will depend, in the end, solely on the good intentions of the backers.
What isn’t up for question is the need for excellent, independent journalism to ensure a vibrant American Jewish future. How – and whether – such a thing is sustainable remains a dilemma for the Jewish community, and the Jewish future.
Rob Eshman is national editor of The Forward and the former publisher and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.
Can Jewish journalism survive? It’s up to you.