TORONTO – A few years ago, the Canadian Jewish News appeared doomed to the fate of many other weekly Jewish newspapers worldwide. Readership was shrinking, advertising revenues were down sharply, and in the new, high-paced digital age, Canada’s flagship Jewish newspaper found itself less and less relevant.
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So in April 2013, when the board of directors said it would be ceasing publication, the announcement took few in the industry by surprise. But its readers were stunned.
“It reminded me of the lyrics from that old Joni Mitchell song,” recalls Elizabeth Wolfe, president of the board of the 56-year-old paper. “‘You don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone.’ Only when we were on the verge of closing did the community realize what a very valuable asset this paper was, and there was this huge public outcry.”
Or as the paper’s new editor-in-chief Yoni Goldstein notes: “Whether they were reading it or not, people were used to seeing it on the kitchen table.”
Responding to community pressure, the board revisited its decision and undertook a major reorganization effort to streamline and modernize operations. As part of that effort, dozens of veteran employees were let go and a small team of hungry young reporters was brought in. Money freed from the downsizing was invested in revamping the paper’s website.
The result is a sleek publication that hardly resembles its prim-and-proper former self. The headlines are bigger, the visuals more prominent, and the content far more racy.
“There was a time when this newspaper saw its job as protecting the community,” notes Goldstein. “Today it sees its job as informing the community.”
And as Wolfe observes, that often involves covering topics once considered taboo. “The Canadian Jewish News was once part of the ‘zay shtil’ generation,” she says, using to the Yiddish term for “keep quiet.” “It avoided criticism, and it avoided controversy. Those days are past.”
Evidence of this revolution is found in the framed front-page covers of the new and revamped CJN that adorn Goldstein’s office wall. “That photo of a Jew wrapped in a gay pride flag with a Star of David on it,” he points to one of his personal favorites. “You would never have seen something like that in the old days.”
Neither would subscribers have read stories that question the business practices of kashrut-certification agencies. Or, for that matter, a front-page profile of an Orthodox woman who dares to call herself a rabbi.
As part of the changes, the CJN has brought in three new art critics. It now features a regular satire column that lampoons, among other sacred cows, the rabbinical establishment and the Jewish federation. Last Purim holiday, the paper published a special edition inspired by the popular satirical magazine The Onion. It now holds a weekly debate on its pages between rabbis of the different movements. And on its opinion pages, it carries an unusually diverse range of voices.
The changes are paying off, says Wolfe. “We are now able to sustain ourselves through advertising and subscription revenues and have money to invest in new projects." Circulation hasn't grown significantly, she admits, but "readership is solid," and online readership is up, with 200,000 hits a month, "which for us is very big.” Headquartered in Toronto with an office in Montreal, the CJN today has 31,000 paid subscribers.
Critical to all these changes, says Wolfe, was the choice of editor. “We knew if we were going to survive, we needed someone young, connected to the community, who could hear new voices,” she says.
Goldstein fit the bill but when he was first offered the job, his inclination was to decline. “I’d worked in print long enough to know where things were heading,” he says. “But when I understood they were interested in modernizing the paper and turning it into a forum for generating conversation on difficult topics, I was sold.”
Married with two young children, the 35-year-old Goldstein, an Orthodox hipster of sorts, grew up in Toronto, where he was active in the Bnei Akiva youth movement. In addition to a stint at The Jerusalem Report, he has worked at two prominent Canadian publications, The National Post and Macleans.
The CJN was founded in 1960 by M.J. Neurenberger, a supporter of the right-wing Herut party, and sold in 1971 to a group of prominent businessmen led by the late Ray Wolfe, Elizabeth’s father. It was subsequently incorporated as a non-profit. In January 2014, Goldstein took over from, Mordechai Ben-Dat, who had served as editor for several decades.
Today, the CJN is the only remaining English-language Jewish publication in Canada, after both The Jewish Tribune, a paper operated by Bnai Brith, and Shalom Toronto,a dual-English-Hebrew-newspaper serving the Israeli expat community, recently folded.
“More than anecdotally, I know we’re read beyond the Jewish community today,” says Goldstein, who presides over a staff of seven full-time reporters, and a network of freelancers. “There are also more people in my demographic, Canadian Jews in their 30s and 40s, who are reading it.”
Still, as a Jewish newspaper that serves a fairly traditional community, there are limits to how far it can push the envelope. As Wolfe notes, diversity of opinion is welcome at the newspaper so long as it abides by certain basic ground rules. “Those who don’t support a Jewish and democratic state in Israel, we don’t want to hear from,” she says.
As might be expected, not all readers are happy with the fact that the CJN has abandoned its traditional role as cheerleader of the Jewish community. “Some say we’ve gone too far to the right, and some say we’ve gone too far to the left,” Wolfe says. “But as long as I’m getting complaints from both sides, I’m OK with it."