Bad news for the newspaper industry is nothing new. The demise of print has been part of the narrative of news about the media for so long it is barely worth commenting upon any longer. But the latest blow to journalism has nothing to do with the rise of the internet, the dominance of social media platforms or drastic shifts in the way most people get the news. The coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down economies around the world, hasn’t spared the publishing world. Revenue streams derived from advertising and subscriptions that were already anemic have dried up along with most other kinds of economic activity. Those outlets that haven’t already transitioned completely to web-only publishing are also experiencing catastrophic declines in circulation.
As a series of announcements in the last week confirmed, the crisis may be delivering the coup de grace to one particular niche of journalism: Jewish newspapers. This is a potential tragedy for Diaspora Jewish communities that have relied on periodicals that provided readers with local news and features and perspectives on broader issues with a compelling local connection that can’t be entirely duplicated by outlets with different priorities.
The announcement that Britain’s The Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish News, the country’s two leading Jewish weeklies, would shut down their operations this month shocked their readers. (On Tuesday, the Jewish Chronicle said there's a chance the two publications would merge and stay open.) Only days before that, The Canadian Jewish News also ceased publication. The pandemic is credited with having wrecked all three papers' already shaky finances.
Other Jewish papers are in similar trouble. One of America’s largest Jewish weeklies, The New York Jewish Week, published an “urgent appeal” to its readers on March 17 asking that they make an “emergency gift” to the publication to help it survive the pandemic. It is not alone, and if, as is likely, the coronavirus shutdown continues in the coming months, the toll it will exact on the roster of Jewish media outlets in North America and elsewhere will be considerable.
To generalize about Diaspora Jewish publications is a mistake. Some — like The JC, or the The Forward, a New York-based English language successor to a storied Yiddish predecessor and which abandoned print altogether and suffered massive staff cuts last year — were honored institutions with long histories. They run the gamut from large, well-read award-winning weekly papers that served large metropolitan regions and reported hard news, to those that were little more than newsletters that specialized in lauding donors and providing publicity for community events. The latter have often been derided as “weaklies” because they kowtowed to the whims of local organizations and large donors. But even those on the lower end of the Jewish journalism food chain still often supplied the glue that kept diverse communities together by providing a central address for local Jewish news as well as keeping track of life-cycle events and maintaining a community calendar.
They also provided a window on the great Jewish issues of the day as well as a forum for discussing them. As such, they exerted a powerful influence on the way Jews addressed problems and stimulated the kinds of dialogue essential to communal action on a variety of issues, not least that of Israel advocacy.
The rise of the internet set in motion a series of events that humbled once mighty daily newspapers as well as modest weekly publications that were once profitable businesses as well as essential sources of information for their readers. But the decline of Jewish newspapers was as much the result of changing Jewish demographics, as it was of an altered business environment.
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The spreading out of Jewish populations that were once concentrated in urban areas or a few suburban neighborhoods played havoc with the ability of newspapers to sell ads.
The exceptions to this rule point to a broader truth about the demographic implosion of non-Orthodox Jewry, especially in the United States. Those publications that cater to ultra-Orthodox readers — who do still live in compact communities — have thrived. As the levels of affiliation have declined exponentially among those who were not Orthodox, so, too has their interest in reading Jewish publications and virtually all those papers that regard this sector as their main audience have suffered.
The only viable business model left for these outlets is to survive via philanthropy. In sectarian as well as secular journalism, donors with a desire to promote a particular political point of view or vision of the press have become their only lifelines. Non-profit foundations created to keep them afloat up now sustain opinion magazines like The Nation on the left and National Review on the right.
Indeed, The Kessler Foundation, a philanthropic fund which owns The Jewish Chronicle, is attempting to purchase the titles of both of Britain’s failed Jewish weeklies from the liquidators of the papers’ remaining assets in order to publish a single new merged paper that will hopefully have a better chance of survival in the current bleak economic environment.
But the problem facing Jewish media now is that the paradigm of a paper that attempts to serve all segments of a community rather than being oriented toward only one segment — be it denominational or political — is not likely to appeal to most potential donors. In an era of boutique philanthropy and hyper-partisanship in which such ecumenism is seen as unappealing or out of date, raising money for a traditional format is increasingly difficult.
That’s even more true now that the coronavirus pandemic has devastated most Jewish organizations as well as put many middle class Jews in danger of falling into poverty. Providing social services is a higher priority than resuscitating fading Jewish publications, especially with fewer philanthropic dollars available due to many donors feeling the pinch themselves.
This means that when the dust clears in the wake of the pandemic, far fewer of the publications that once played a unifying role in their communities will have survived.
While some successors will spring up to try to fill the void, the lack of such a central address will hurt the ability of Jews to pull together in crises and further weaken efforts to address issues like anti-Semitism or Israel, where unity has already been undermined by factionalism and politics. Though they were not always appreciated, Jewish weekly newspapers that are now being pushed toward extinction will be badly missed.
Jonathan S. Tobin edited North American Jewish weeklies for many years and is now the editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin