How the Storied Jewish Newspaper Forward Ran Low on Cash, Miracles

With a dangerously dwindling endowment, the publication last week ended its print edition and fired 20% of its staff, including its editor in chief

A cover of The Forward newspaper from 1936.
Library of Congress

A decade ago, the publisher of the Forward asked his board to believe in miracles.

“We are supposed to believe in miracles; we are forbidden to rely on them,” Sam Norich wrote in an email to the board of the Forward Association on December 25, 2008. “That means that miracles only happen if we do our part to help them along.”

Just six years removed from selling its radio signal for a reported $78 million, the Forward began that September with $63 million in invested assets. By the end of the month, amid Lehman Brothers’ collapse and a plummeting stock market, that number had dropped even further, to $54 million. A couple months later, the board would discover that it lost $355,000 in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

But Norich had good news: Months earlier, the Forward had appointed a new editor, Jane Eisner. Norich said Eisner, an alumna of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “augurs well for the future of the Forward.”

Ten years later, the picture looks grimmer: Last Wednesday, news broke that after 121 years, the Forward would be ceasing its print edition and laying off 20% of its staff – 10 people including Eisner. The Yiddish edition, which has continued printing alongside the English paper, will also cease printing and maintain its digital presence. Adam Langer and Helen Chernikoff, the publication’s culture and news editors, respectively, will run the newsroom during the search for a new editor in chief.

“Today was a tough day,” Rachel Fishman Feddersen, the Forward’s publisher since 2016, told the newsroom in an email a day later.

For years, the Forward has been running a loss of about $5 million per year, financial documents show. In 2015, the Forward transferred the vast majority of its assets to a new, separate nonprofit called the Forward Fund, which allowed the publication to protect its assets in case of a debilitating libel suit.

The Forward Fund’s records show a 2016 drop in net assets from $44.3 million to $38.5 million. In 2017, it broke even by virtue of $4.9 million in “Funds drawn from investment accounts.”

Neither the Forward Association nor the Fund made its 2017 financial records available to JTA. But Feddersen told JTA that at the end of 2017 the Forward Fund had about $37.7 million in the bank.

Norich, who was the Forward’s publisher from 1997 to 2016, declined to comment to JTA, as did Jacob Morowitz, the chair of the Forward’s board. Mark Mlotek and Ron Sernau, the current and past board treasurers, did not return calls seeking comment.

The death of the Forward’s print edition and the layoffs cap decades of financial bleeding at one of America’s most storied Jewish newspapers. And they usher in an era of uncertainty.

Feddersen told JTA that the changes were a necessary pivot toward the way people consume news now, enabling the publication to maintain its reporting standards while staying financially stable.

“Running a media business is really expensive,” she told JTA in a phone interview Thursday. “The Forward has been running at a loss since 1945 and it has supported itself by selling off assets… There was always a commitment to a quality of journalism that fulfilled our mission.”

Feddersen and another board member who asked not to be identified said the organization should now be financially sustainable. Feddersen wrote in an email to JTA that with print costs gone and the staff significantly reduced, there will be “substantial savings” in 2019.

Feddersen told JTA that Eisner was let go because the publication needed an editor with more digital experience. But it was not long ago that the Forward was putting Eisner front and center. Last month, Eisner was an honoree at a Forward gala that highlighted “#FearlessWomen in Journalism.”

A former board member, Tom Freudenheim, said firing Eisner and other senior staff does not track with the goal of maintaining strong reporting.

“I’m an admirer of Jane Eisner and Dan Friedman,” said Freudenheim, a retired museum director, referring to the laid-off executive editor. “I don’t know how you can run a newspaper, whether it’s online or in print, if you don’t have seasoned, senior, professional journalists running it.”

Eisner, who declined to comment to JTA, had overseen a shift away from print during her stint. In 2017, the Forward switched from being a weekly newspaper to a monthly magazine with a glossy cover. Today, The Forward has two million monthly visitors online, and had 16,000 print subscribers, according to Feddersen.

Under the leadership of Belarusian immigrant Abraham Kahan as a Yiddish daily with socialist leanings who took over in 1897, the Forward became a circulation powerhouse with more than 275,000 subscribers nationally at its peak in the early 1930s. It also owned a radio station, WEVD (the call letters stood for Eugene V. Debs, a socialist presidential candidate). The Forward headquarters on the Lower East Side was a local landmark.

In 1990, the newspaper launched a weekly edition in English under the leadership of Seth Lipsky, a veteran of The Wall Street Journal. Lipsky put the reinvigorated weekly back on the map, mixing his own neoconservative leanings, knack for hiring young talent and a penchant for scoops with a formidable culture section headed by Jonathan Rosen, the critic and novelist.

Forward alumni from that era include Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic; Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker staff writer and former editor of The Paris Review; and Lucette Lagnado, a memoirist and reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

Lipsky and the board parted ways in 2000 and was replaced by J.J. Goldberg, a veteran Jewish journalist whose politics were more in line with the newspaper’s left-wing roots.

The Forward’s financial prospects looked substantially brighter in 2002, when Disney bought WEVD for a reported $73-plus million. In 2010, it sold its midtown building, where it had been operating since 1974, for $18.5 million to a developer who resold it the same day for $20 million. Enviable revenues from those sales did not, however, ensure the newspaper’s long-term financial health.

Ken Doctor, a news industry expert at the Nieman Lab, said the decision to fire the most senior staff suggested a news operation in tough straits. “Usually it’s among organizations that have hit the panic button,” Doctor said. “When you have such a sudden lurch and you take out the top positions, that tells me this is not well planned. It sends a note of desperation.”

But Fedderson said it was responsible for the Forward to act as it did when it did. “The company was slow to evolve when all the changes hit the media landscape for a bunch of reasons,” she said in an email. “I was brought on to ensure the Forward continues to survive and thrive, and that includes curbing our expenses.”

In addition to retaining its left-wing leanings, the Forward has a tradition of investigative reporting on Jewish institutions. In the past year, its reporters uncovered funders of Canary Mission, a shadowy blacklist of pro-Palestinian activists, as well as the history and misdeeds of Stanley Rosenfeld, a Jewish educator who assaulted underage boys for decades at Jewish schools. In 2017 it reported on former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka’s connections to a Hungarian nationalist group with roots in the Nazi era.

“I’m sad because I’ve enjoyed having it but it wasn’t supported by the public,” the board member said of the print edition. “It’s a difficult time for all of us.”