Earlier this year, readers of the Canadian Jewish News were shocked by the announcement that the newspaper, a community institution for over 50 years, would be shutting down. Facing dwindling advertising revenues, the newspaper’s board of directors voted to lay off all 50 of its staff members and cease publication. A shell of the newspaper would appear on-line.
The demise of the Canadian Jewish News sounds like a familiar newspaper story in this age of declining ad revenues and game-changing competition from free electronic media. Other Jewish newspapers have folded in recent years. But something happened this time to change the story: When readers heard they were losing a fixture of their Jewish landscape, they rallied. Some offered to contribute money to keep the paper alive; others offered their expertise to help market the paper to younger readers.
Just weeks after announcing its closure, the newspaper restarted its print edition, albeit with a smaller staff and leaner operation. “Having an independent source of news is vital to the health of the Jewish community,” said a young media strategist who started a petition to save the paper.
The New Jersey Jewish News has been a fixture of our Jewish community for almost 70 years. And while our financial position is stronger than the one that nearly brought down the CJN, we are not immune from the pressures of a weak economy and a beleaguered journalism industry. Our advertising revenue has still not bounced back to the levels we saw before the economic crash of 2008; like so many others, Hurricane Sandy cost us critical revenue; many readers and advertisers have migrated to the web. And while the NJJN has an award-winning website, no one in the newspaper industry has been able to turn readers’ desire for free content into a money-making proposition.
In some ways, however, New Jersey Jewish News has some advantages over even the largest daily newspapers, which have lost untold readers as well as billions in revenue over the past decade. As a niche paper, we offer content that is not widely available elsewhere, on the Internet or otherwise. As a community institution, we have a loyal readership. And we have loyal advertisers, who realize that we reach an audience more directly than many papers larger than we, and more intimately than corporate-run web sites.
We also have an advantage in being partnered with Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, our founder and publisher. Every gift of $52 to the federation entitles donors to an annual subscription to NJJN, and a portion of that $52 comes to NJJN in the form of subscription revenue. In good years, NJJN has returned the majority of its profits to the federation to further its mission of building community here and abroad. In lean years, we strive hard not to be a burden on federation or its generous donors. A little-known fact, however, is that this subscription revenue accounts for only 20 percent of the NJJN’s income; we depend on advertising revenue to make up the difference.
Running a newspaper is not cheap. There is the cost of salaries, of printing and postage, of keeping the lights on and the computers humming. We have responded to the economic downturn and changes in the newspaper industry by running a leaner operation and dreaming up new ways of generating revenue.
But because we don’t want to wake up one morning and find ourselves in the position of once-great papers like the Canadian Jewish News, we have to do even more. That is why in the coming months we are also turning to our readers. This year we are launching “Friends of NJJN,” a multi-pronged effort to ensure the financial future of New Jersey Jewish News. Our goal is to build an endowment, in conjunction with the federation and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest. We are asking families and foundations to look at their charitable gift planning and consider how NJJN might fit in. The goal is not to “compete” with other charitable institutions, but rather to encourage friends of the newspaper to support NJJN.
In the first phase of “Friends of NJJN,” we have turned to a select audience of community leaders and planners seeking their support and advice. In the coming weeks we plan a parlor meeting with some of these longtime friends of the newspaper to solicit their ideas. We envision a second phase in which we will turn to all our readers and seek their support as well.
NJJN is not merely a newspaper. It is a central address for the entire Greater MetroWest community. Our goal, like our partner federation, is three-fold: continuity, community, and connection. We aim to increase Jewish engagement among our readers and our myriad synagogues and institutions, to create community by sharing news about our friends and neighbors, and to strengthen bonds among local Jews and celebrate the diverse ways they express their Jewishness.
I am honored to serve as the president of the board of trustees of New Jersey Jewish News as we approach this crossroad. It is the hope of all our board members that “Friends of NJJN” will be the first step in assuring that we can meet all three goals for years to come, and to tell a different, more hopeful, story about the future of Jewish journalism.