I often tell people that even though the Jewish newspaper I edit is published in English, most people still read it back to front. That’s because we put the birth, marriage, and death announcements — known to jaded journalists as “hatch, match, and dispatch” — toward the back.
It doesn’t bother me in the least that readers skip past the articles and op-eds to read the life-cycle announcements first. A community newspaper is supposed to be about community, and communities are first and foremost places where people care about each other’s celebrations and misfortunes.
I’ve kidded in the past that I am neither Conservative, Reform, nor Orthodox, but “kiddush-obsessed.” Only I don’t think I’m kidding. Someone once told me about Mordecai Kaplan’s idea of a Jewish center. On Shabbat mornings, Jews would gather there in different rooms to do their own things. Some would attend a traditional service, others would meditate, others might sway to guitars and bongos. But every service would break at the same time, and everyone would go to the same kiddush — the light meal and shmooze-athon that follows Shabbat morning prayers.
I’ve often thought of a Jewish newspaper as a virtual kiddush — minus the kugel, of course. It’s a common space where Jews can come to catch up on the week’s news, share a laugh or cry, and maybe swap some gossip (the good kind of gossip — who’s getting married, for instance, instead of who’s getting divorced). And while synagogues hold their own kiddushes, we do them one better by serving as a place where Jews of all stripes and no stripes can come together on the same pages. Synagogues do wonderful things and denominations are necessary, but in this day and age, the possibilities for Jewish cross-pollination are getting fewer and farther between.
Many of our readers, I am happy to say, see us the same way: Getting the paper on a Thursday or Friday is a weekly ritual — or it is until the post office screws up and we get the angry calls. The sound of Jewish community is an angry reader berating me for a late paper. What does it say in Psalms? “Better is open rebuke than love that is hidden.”
Our kiddush, unfortunately, is getting smaller. Like newspapers everywhere, we’ve been buffeted by declining ad sales and shrinking subscriber rolls. Digital media are changing reader habits and, quite frankly, undermining the business model of every newspaper that depended on display advertising for revenue. In some ways, we beat the prevailing (I almost wrote “travailing”) trend, since niche papers like NJJN reach a particular market that the “big boys” aren’t interested in.
But that’s changing too. It’s not just that younger readers learn what their classmates and neighbors are up to on line — they do, on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and Kugel.com (which would be a great name for a Jewish social network, except it’s the website of a company that makes outdoor fountains). It’s also that younger Jews aren’t as interested in Jewish community as their parents were — or at least not in the same way. When Pew asked Jews under 45 if they read a Jewish newspaper, 50 percent replied “What’s a newspaper?” and 45 percent replied “Define Jewish.” Ok, that’s not true – but it’s true-ish.
Once a year my colleagues in the Jewish press get together to
commiserate discuss these issues at an annual convention. We met earlier this month in Washington, and I moderated a panel on the future of the Jewish media. My colleagues all had great ideas for staying relevant in the digital age. Some were devoted to “hyperlocal,” focusing more on backyard issues and less on the global scene. Others felt we need to cover Israel in ways that balance the story told in the “mainstream” media.
All have begun ramping up their fund-raising efforts. We’ve been trying that too — turning to readers and community leaders and asking them to support the paper, à la NPR, above and beyond the donation they make or subscription they pay for. (Our teen magazine, NU, for example, is underwritten by a generous gift from the Iris Family Foundation.) We expect to announce a significant new project in this regard in the coming weeks and hope other readers who care about the newspaper as a whole or can help us with specialized coverage will get in touch.
The one thing none of us wants to be is a burden on our publishers — in our case the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Nor do we want to scrimp on the kinds of news and services we bring our readers.
So our work is cut out for us. I still think that the community conversation we represent and foster is essential for a Jewish community — especially a spread-out suburban community like ours. I believe we need pluralistic spaces to meet with and talk with and argue with one another. If you agree, I’d like to hear from you (firstname.lastname@example.org). Short of offering a complimentary tote bag or free kugel to new members (not a bad idea, actually) — let us hear your ideas for helping NJJN grow.
Let’s talk — at kiddush.