I owe a great debt to the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, which gave me some of my first (paid) assignments as a reporter. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, trying to extricate myself from a stillborn career in Jewish fund-raising, when then-assignment editor Lisa Hostein asked if I would cover a few events for the weekly newspaper. Those freelance articles also led to my first full-time job in journalism, when the Exponent’s editor at the time, Mark Joffe, took over the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and hired me as a New York correspondent. It was the start of a nearly three-decade career in this weirdly parochial but wholly satisfying world of “Jewish journalism.”
So it was a personal as well as professional blow when I learned last week that Philadelphia’s Jewish federation was laying off the entire news and production staff of the 128-year-old Exponent, and essentially outsourcing it to a Baltimore-area company that publishes three other Jewish weeklies. The federation’s chief marketing officer explained that the paper was running a $300,000 annual deficit, and that the deal with Mid-Atlantic Media would allow the paper to survive without draining the federation.
Truth be told, I am hardly one to be criticizing the Philly federation or the paper’s new operators. Over the past 15 years, NJJN acquired four federation-owned newspapers around the state, replacing their small local staffs and promising to deliver a strong local product despite the paper’s being headquartered in Whippany. I know there is a human cost to “creative destruction,” even if I can defend it on economic grounds.
But my friend Lisa Hostein, who had returned to become executive editor of the Exponent in 2008, was among the casualties, so it was hard for me not to notice that she and her staff were treated pretty shabbily, certainly in public statements by the principals. The federation rep insisted to JTA that when the new edition of the newspaper comes out, “nobody will see a difference in the paper — not one.” Mid-Atlantic’s CEO compounded the insult by saying that in taking over the Exponent he intended to “elevate its quality” — which is something CEOs say, although it sounded a little churlish coming just a few days after the paper won six Philadelphia Press Association awards (on top of five Professional Keystone Press awards and two more from the state’s Society of Professional Journalists).
Outsourcing makes economic sense, as does hiring a new, presumably younger, and no doubt cheaper staff, but if you really don’t believe that the combined experience of 15 staff members with a deep familiarity with the local community matters at all to readers, it’s not clear how committed you are to quality.
I also can’t be objective as the editor of a Jewish weekly published by a large-city Jewish federation and struggling to make its own budget goals. Like the Exponent and nearly every other Jewish paper I can think of, we’ve had a rough few years. The federation itself has lost donors (which means we have lost readers) and the one-two punch of a stalled economy and a digital media revolution has undermined our business model.
I think this surprises readers, who tend to think of Jewish journalism as a public service provided by the federation and the “machers” who support it. In truth, while the federation contributes subscription revenue and partners with us in hard times, we must operate as a business to remain viable. Some four-fifths of our budget comes from advertising revenue. With its commitment to supporting the humanitarian, social, and educational needs of its local agencies and partners in Israel, the federation can’t afford to let our deficit grow and grow.
I often feel readers and local institutions don’t fully appreciate this. They are happy for us to print free obituaries, wedding announcements, articles, and synagogue listings, but reluctant to pay for advertising space. After all, NJJN has been around for close to 70 years, and the federation will take care of it, right? But, as the events in Philadelphia demonstrated, if the country’s second-oldest Jewish weekly and one of its largest federations are not immune from the pressures of the marketplace, no one is.
I think NJJN has proven its value — creating a sense of community among a far-flung suburban constituency, linking organizations with readers, celebrating the achievements of our neighbors, and giving area Jews a better understanding of the news and issues animating, and sometimes threatening, contemporary Jewish life.
I hope you agree, and if you do, you’ll consider supporting NJJN, above and beyond the donation you make to the federation that entitles you to a subscription. (Uh-oh, here I am, back in Jewish fund-raising.) Like NPR, we are asking our most loyal readers to help us deliver quality news and maintain the standards we hope they’ve come to rely on. This has been an ongoing effort, although given what happened in Philly, we’re all feeling a sense of urgency.
A great Jewish community deserves a great community newspaper, produced by and for the people it serves. We hope you agree and that you’ll be a part of a bright future for NJJN by helping us be the best we can be.