This morning, I opened my email to find a solicitation letter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that I found extremely surprising. Since the economy dipped, I'd been getting more solicitations from everyone. But this particular email, headed "The Future of Jewish Storytelling," seemed to be using bloggers (and Twitterers) as a scare tactic designed to elicit donations, the way other organizations use terms like “aging Holocaust population,” “Jewish singles crisis,” and “rise in anti-Semitism.” Unless you act now, the message seemed to say, “bloggers, Twitterers, and nonprofessionals” will take over Jewish journalism entirely and (the ultimate implied leap from any scare tactic used in Jewish fundraising) cause the demise of the Jewish people.
But that couldn’t be what they were saying, could it? I used to blog for the JTA. I've watched with delight as the site revamped its look and content, including blogging and Twitter as two additional tools in the arsenal of Jewish journalism. So I parsed it line-by-line, the way my Talmudic ancestors might have; indeed, the way certain rabbinic discussions in the Haggadah unfold.
fundamental to the Jewish experience," the letter began. I could not agree more. Storytelling is what Passover is all about, it’s
about legacy, family, interpretation, and history. "And, storytelling is what JTA does every day,” the email continues, noting
coverage from Mumbai to
The next paragraph contained the prerequisite nod to the economy, or in this case, the bolded "JTA's ability to tell these stories is threatened by the realities of the economic downturn. And, in the chaos of the information age in which we live, it is even harder to find the trusted voices on which we rely for independence and accuracy.”
This is true, of course – this is a burgeoning problem throughout the journalistic field that has editors and publishers scrambling. Even before the economy tanked, journalists and publishers were trying to figure out what kind of model works in an age when news is increasingly not just for the people, but by the people; when those people expect information as soon as is technologically possible; and when they expect access to it without paying for it. What kind of business model does that present for established old-school bastions of journalism trying to score advertisers and (when we’re lucky) pay their writers? What does this mean for the education of today’s students who will be practicing tomorrow’s version of whatever this field will morph into? These are hard questions, and that’s even before you add the narrowed lens of “Jewish” and sometimes “community-supported” to the field of journalism. People are struggling. I get that. Heck, I live that.
But then comes the central message of the letter. I know this is the central message because they bolded and underlined it, lest I become possessed of the idea that there is a more serious scourge to be dealt with than the one described in the words that followed.
"Without a strong JTA, the storytelling will be left to bloggers, twitterers, and non-professionals. Is this the best way for our future Jewish stories to be told and recorded?"
I’m used to journalism as a field downplaying the contributions of bloggers. Fine. For every blogger who becomes a trusted journalistic talking head on CNN, there are myriad more whose daily meanderings don’t remotely resemble polished writing. Not every blogger is a journalist and not every journalist with a blog is a blogger. Most days, I’m ok being somewhere in the middle. But in a world fraught with so many “us vs. thems” that labels and denominations are losing their meanings entirely, why set up additional “thems” to rail against? Why does there have to be a bad guy? And why is it a group of people collected solely by the technology they use, no matter how they wield it as a tool? What’s so threatening about a blog or a Twitter update? With blogs and Twitter accounts as an integral – and I would argue, perhaps the most interesting - part of today’s JTA, does this letter mean to say that only blogs and Twitter accounts run by the JTA are worth anything to Jewish journalism?
Reading on, there’s the actual pitch, then cue the nods to Passover, including the obligatory noting that this year is “different from all other years” and then this.
During the seder, one of the four children asks, "What does this service mean to you?" I am asking you to ponder that same question and join us by becoming a member.
"What does this service mean to you?" is the question of the second child, known to Haggadah readers as "the Wicked Child." Ahem. Did they just call the readers who might not donate "wicked children"?
I am not denying their claim that "news has a real cost"-- as a writer who makes some of her livelihood in the Jewish press, I am part of that cost (when a publication's budget allows for paying writers, which is another post entirely). I am certain that JTA needs the funding in order to survive (and am therefore leaving in the above link to their fundraising page). However, just as with blogging and Twitter (and Facebook and any yet-unnamed social medium), it's not about condemning the medium - it's about making sure that whatever medium you use to communicate, you're using it effectively.
In speaking with a friend and fellow blogger about this email, it became clear that JTA sent at least two versions of their solicitation letter today. I got the one that must have been designated for Jewish education professionals, while hers seemed to have a business edge, invoking the "instant journalism" and fast-changing "news business," as well as a mention of Bloomberg News and the noticeable absence of both Passover imagery and blogger/Twitter denigration. The email's title: "The Info You Need, When You Need It."
"The Info You Need, When You Need It" - why not stick with that as a service motto, instead of resorting to threats or scare tactics? Demonizing a group of people who are united only in one characteristic - the technology they use to ensure that their stories are heard - constructs unnecessary barriers between mainstream media and the communications wave of the present.
If you ask me, the news, personal reflections or opinions that resonate with people who blog or Tweet or Digg or Facebook message are becoming - as much as any piece of current news or element of our written history - a vital part of our Jewish storytelling, for the present and future. Jewish bloggers are not the enemies of Jewish storytelling: if anything, as bickering, economic collapse and technological confusion compete for communal attention, they just might be its salvation.
But what do I know? I'm just a blogger.