Right before I left Israel, I opened up an article in the JPost that I'd seen posted on Facebook by former JPost editor and current JAFI spokesperson Haviv Rettig Gur (who apparently has a Wikipedia bio). The article (not written by Haviv) is an interview with new JTA Executive Editor Ami Eden, who revealed very little about JTA's actual plans, but spoke broadly about collaboration and creating a "unified web presence" for the American Jewish newspapers:
Looking ahead, he declared one of his “top priorities” would be greater cooperation with other Jewish media outlets. Ideas for collaborations were “percolating,” Eden said, and would materialize between “12 and 18 months.”
“I think it’s clear that most American Jewish newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money online,” he said. “Why should we not try to create a unified Web presence having one big Web site with a team that’s constantly keeping it fresh? We clearly could be pulling our technological resources and sharing the Web traffic. If we’re all investing in the same Web traffic, it becomes a great idea.”
Eden declined to go into further detail.
There is - of course - much to talk about here, which I started to synthesize while commenting on Haviv's Facebook wall (whoever says Facebook is useless really needs to start trolling better walls). I could jump to conclusions about how this plan is overly ambitious, or smacks of manifest destiny, with JTA playing the role of arbiter for what's best for American Jewish journalism. But any such discussion is premature, since this germ of an idea doesn't present the details or address the myriad challenges likely to arise.
But speaking as a writer, I can tell you that in the technology age (and I can't wait until we can stop saying that), journalism in general needs to figure out lots of things, including what the value of content is and how to ensure that content providers are paid fairly. And if this is true of mainstream magazines and newspapers, then it's certainly true of Jewish news outlets, which work with smaller audiences and smaller budgets than their mainstream cousins.
But let's take the discussion one step further, as Haviv did in framing the piece on Facebook:
Come to think of it, how is this different from the discussions in the JPost, or the debates going on in the Jewish Agency? We're all trying to figure out what the Jews need, and how to give it to them.
So here's one question: Who are "the Jews"? And here's another one: Who speaks for "the Jews"?
The next few paragraphs do not answer those questions. They deal mostly with trying to identify a path for the future of Jewish journalism and the JTA's relationship to local Jewish publications, but keep Haviv's framing in mind when you read them. In other words, this is about the future of Jewish journalism, or of practically anything else.
And is centralization something that local papers are clamoring for? It's one thing to investigate content partnerships with more independently-voiced publications like the Forward or international Jewish publications like Ha'aretz, but it's another to tell all the local Jewish pubs, "We're the JTA, we've been around for 93 years, and here's the way it's going to be from now on." I could be wrong, but even community publications which rely heavily on JTA for national and international content still want to maintain their trusted local voices. I'm sure this is also part of the JTA's percolation of ideas - how to create a "unified web portal" that doesn't negate - and in fact, perhaps promotes - local stories. (I'm personally picturing a constantly updating newsfeed box that highlights stories from local Jewish newspapers as they happen, providing a space and a greater audience for those stories and their writers. And apparently, so is Bob Goldfarb over at EJPhilanthropy, who published his post about 20 minutes before this one.)
Some better-funded or more abundantly staffed papers - like New York's Jewish Week and L.A.'s Jewish Journal - have spent significant time, money and staffpower to establish themselves as portals for Jewish news, incorporating JTA reports into a news presence that features more locally specific/relevant content, and rich, regularly-updated blogs. Will a "unified Web presence" threaten them or just generate indifference?
And then of course there's the business of journalism, which even the non-niche publications haven't managed to hack. How do the newspapers make a profit (or, in a less-than-stellar economy, break even)? As a writer, I want to be paid for my work, but with publications suffering economically, there's decreased budget for everything, and paid Jewish journalism work (at least for me) has all but dried up. I wish I had the elusive answer that would keep writers and publications more than afloat - but publicational prosperity is a dream at this point. What journalism needs now across the field is a game plan that is reactive to the actual (and not just the perceived) needs of the community and uses technological tools, and which leverages the power of increasingly worldly and opinionated writers and other providers of content.
Perhaps this kind of leveraging of worldly writers is the kind of collaboration and partnership to which Eden is alluding (and perhaps owes a debt of inspiration to the Federation fundraising model - collectively leveraged funds go further than individual funds). Sharing content is fine, but people need to get paid. And in an era of free, what's worth paying for? (This question more than minimally applies to Judaism as an institutional system, as well - what kind of value are institutions providing for their membership dues? In a time when so much content and value is available for free, what will people pay for?)
Over the next 12-18 months, Eden's ideas will keep on "percolating." The community newspapers - large and small - will continue along their paths, perhaps putting new measures into effect to try to secure their futures. As I was finishing this post, I saw (again via Facebook) that the Washington Jewish Week had been sold. There was no analysis on the site of what motivated the sale or what the future direction of the paper would be. Maybe what happens at the WJW over the next few months will set precedents for the other Jewish newspapers - time will tell - but Jewish newspapers aren't waiting for JTA to save the day. They're taking steps that they hope will help their papers survive these difficult times.
But three things seem clear:
1) That increasingly I - and presumably others - are getting our news via Facebook. (I suppose this is a better source than "The Daily Show," but that's up for debate.) This fact may not thrill news outlets, but it is a fact on the ground that means that any newspaper/media source needs to utilize Facebook, and utilize it well.
2) That journalism in general (and perhaps Jewish organizational life in general) will have to become and remain flexible, responsive, exciting and relevant in order to keep veteran readers and court new ones. New views, new voices, deep commentary, even controversy serve to keep discussions going and keep bringing people back to your sites and work to cement your reputations as purveyors of value.
3) That while Eden's announcement is provoking discussion in the blogosphere and undoubtedly in other Jewish media outlets, JTA should take the next few months to participate in that discussion, glean ideas for their future, and involve the passionate critics as stakeholders in their new future.
(By the way, if you run a Jewish publication and you find yourself with 1362-words' worth of space you'd like to fill, I'd be happy to re-edit this piece for your publication for a small fee. Contact the management: myurbankvetch at gmail.com.)