Famous neon signs of blues clubs on Beale street in downtown Nashville, where the American Jewish Press Association will celebrate its 80th-year milestone. Credit: Photo Spirit/Shutterstock.
Famous neon signs of blues clubs on Beale street in downtown Nashville, where the American Jewish Press Association will celebrate its 80th-year milestone. Credit: Photo Spirit/Shutterstock.
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At 80, American Jewish Press Association grapples with past, present and future 

The Jewish journalism group was formed in 1944, in the wake of D-Day. Today, it rides the tide of changing demographics, increasing antisemitism and the development of AI.

For the American Jewish Press Association, 2024 has been a landmark year in several ways. 

The organization, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary, is planning at its annual conference in early June to detail the work it’s been doing on a strategic plan to ensure the group’s sustainability.

Its first full virtual conference is set for this September at a time when members are dealing with a surge of antisemitism and other fallout from Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in southern Israel, in addition to the subsequent war between the Jewish state and Hamas in Gaza.

Several veteran AJPA members spoke of making friendships that go back decades, learning from peers who understand the daily challenges faced in covering the news on local, national and international levels, and who appreciate the organization’s mission to enhance the status of American Jewish journalism.

“It’s a very welcoming group. It uplifts me,” said AJPA president Ellen Futterman, the editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

Bob Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Light, has held numerous positions at AJPA over the years and has seen the Jewish press and the association evolve over time.

“He’s the Ben Franklin of the association, our elder statesman,” said Marshall Weiss, editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer.

AJPA Marshall Weiss and Bob Cohn 2023
Marshall Weiss, editor and publisher of “The Dayton Jewish Observer,” with Bob Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of “The St. Louis Jewish Light.” Photo by Alan Smason.

AJPA was formed in 1944, Cohn noted, in the wake of D-Day, when the world faced immense turbulent times. Previous iterations at joining Jewish journalists in the United States were attempted, but it wasn’t until post-war that group activities stuck.

Today, with a new set of challenges amid nearly eight months of war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, coupled with an unprecedented surge of antisemitism in the streets of major American cities and on U.S. college campuses, Cohn believes that AJPA’s mission remains a vital one.

AJPA currently has about 120 member organizations in different categories—a number that has stayed consistent for the past five years—ranging from hard-copy newspapers and online news sites to affiliates, freelancers and students. Entities (not the writers themselves) must be Jewish for consideration and have been relegated to North America. As media outlets have closed and/or consolidated over the years due to finances, demographics, readership and declining ad resources, freelance writers have been making up a growing part of the base.

The senior member of the organization at age 84, Cohn joined in 1969. Originally, the association’s members were weekly Jewish papers in English only. At one time, he said, there were 14 Yiddish-language papers in the country, and they’d refer to the AJPA as “the Association of English Language Jewish Publications,” he said.

Along with other Jewish reporters, Cohn toured Eastern Europe in 1974, traveling to Poland and Romania, and talking with refuseniks—those Jews who were prevented from leaving countries by their respective governments. But it was on a day that the group visited the grounds of Auschwitz that stood out most to him half a century later.

“We visited during a blizzard,” Cohn said. “I was writing on a legal pad, and I didn’t know where the snowflakes started and where my tears started.”

AJPA Ellen Futterman and Alan Smason 2023
Ellen Futterman, president of the American Jewish Press Association, presents an award to outgoing president Alan Smason at the annual conference in New Orleans in July 2023. Photo by Bill Motchan.

‘We are the protectors of the Jewish people’

Alan Smason took over as head of the association shortly before the COVID pandemic upended life in 2020 and closed down the world.

The AJPA’s annual conference was scrapped for the next two years. Smason, the editor of Crescent City Jewish News in New Orleans, had to navigate leading the organization virtually as members faced printing costs, platform changes and demographic shifts in their communities, including lessening readership.

With everything on lockdown, nobody was buying advertising. But during virtual calls, Smason, AJPA’s “terrific executive staff” and its members worked through issues from coordinating virtual offices to getting newspapers delivered. Smason convened what he likened to FDR’s “fireside chats,” where groups learned what was working well for others, discussed challenges they were facing and talked strategy on how to deal with them.

“I was there at the right time to lead the organization during that terrible period,” he said. “God puts you where you are needed to be.”

In a fractured media landscape where people can consume news anywhere from TikTok to their smartwatches, Cohn, Weiss, Smason and Futterman agree that Jewish publications and the AJPA are more essential than ever.

AJPA Jordan Palmer and Ellen Futterman 2023
Jordan Palmer, chief digital content officer at “The St. Louis Jewish Light” with Ellen Futterman, editor-in-chief of “The St. Louis Jewish Light.” Photo by Bill Motchan.

That point has been amplified by the Oct. 7 attacks and the resulting spike in antisemitism. The Jewish press provides a way to get the news out and show people that they are not alone, according to Cohn.

Smason agreed, pointing to the rise in Jew-hatred, especially in major American cities. “It’s something we have to continue to be vigilant about,” he said. “Because if we don’t tell the stories, we would not be doing our job.”

“We are the protectors of the Jewish people in many ways, by our writing about and acknowledging what’s going on in the world,” he added.

For Weiss, who has been affiliated with AJPA for a quarter century and is also a past president, the organization has proven invaluable from the outset, when he was involved in creating The Dayton Jewish Observer.

Getting to know colleagues at other Jewish outlets provided a way to see how they handled challenges that he was facing as well, whether it was on the editorial or business side.

‘Leave it in a better place’

Futterman wants to ensure those connections continue well into the future. It’s why she and others are introducing a virtual conference, at a nominal cost for attendees, so they can talk with each other and hear from speakers the world over.

And it’s why she and AJPA officers—Weiss and Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, CEO of J. The Jewish News of Northern California—spent the better part of the last year focused on the organization’s sustainability.

American Jewish Press Association logo
American Jewish Press Association logo. Credit: Courtesy.

“I want to leave it in a better place than I found it, or at least see it evolve and grow,” said Futterman, who plans to continue as president for a second term. To that end, the group has been looking for ways to increase membership and make the AJPA more valuable to those already ascribed to it.

Futterman said they’ve also talked to other niche market organizations to see what they provide members and how they receive funding, such as Google Initiative money.

They’ll be presenting their work to members at the annual journalism conference, which this year takes place from June 2-4 in Nashville. It’s also where the coveted Rockower Awards are given to writers, editors, designers and photographers covering everything from sports to social justice work, health care to religious life, education to the arts. The wildcard category this year is coverage of the war in Gaza.

Attendees will also spend a few hours focused on the future, including grappling with staff shortages, juggling multiple platforms and meeting artificial intelligence head-on.

Weiss gets all of this, and while he cannot make the conference this year, he is looking forward to what the group comes up with and will share afterwards.

“Who else in your local community really, truly, profoundly understands what you do?” he asked. “We get it. If you know, you know. AJPA is kind of like the mothership for Jewish journalists.”

AJPA Rockower Award Winners 2023
Rockower Award winners at the American Jewish Press Association conference, held at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, July 2023. Photo by Bill Motchan.
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