(January 24, 2019 / JNS) The news about The Forward hit the small community of Jewish journalists hard. After years of heavy financial losses, the paper fired about 30 percent of its staff, including its two top editors, and ended its monthly magazine, meaning that it will no longer appear in print.
This has led to some public mourning about the demise of Jewish journalism. But while there is no question that those tasked with the job of trying to inform the English-speaking world about Jewish issues and Israel are facing mounting difficulties, the death of this niche of the press world is, as Mark Twain would have said, “greatly exaggerated.”
As with the rest of the media, Jewish journalism is changing, and those who engage in it must adapt or die. That’s bad news for those of us who enjoy holding a newspaper in our hands or who think the preservation of the institutions that dominated it for generations in their current form is a prerequisite for the continuation of Jewish life. But as long as there are journalists with the savvy to navigate the current business environment, and who are able to create content that readers want and need, this niche of the field has the chance not only to survive, but also to thrive.
The Forward has a special place in the history of the Jewish press. In its heyday in the early 20th century, the Yiddish-language Forverts was a powerful voice for those who were part of the massive wave of immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe. At its peak, it had a national readership with 275,000 subscribers.
Its Socialist politics were representative of the thinking of many Jewish newcomers, even if that was out of step with the views of most Americans at the time. But the paper, under the leadership of its brilliant longtime editor Abraham Cahan, aided the efforts of its immigrant readers to become part of their new home. Its advice column, called a “Bintel Brief”—or a bundle of letters—is a vital document in the history of American Jewry as its author dispensed sage suggestions that were intended to ease the process of Americanization.
But that Americanization inevitably led to the decline of Yiddish and the Forverts, and its many competitors that pursued different editorial agendas similarly fell on hard times. This once thriving business hasn’t been profitable since 1945. It has survived by gradually selling off the company’s assets.
While the Yiddish edition continues to publish for a small subscriber base, the paper was given a new lease on life when Seth Lipsky launched an English-language edition that became one of the most vibrant forces in American Jewish journalism. Since Lipsky left in 2000, the paper has taken a sharp left turn that is consistent with its Socialist roots. But while its stands on Israel and its decision to allow space to anti-Zionist views deserve criticism, this had nothing to do with financial problems that stemmed with yearly seven-digit deficits.
There should be no schadenfreude about what happened at The Forward from those who disagreed with its politics. American Jewry needs more voices speaking out and reporting on vital issues of interest, not fewer of them. Encouraging a competition of ideas in a community where ignorance and indifference towards Israel and Jewish concerns is widespread remains important to its future.
The demographic implosion of non-Orthodox American life has also taken a toll on Jewish weeklies. Just as other institutions that are at the center of Jewish life, such as federations and synagogues are hemorrhaging donors and members, it’s hardly surprising that publications are suffering because much of the community no longer feels connected to Israel or even to local Jewish concerns.
Moreover, like all print operations, The Forward has suffered due to the decline of the format as advertisers have disappeared and younger readers are less inclined to read newspapers in their traditional form. Local papers must also compete with all sorts of digital formats in an era where many, if not most, people get most of their news from their social-media feeds—usually on their smartphones or other mobile devices—and not by individual publications in print or otherwise. Moreover, the cost of maintaining hard-copy editions has caused other papers to switch, as The Forward has done, to an all digital and Internet model.
It’s understandable if those of us who have grown up with print hate this development. But no one should confuse the future of print with the future of journalism. Like secular dailies, Jewish publications may no longer be able to count on local retail or national advertisers. Yet they can and have replaced that source of income with online sources, as well as a philanthropic model that has allowed many secular opinion and intellectual journals to continue publishing.
But the most important reason why this niche journalism isn’t dying is because there is still a large audience that is hungry for news and informed opinion about the Jewish world that it can’t get from secular outlets. They may no longer consume news in the way they once did, and publishers must find different ways of supporting their endeavors. But good work that speaks to the key issues facing Jews today—and which seeks to hold Jewish institutions accountable for when they work against the interests of the Jewish future and Israel—will always find an audience. Rather than weep for that which is never coming back, Jewish journalists must have faith that as long they provide the content that the community seeks and needs, there will be a place at the table for our work. The alternative is a future in which ignorance will reign and Jewish life will suffer.
We at JNS are resolved to keep providing our readers and subscribers with exactly that sort of vital work. With the help of those faithful readers and donors, we have no doubt that JNS will still be here doing its job serving the Jewish world far into the future.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.