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Mission almost impossible for Jewish Diaspora press

Dan Goldberg
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Published: 23 April 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

As the pandemic closes two venerable mastheads, DAN GOLDBERG reflects on the challenge ahead for Jewish media: find a viable business model and engage the next generation

LESS THAN A FORTNIGHT AGO, the president of the Canadian Jewish News wrote an epoch-ending letter to her readers. “Already struggling, we are not able to sustain the enterprise in an environment of almost complete economic shutdown,” Elizabeth Wolfe said. “It had a good run. Everything has its season. It is time.”

The first Jewish newspaper to fall victim to the Covid-19 pandemic had served Canada’s 350,000-plus Jews, the fourth-largest community in the Diaspora, since 1960.

Around the same time, news broke that the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the world, Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, had been placed into voluntary liquidation. For the country’s 300,000 Jews, Passover in isolation was further quarantined by the prospect of Fridays without their weekly fix of the JC for the first time since 1841.

It may yet be saved but across the world Jewish publications are struggling to publish their weekly print editions. The Boston-based Jewish Journal launched a $US150,000 emergency appeal on erev Pesach. The New York Jewish Week also issued an “urgent appeal” for financial support. The New York Forward, an institution since 1897, already ceased publishing its Yiddish and English print editions last year.

The digital revolution, plunging advertising revenue, plummeting sales and now the coronavirus have conspired to create  a perfect storm.

Over the span of the 20th century, the Jewish press – including our own Australian Jewish News – ­­played a critical role in Diaspora life on two fronts: internally and externally. Internally, the weekly paper acted like an eruv, a wire that enveloped the community in all its disparate and diverse glory, unlike any synagogue or organisation – communal, charitable, sporting or other.
Internally, the weekly paper was the shtetl square, and acted like an eruv, a wire that enveloped the community. Externally, the Jewish newspaper was akin to the shofar, as a rabbi once put it to me during my tenure as AJN editor.

It was the shtetl square – and with three opinions for every two Jews there were always arguments simmering. It was where our laundry was aired, to the chagrin of many, and where those who had hatched, matched and dispatched were announced. Invariably, the Jewish weekly was a ritual dish at the Shabbat table – often served with equal portions of tsurris and naches.

Externally, the Jewish newspaper, piled at newsstands next to the dailies, was akin to the shofar, as a rabbi once put it to me during my tenure as AJN editor: it boomed the front-page lead, its echoes reaching Canberra, where the AJN boasted its own correspondent.

The importance of late Bernard Freedman’s presence in the press gallery from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s cannot be overstated. It was not just that our man travelled with Bob Hawke to Moscow in 1987 to report how the PM begged Mikhail Gorbachev to release Refuseniks. (Gorbachev released five of the 20 on Hawke’s list; the rest were freed the following year.)

Neither was it just that Freedman filed his copy from Jerusalem in 2000 as he witnessed John Howard confirm he had indeed invited Yasser Arafat to visit Australia. (Arafat never did take up the offer.)

No, it was the signal his presence transmitted – to the PM, federal parliament and the nation. No other ethnic news agency had a correspondent inside the press gallery.

The golden age of bustling newsrooms and advertising “rivers of gold” are long gone and Jewish journalism is now fighting for its life, with minyans looming in Canada and perhaps Britain and America.

While the AJN – a descendant of the Hebrew Standard of Australasia, founded in 1895 – continues to print its Sydney and Melbourne editions along with its website, other digital platforms have emerged, The Jewish Independent and J-Wire arguably the most prominent among them.

Overseas, the advent of Tablet, The Times of Israel, Heeb, Mosaic and a myriad of other online magazines are a welcome addition to our literary lives.

But they do not –­ nor do they intend to – replace the old-fashioned journalism of newspapers, reporting without fear or favour, which has become even more important in this post-truth world where lies can now masquerade as “facts” on Facebook.

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If our sole national Jewish newspaper succumbs like Canada’s, Jewish politicians and powerbrokers, institutions and organisations, will no longer be held to account. Who will blow the whistle on those who sexually abused our children? Or those rabbis who covered it up? In the UK, many credit the JC for leading the crusade to ensure Jeremy Corbyn never made it into No. 10 Downing Street.

That said, Jewish newspapers represent much more than just the news. They are both a news paper and a community paper, the two sometimes clashing in a battle between the interests of the community and the pursuit of the truth. On one occasion as editor, I ran a front-page story that forced a senior leader to stand down but, under pressure from various powerbrokers, allowed him to save some grace by not publishing all the sordid details.

If walking that tightrope was an occasional challenge, wooing the younger generation was a perennial headache. No matter what inspired ideas we conceived – a modern redesign, a new lifestyle lift-out, hiring top-class columnists – trying to embrace a young demographic via an old medium was, and no doubt remains, an exercise in futility.

The array of new websites and online magazines may fill some of this void, though that will be cold comfort to Jewish newspaper editors and their publishers.

Ultimately, Jewish weeklies are a depository of our stories and a repository of our memories. As the proverbial first draft of history, their sepia-toned archives are a priceless vault, a portal into our storied past.

But the future will almost certainly be print-free. In this age of digital disruption, the challenge for Jewish publishers is not only to find a commercially viable business model that can electronically deliver the news of the Jews – warts and all – but to engage the next generation so that they are included in the next chapter of our story.

Jewish News is back, more energised and ambitious than ever (Times of Israel)
 Businessmen, spin doctors and journalists make last-ditch bid to save UK Jewish papers (JTA)
Canada’s lost Jewish voice (Tablet) 

About the author

Dan Goldberg

Now a documentary filmmaker, Dan Goldberg was editor of the Australian Jewish News from 2002-07. He was also a correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Jewish Chronicle and Haaretz.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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