I read the announcement with more sadness than shock. In its issue of July 10, 2020, the Jewish Week — once New York’s premier Jewish newspaper — announced that it will go “on hiatus” as a print newspaper at the beginning of August. It plans to continue to publish in digital form.
Whether the “hiatus” will ever end was unstated and is quite possibly unknowable. Though the COVID-19 pandemic delivered the final blow, the Jewish Week, like most newspapers, had been struggling for some time. Readership has declined, as the millennial generation seldom reads newspapers. Advertising revenue has followed, the victim of online competition. Now the pandemic, which severely curtailed the institutional advertising that was the paper’s bread and butter while depressing the economy and thus reducing all other revenue sources, has added to the paper’s woes.
The Jewish Week’s announcement brought me yet another bout of wistful nostalgia. That newspaper and I go back a long time. I began reading it regularly in high school, which is to say (gulp!) nearly five decades ago. I looked forward to its arrival in my parents’ home each week. It gave me my first exposure to serious Jewish communal issues.
I particularly looked forward to reading the “Strange to Relate” column, written by Rabbi Phillip Alstat, which contained a variety of historical facts and oddities; and of course, the weekly column of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman z”l, which he continued writing even after he became President of Bar Ilan University in 1977. I was away at college during much of the controversy over the dovish-on-Israel organization Breira, which the Jewish Week, then edited by Phillip Hochstein, fiercely opposed, but I caught up during vacations and trips home. (Fortunately, my parents waited a long time before discarding newspapers.)
I continued reading the paper as an adult, when it was under the editorship of Phillip Ritzenberg, who took over in 1982, and then under Gary Rosenblatt, who became editor-in-chief in 1993 and served until last year. I particularly admired Rosenblatt’s courage in covering the Baruch Lanner scandal, which the paper broke in 2000. The Jewish Week’s role in exposing the scandal did not endear him to many in his own Modern Orthodox community, but he persevered.
Today, I receive news from many sources, but like many of my (baby boom) generation I prefer the written word to online sources. (Among other things, print newspapers enable me to read on Shabbat, when I can’t use my computer.) I will miss reading the Jewish Week in print each week. But my sadness is not just for another newspaper lost, but for more evidence of the decline of the community that constituted its readership.
A newspaper reflects the interests of its readers. A special interest paper like the Jewish Week depends on a sufficiently large number of readers interested in reading regularly about its area of specialization. Advertisers, on whom such papers depend for revenue, count on the readers’ specialized interests to reach their target audiences, thus making up in quality what they lack in quantity. The papers’ bottom lines depend on the shared mores, lifestyles or ideologies of their readers.
The Jewish newspapers that have continued to thrive today are mostly the ones that serve the Orthodox communities. They are mostly given out free in shuls or Jewish stores and depend entirely on advertising for support. They survive because advertisers know that their readers are interested in what they have to say. They are a relatively inexpensive way of reaching the consumers of the specialized goods and services that those communities’ readers use. They include (in addition to news about Israel and other news of Jewish interest) local news, gossip, columns on religious thought and advice columns. Not everyone who reads these papers is interested in everything they write about, of course, but there is enough content of interest to keep them reading.
These papers have also been hurt by the pandemic. Their advertising revenues have been reduced as the lockdown and the resultant economic slowdown has hurt retailers. Circulation has probably dropped as well (though reliable estimates are hard to come by) as the closure of synagogues and schools has disrupted their ordinary distribution patterns. But otherwise healthy newspapers can survive short-term downturns because they serve a real need for an identifiable community of readers.
In the heyday of the Jewish Week and other newspapers of its type, there was a similar community of readers whose shared interests were sufficient to enable those papers to thrive. Their readers were not necessarily shul-goers or kosher consumers, but they had an abiding interest in things Jewish. In those less polarized times, many Orthodox Jews also read the Jewish Week.
But the non-Orthodox Jews who made up the mainstay of the paper’s readership, were, to use a contemporary catchphrase, Jewishly engaged. They were involved in a variety of Jewish organizations. They were avid consumers of news about Israel. They saw the world through Jewish eyes and often had warm memories of the intensely Jewish neighborhoods of their childhoods. Though most did not keep kosher, they were reliable consumers of Jewish-style foods , and those ads — together with institutional and other specialty advertising — were enough, together with subscriptions and often supplemented by subsidies from local Federations, to sustain these papers.
Those readership communities are not yet entirely gone, but they are getting smaller and older with each passing year. Outside the Orthodox community, the number of Jews interested in specifically Jewish news or perspectives is shrinking. It’s the same pattern we see in affiliations with synagogues and other Jewish organizations. Fewer Jews, especially in the younger age cohorts, see the world through Jewish eyes or have warm memories of Jewish childhoods. Fewer belong to Jewish organizations or maintain residual Jewish practices. There is less that connects them to the Jewish people, and they thus often feel no need to read news from a specifically Jewish perspective.
I realize that I’m painting with too broad a brush. There are synagogue and organizational activists outside the Orthodox community. There are non-Orthodox Jews who are regular shul-goers and maintain a significant level of ritual observance — and many such Jews are avid consumers of Jewish news. Such Jews exist. The question is: how many are there? And more to the point, how many will there be in 10 or 20 years?
By going digital, the Jewish Week is betting that there are still enough such Jews to sustain an online publication of broadly Jewish interest. Its leaders believe — or at least hope — that their financial problems (beyond the pandemic) are simply a function of the decline of newspapers generally, the preference of younger readers for online news sources. If they are right, then the shift to digital form should ease the financial situation strain once the pandemic ends, by both attracting younger readers while and at the same time reducing production costs.
Time will tell whether they are right. In the meantime, those of us who have taken pleasure over the years in the print newspaper that has been the Jewish Week, though saddened by its end, can look back on these past decades with gratitude and view its loss as the inevitable by-product of a rapidly changing Jewish world.