What can one say about the directors of a Jewish organization – a charity, no less – who choose a few hours before the Seder to inform their 54 staff that the business is folding and they are to be made redundant? This is precisely what happened this year, on Wednesday, April 8. Shocked and distressed as the journalists and support staff of Britain’s two leading Jewish newspapers – the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News – must certainly have been, the news hit Anglo-Jewry like a hammer blow.
Founded as far back as 1841, the Jewish Chronicle, long known affectionately as the JC, has been a pillar of stability of the UK Jewish community. Generation after generation of English speaking Jews from all over the world have recorded their births, marriages and deaths in its “hatch, match and dispatch” columns. A world without the JC seemed well-nigh unimaginable.
The Kessler Foundation, a charitable trust, had owned the old-established Jewish Chronicle for 36 years, but financial difficulties had been dogging the publication for years. A shrinking UK Jewish population and the consequent loss of circulation and of advertising revenue led to a loss of £1.5m in 2018. Last year, it was saved from closure only after a financial appeal to private individuals led to an injection of working capital.
The Jewish News is a johnny-come-lately on the scene, but a very successful one. Established in 1997, Jewish News started as a free newspaper serving the Jewish communities of Greater London. A few years later it launched on-line, and it was soon attracting growing internet traffic. Its success in this did not, unfortunately, translate into profitable income. On February 12, 2020, a merger between the two papers was negotiated, and the Jewish News also came under the control of the Kessler Foundation.
The merger seemed to make sense. With the JC strong in the print field, and the Jewish News in digital, the aim was to create a modern print, digital and events brand. “The community would be better served,” read the statement issued jointly by the two publications, “by bringing the two operations together to ensure that the high level of independent quality journalism and community news that the UK Jewish community has come to expect from these cherished newspapers has a sustainable future.”
Alas, it was not to be. Two months of effort left the Foundation unable to secure the solid financial backing necessary to take the merger forward. Having hung on for so long, one might have expected sufficient human feeling in the directors to have allowed their staff to celebrate the Passover, before announcing the liquidation of their company and the loss of their jobs.
What was to follow proved equally distressing. The Foundation’s plan seems to have been to go bankrupt (“seek a creditor’s voluntary liquidation” is the technical term), and to start up again by submitting an offer to the proposed liquidators which would, in the words of the Financial Times, “have seen them acquire the assets of both publications and run them as a merged publication.”
If they had thought this tactic would be a walkover, they must have been thoroughly shaken when a consortium of eminent figures drawn from the worlds of banking, politics and the media submitted a last-minute rival bid to acquire the liquidated assets of the Jewish Chronicle.
The move was immediately condemned by Alan Jacobs, the current chairman of the JC, as “a shameful attempt to hijack the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper.” He attacked the rival bid for not making clear the source of its finance, and because it had not announced its plans regarding the future structure it proposed for the JC.
The latter discrepancy was soon made good. In a tit-for-tat gesture made just before Shabbat, on Friday April 17, Stephen Pollard, the respected editor of the JC for 15 years, issued a statement resigning his post and explaining why he was supporting the rival bid.
“I cannot in good faith lend my support to the Kessler Foundation’s bid to take the paper out of liquidation,” wrote Pollard, “while there is such a compelling alternative on the table.” Endorsing from personal experience the integrity of the individuals who comprise the rival consortium. Pollard compares their intention to make the JC’s creditors whole and retain many of the current team, with the fact that the Kessler Foundation has made no such offer.
Even more to the point, perhaps, is the one intention that the Foundation did make clear. It announced that the post of editor of their proposed combined publication would go, not to Pollard, but to the current editor of the Jewish News, Richard Ferrer. It proposed according Pollard the title of “editor at large”.
“If the [rival consortium’s] bid for the JC prevails,” said Pollard, “I will consider entering into discussion about the possibility of staying on as editor.”
And so it has turned out. On April 23 Pollard tweeted the good news. The consortium’s bid had been accepted, the JC’s future was assured, and the editor will remain the editor. All’s well that ends well.