June 29, 2006
Say what you will about journalism as a profession, you are never unemployed. Instead, you are "between assignments," a condition I found myself in during the early 1980s at the same time that The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles was preparing to launch its new Jewish Journal. The two situations dovetailed nicely, and for the first 11 years of The Journal's existence, I was its associate editor, until I retired in 1993.
I am not sure that the community leaders who conceived this venture quite understood what risks they were running. Publishing a newspaper is not like opening a doctor's office or a bank or even a traditional business. For one thing, there is the eternal battle involving publishers, who are concerned with the bottom line, and editors, whose concern is with what appears above the bottom line.
A case in point was someone's decision to list the 50 most prominent Jews in Southern California. This routine end-of-the-year story appears in virtually every section of every newspaper, sometimes positively ("Ten best high school athletes of the year") and occasionally negatively ("Ten worst movies of the year").
You would expect that such publicity would gladden the hearts of 50 of our community leaders, and it probably did. But how about No. 51 or, rather, the several hundred prominent Jews who considered themselves equally eligible for membership in such an exclusive club?
Normally, readers protest such heinous mistreatment by canceling their subscriptions, but that is only effective when they pay for their newspaper. At the time, The Journal was distributed free to any Federation contributor.
Without recourse to such a tactic, those who felt slighted had the option of resorting to other means, such as lowering their contributions to The Federation. Which brings up an issue that does not concern most newspapers in Los Angeles whose profits come largely from advertisers who wish to sell tangible goods or services to their readers. The Journal of that era was not selling anything tangible; it wanted its readers to contribute money to a charitable institution, and if they became angry at that institution, it would fail in its purpose. The storm that arose when people discovered they had not been included in the Fabulous 50 finally blew over, but it did teach the staff a lesson: In the Jewish world, all people are equal -- at least in print.
Another problem that the staff had to deal with was a knowledgeable readership. This is normally a blessing to writers who feel they can include three-syllable words and rather esoteric background information in their reports. Those on The Journal staff did well in the multisyllable department; the problem lay in the extent of their Jewish knowledge. Journalists often suffer from an inability to place their material in a proper cultural framework, as when, for example, one of the staff showed me the cover he had designed for the paper's first Passover issue. It was dramatic, eye-catching and original. It featured the giant menorah that fronts the Knesset building in Jerusalem.
There was also a generation gap between the veteran journalists and the younger copy editors. I wrote a column in each issue of The Journal called, "A Majority of One," in which I pontificated at length on the ills of the Jewish world. You can do this for just so long before your readers tire and turn to more interesting fare. You are akin to a pitcher who hurls only fast balls; by the seventh inning, the opposing batters have adjusted their timing and are hitting your pitches out of the park.
One of the ways to avoid this is to resort to personal history. Once I wrote how at the age of 10 I ran away from my home in New York City. In making the point that my Jewish generation had more personal freedom than my grandchildren do, I described how my mother packed me a lunch and wished me well on my journey to the Western states and a career as a cowboy. Off I went on the Sixth Avenue elevated bound for the Staten Island Ferry and independence.
(In case you are worrying about the result, I never got there. Instead, I began talking to a nice man sitting next to me who called a nice policeman, and I was back home within the hour. It was years before I realized that my mother had asked a friend to watch over me.)
Ten minutes after I handed the column to a copy editor, she called me over and said, "You'll have to change this. It's inaccurate."
"Were you there?" I asked.
"No, but I lived near Sixth Avenue, and it has a subway, not an El."
"Yes it does. But in 1937, dear child, it had an El."
The story ran as written.
In the event that you should ever decide to publish a Jewish newspaper, frame this article and hang it on your wall. Then go out and find a career that doesn't leave you "between assignments."
Yehuda Lev, The Journal's first associate editor, lives in Providence, R.I., where his business card reads Editor Emeritus. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.