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Jewish Journal Looks Forward to Prosperous Future Through Diversification, Reorganization

by Tom Tugend

July 27, 2010 | 6:23 pm

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles is marking its upcoming 25th anniversary with a wide-ranging reorganization and diversification of its corporate structure, media services, community role and financial base.

To reflect the changes, The Journal will become part of the newly established Tribe Media Corp., “which will redefine community journalism for the digital age,” according to Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Journal.

“Our goal is to use every technology at our disposal to inform and convene our community and to bring our community’s ideas and values to society at large — while creating a thriving, sustainable business,” Eshman said. “This is the future of community journalism.”

A small group of community-minded business executives is backing the newly formed company with its expertise and investments.

Led by The Journal’s chairman of the board, Irwin Field, the group also includes Art Bilger, Internet executive and venture capitalist; Peter Lowy, group managing director of the Westfield Group, one of the largest retail property companies in the world; and an anonymous donor.

The group has jointly committed $800,000 to the new company over the next two years and is joining in developing a new business model, which, it believes, the Jewish media must adopt if it is to survive.

Currently, most Jewish community weeklies rely on advertising, subscriptions and substantial subvention from local Federations, but many face a constant struggle for survival.

The Jewish Journal is not affiliated with the local Jewish Federation. It is available by subscription but also offers free copies at bookstores, delis, synagogues and other locations, with a 95 percent pickup rate, which in turn has attracted some large commercial advertisers targeting an affluent readership.

A second part of the new model will be substantial investment by private business people or foundations, Eshman said; the third is diversification.

Following that rule, Tribe Media Corp. consists of five divisions: The weekly Jewish Journal; a new monthly magazine, Tribe, covering the west San Fernando Valley and the coast from Malibu to Santa Barbara; jewishjournal.com, already America’s most widely used Jewish news site; TRIBE Live! for the production of live events and videos; and Everyjew.com., a fast-growing social network launched in August 2009, now with about 4,000 members.

The new business model will be under constant review, Lowy said, noting that “we may need five to 10 years to see whether the model will work,” but adding that he sees his investment as part of a long-range involvement.

Bilger, founding partner and managing member of Shelter Capital Partners, said Tribe’s financial future will depend on the general economic environment, participation of additional investors and “how quickly we can ramp up the digital component of Tribe.”

Already, jewishjournal.com has become the largest Jewish news Web site outside Israel, with 380,000 monthly unique viewers. Eshman expects this figure to rise to 500,000 viewers by the end of this year, and eventually to 1 million.

Lowy, Bilger and the anonymous investor have joined Tribe’s board and executive committee, along with Leon C. Janks, managing partner of Green, Hasson & Janks LLP.

They will take an active part in developing the business side of Tribe but will adhere to the policy followed by Field and previous publishers of noninterference in the editorial independence of the paper and Web site.

“I hope we will continue to represent a variety of views, and we should never stifle dissenting opinions at any time,” Bilger said. “Our job is to make sure that we have the best people possible working for Tribe.”

Primary day-by-day responsibility for translating the new business model into revenue will rest with Steven Karash, Tribe Media’s executive vice president for advertising and marketing. Karash served for 10 years as national advertising director for the Los Angeles office of the New York Times Media Group.

When the Jewish Journal was founded in 1986, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and some of its leaders played a major part in its establishment, but in 2005, both sides decided to sever the relationship.

The current Tribe reorganization, however, occurred without input from the Federation or any of the veteran community leaders.

To some observers, these factors represent a generational shift in the power structure of the Los Angeles Jewish community, but Lowy and Bilger have a somewhat different perspective.

“We live in a much different world than when I came to Los Angeles 20 years ago,” said Lowy, 51, who arrived here from his native Australia. “My colleagues and I run our businesses with a global view, and the Jewish community will have to operate increasingly with a similar outlook,” he said.

Bilger, who is in his 50s, said what persuaded him to become involved with Tribe was the challenge of an interesting project and, like Lowy, confidence in Eshman’s vision and ability and the dedication of the Tribe Media staff.

“I believe that Tribe and The Journal can play an increasingly important role, not only in Los Angeles but on the national and international Jewish scene,” Bilger observed.

Focusing on Los Angeles alone, where only 20 to 25 percent of all Jews have any kind of Jewish affiliation, Tribe can be the primary connecting point between community members, Field said.

Lowy lauded Field for his outstanding job as chairman of the board of The Journal, whose 150,000 weekly readers in Southern California make it the largest Jewish weekly in the United States, outside New York.

However, Lowy added, it became clear to him that “without major new investment, the paper’s survival was at risk.”

As for the future, Lowy said he envisions Tribe generating between 90 and 95 percent of its operating budget through advertisements and other revenue sources, and 5 to10 percent through philanthropic investments.

Aside from their business careers and heavy civic involvements, Field, Lowy and Bilger are longtime activists in Jewish and Israeli causes.

Field is a former chairman of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, a governor of the Jewish Agency for Israel, served as board member of the American Jewish University and National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and currently is heavily involved with the Technion and the Israel Museum.

Lowy served as chairman of the board of American Jewish University, and he and wife Janine are involved supporters of the Milken Commmunity High School, Etta Israel Center, Jewish Federation, Camp Ramah, Jaffa Institute, Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Bilger is vice chairman of the Skirball Cultural Center, and, with wife Dahlia, active in Bet Tzedek legal services and StandWithUs, a pro-Israel educational organization.

In a recent article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section under the headline “New Life for Jewish Journal,” media columnist James Rainey commented that The Journal was successfully meeting the tough challenges posed by the national economy and the general media market.

“By banking hard on two of the most robust growth trends in 21st century media — niche journalism and philanthropy — The Jewish Journal appears to have extended its life expectancy and expanded its coverage of Jewish life in Southern California,” Rainey wrote.

“If the experience holds lessons for other ethnic and religious-oriented publishers, it’s that you can do good by being good,” Rainey added. “But it’s just as important to have a business plan, friends in the right places and a target audience with a lot of disposable income.”

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